Week in Review: Where are the children?

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

In a city that desperately needs quality schools, there are few things more confounding than knowing there are great programs in Detroit that can’t fill their seats. A story from our partner, the Teacher Project, this week highlights some of the reasons that low-income families struggle to find Head Start programs, even as the programs struggle to find enough kids.

“Where are the children? … I am becoming a walking billboard. I carry flyers everywhere.”

Laura Lefever, director, Children’s Center Head Start

That story builds on a Chalkbeat report from last spring about hundreds of Head Start vacancies caused by teacher shortages and the challenge of bringing classroom space up to code after years of deterioration and neglect.

Also this week, the debate around the Detroit charter school that critics say is using a “sneaky” enrollment method to create diversity went national when the Atlantic picked up our story on the school, generating heated comments from readers. Please take a look — and read on for the rest of the week’s headlines.

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District in transition

Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is leaving his Transition Manager role with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at the end of the month. He says he’s leaving the new school board with a balanced budget — but many challenges. Here’s what Rhodes and Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told the state legislature this week:

  • They’re holding twice-weekly training sessions for the new board members who were elected last month.
  • Detroiters could see more school corruption cases as the district’s Inspector General pursues “several matters … that may result in further criminal investigations and charges,” Rhodes said.
  • Rhodes is urging the new board to give Meriweather a permanent post: “She has done an extraordinary job,” he said. “Her insight into the educational process and what it takes to achieve success in an urban district is amazing.”
  • Rhodes called on the legislature to “continue to insist on prudence” in the district’s financial affairs but said: “I also urge it to consider that educating children who live in poverty … is more challenging and therefore more expensive.”
  • Meriweather says the $617 million the state spent this summer to create a new debt-free district has helped educators focus on improving education but warned that improvements will take time. “It will take us eight to 10 years to get there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” (That comment prompted a pro-charter school website to assert that charters are a better option.)

Division on DeVos

The impact of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, on Michigan schools got a closer look this week. Here’s what analysts here and across the country said:

  • The Free Press editorial page editor blames DeVos and her advocacy for the poor state of charter schools in Detroit and Michigan. “I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in (higher performing) states like Tennessee or Massachusetts,” he wrote in a column that the Washington Post reprinted.
  • Bridge Magazine wrote that “DeVos’s dogged commitment to policies that have yielded, at best, mixed results in Michigan raises questions about what lessons she would take to Washington, as well as about her willingness to listen to viewpoints outside her free-market ideology.”
  • Education Week offered this timeline of DeVos’ influence on state education policy, and Politico called Michigan’s charter school results “so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
  • But a DeVos supporter said criticism misstates Michigan’s charter record. And Crain’s says DeVos will “shake up the status quo,” though it added: “if choice expands with federal dollars, DeVos should heed some lessons from Michigan.”
  • NPR visited the successful DeVos-founded charter school that trains students to become pilots or pursue careers in aviation or engineering fields. “I think the word choice says it all,” the school’s principal said. “The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy, obviously, is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.”

In other Detroit news:

  • The main Detroit school district is still hiring teachers, especially those certified in math, science, and languages.
  • A columnist praises the schools in the state-run recovery district but says signs of progress have come too late to save the district.
  • Michigan State University is expanding its educational offerings in Detroit with music classes and a training program that prepares educators to teach in an urban setting.
  • After a brief delay, the bribery trial of a former DPS principal began with testimony from an FBI agent who said the principal admitted to taking $40,000. The principal planned to tell jurors she used the money on her school, but a judge scratched that defense.
  • The heads of two major foundations appeared on TV to explain why they’re investing heavily in early childhood education in Detroit.
  • Students at a dozen local schools are participating in the national “Hour of Code” today.
  • Members of two Detroit high school football teams are learning the importance of “digital etiquette” to protect their reputations online.
  • Detroit’s main district threw a parade to celebrate the two city football teams that won state championships.
  • This Detroit high school won $20,000 worth of sports equipment.

Across the state:

  • Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday abruptly ended a push to pull $430 million out of the School Aid Fund to pay income tax refunds but said he might revive it later. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the right time to do it,” his spokesman said. School advocates said the plan would cost schools nearly $300 per student (and a Free Press columnist called it “sketchy.”) Snyder’s office said his next budget will increase school funding.
  • New Michigan teachers and municipal workers will continue to get pensions after legislation to change the retirement system failed (for now) in Lansing. One columnist says lawmakers have declared “war on teachers,” while an advocate says the pension changes would have benefitted teachers.
  • The state teachers union has continued to lose members since right-to-work legislation made membership optional.
  • A statewide coalition of business, civil rights, and community groups is calling on state education officials to prioritize excellence, equity and transparency as they adapt state policies to conform with new federal education laws.
  • The state lieutenant governor called for schools to stop using restraint and seclusion to control children with special needs in non-emergency situations — a practice he called inhumane and barbaric. His call was supported by a columnist who described what happened to an 8-year-old boy with autism with who was locked in a padded room for hours.
  • A school counseling advocate urged parents and business leaders to call their legislators to back a bill that aims to improve college counseling for high schoolers.
  • Graduation rates in Michigan and across the country are expected to drop in coming years.
  • Parents at a suburban middle school dogged by racial incidents gathered for a “peace forum” to promote unity.
  • Calls from residents in a suburban community for a school board member to step down following offensive social media posts is getting national attention.
  • An elite suburban school has landed a $1 million donation.

More from Chalkbeat

  • New York City’s improvement goals for its most struggling schools are in many cases completely marginal.
  • Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has a message for principals: “It’s not all up to you.”
  • Donald Trump’s apparent backtracking on young adults who came to the country illegally as children is adding even more uncertainty for teachers in that category.
  • Indiana’s aggressive efforts to recruit more teachers aren’t paying off.
  • Meet Michael Johnston, the Colorado education policy architect who is eyeing the governor’s office.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.