New Year New board

Detroit’s first empowered school board in years is gearing up for opening day — and a long to-do list

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration next month as it takes control of city schools that have been under the thumb of appointed managers for nearly two decades.

But the party isn’t likely to last for long. The new board faces a daunting to-do list including possibly going to court to stop school closures. The board faces crucial decisions about who should lead the district, and what to do with long-struggling schools that will rejoin the district this summer. Board members must also quickly absorb reams of information about a complicated district that now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” said Misha Stallworth, a community activist who is the youngest member of the new board at 27. “It’s a lot of information but, for me, the priority is really starting with a strong foundation … We have to have a really clear understanding of what’s going on and also be prepared to write policy that has a positive impact today, has a positive impact in a year and has a positive impact in five years.”

The seven board members who were chosen by Detroit voters in November have spent the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools.

As the first elected Detroiters to have any real power over city schools in years, they’ve gotten workshops on curriculum, facilities, and finances from district officials. They’ve met with Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials currently making decisions on whether to shutter as many as two dozen city schools. They’ve talked with the state financial review board, which must sign off on many of the new board’s decisions.

And now the district is planning an official ceremony on Jan. 11 at Cass Technical High School, where students, teachers and principals will be on hand to welcome the new board.

“The return to local control should be celebrated, and hopefully that meeting will be extra special,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has been working with the new board to plan the celebration.

“We want the principals to be there. We want teachers to be there. We want community members to be there,” she said. “Board meetings should be a place where we celebrate what’s good in the district … and work on policies to fix things that are not.”

The Jan. 11 meeting will focus on passing bylaws and choosing officers, board members say. But they’ll soon need to turn to pressing issues facing the district. Here’s what board members say they plan to tackle first:

 

 

Gearing up for a school closure fight

Shortly after taking office, board members might find themselves in a battle to save some city schools.

Snyder is currently weighing dueling legal opinions about a new law that requires the state to close every school in the city that’s been in the bottom 5 percent on state test score rankings for three years in a row — potentially affecting dozens of district schools.

Snyder initially accepted a legal opinion that asserted that the new law did not apply to schools in the main Detroit district because the schools are now officially in a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District that won’t have three years of test scores until 2019 or 2020.  (State officials created the new district to give Detroit schools a chance to spend their state education dollars in classrooms instead of paying off years of accumulated debt). But State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a legal opinion in September disputing Snyder’s assessment and asserting that the state must close schools that have years of low scores.

New board members who met with Snyder last month declined to detail his comments about the fate of Detroit schools. But one member said the board is gearing up for a fight.

“Let me say this: If we don’t get a reprieve in writing, then we will challenge that position,” said LaMar Lemmons, who is the only member of the old Detroit school board to be elected to serve on the new board. “The board will either challenge or support a challenge of school closings by the [state School Reform Office].”

Lemmons noted that the board had met with state officials and added, “Based on those discussions, if we cannot come to a meeting of the minds, you can look forward to the prospect of litigation.”

Board member Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization called Develop Detroit, said she wouldn’t speculate on whether Detroit schools would be shuttered or on whether the board would file suit to stop the potential closings. But she noted that school closings can wreak havoc on communities.

“I’m a community developer,” she said. “I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community. It creates negative property values. It frays at the fabric of our communities … I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

Looking far and wide for a new superintendent

The law that created the new school board requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office.

“The law says we have to do a search and we’ll have a process and we’ll go from there,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school consultant who has worked as a Detroit school principal and once served as the superintendent of a small district.

Meriweather has expressed interest in staying on as the district’s top educator and several board members interviewed by Chalkbeat said she is a strong contender for the position — but they are also considering looking farther afield.

“We would like to do a national search,” Lemmons said. A national search would likely require more time and money than the board has. But Lemmons said he hopes board members can get the deadline to pick a permanent schools chief extended — and support to defray the cost.

“We’re looking at getting a search firm and we’re looking for a way to pay for that without taking money out [of the district’s budget] — through grants or nonprofits,” he said.

Mays said a thorough search would be a top priority.

“Obviously the number one objective should be to find the best person for this district for this moment to fight for our children,” she said.

 

Reabsorbing struggling schools and other priorities

Figuring out how to bring the Education Achievement Authority schools back into the district will be at the top of board members’ priority lists.

Schools that have been part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority since Snyder removed them from the district in 2012 are scheduled to return to district control this summer. But the non-union teachers and administrators in those schools currently make salaries that don’t align with what district employees make. New EAA teachers make more than new unionized teachers in the main district, while senior teachers in the main district make more than top-salaried EAA teachers.

“We’re beginning to think through the process of what that might look like,” Hunter-Harvill said.

Lemmons said he thought the salaries were that not different in practice because EAA schools have a longer school year.  “All of those things will be negotiated,” he said.

Once the board gets going, Mays said one of her top priorities will be career and technical education.

“I’m seeing what appears to be signs of an early construction boom,” she said. “We’re going to make sure that anyone who’s interested in that career path — not just construction but entrepreneurs —  is going to be prepared for those opportunities.”

Hunter-Harvill said her priorities are seeing that the district recruit top teachers, keep its finances in order and that some stability is restored to Detroit schools.

“I want to hug those kids in the district and let them know we’re going to be there for the kids,” she said. “We have to be.”

Correction (Jan. 3, 2017): An earlier version this story incorrectly characterized the amount of time that state-appointed emergency managers have run Detroit schools. While Detroit schools have only been run by an elected board for three of the last 20 years, the first emergency manager was appointed in 2009. The district was earlier run by an appointed board. 

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.