Week In Review

Week In review: A new secretary, brewing battles — and a call for stories

We have a new education secretary in Washington, a ramped up legal battle over school closings in Detroit and a budget fight that pits charter schools against district schools in Lansing. Read on for highlights on all of these stories — plus exciting opportunities for you to tell some stories of your own.

Opportunity 1: Chalkbeat Detroit and The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers are presenting an event called “School Days” to tell the story of Detroit’s changing schools. We are looking for teachers, parents, students and anyone else with a story to tell. We will publish the best entries and choose five storytellers to work side-by-side with storyteller Satori Shakoor to take their story from the page to the stage at the Charles H. Wright Museum. The first 20 people to submit entries will also get a free ticket to the March 17 event. Submit your story here. Or, if you’d much rather listen to stories, buy a ticket).

Opportunity 2: Now that Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as education secretary, we’re asking readers what they want the new education secretary to know. What do you want to tell her about your school or your child? We will publish a selection of answers next week.

We look forward to hearing from many of you. Until then, here’s the headlines:

 

Madam Secretary

Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos says she tries “not to be cynical” about the way she was treated during her bruising confirmation process, which she joked was a “bit of a bear.”

In an interview that the Detroit News touted as an exclusive sit-down in her new Washington office, DeVos said she’s “disappointed with how some people have behaved” but still remains “very hopeful that if people can unite around doing what’s right for kids we can ultimately find common ground.”

Now that she’s in office — thanks to a historic tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence (and, some say, to a boost from something else) — DeVos says her first order of business is mending fences.

She may also need to touch base with her IT staff. The federal website for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is back online after a brief shutdown that officials blamed on “technical issues.” (The IDEA was the federal law that DeVos admitted she may have been confused about during her Senate confirmation hearing).

DeVos’ critics have warned that she’ll hurt traditional schools by favoring vouchers and charter schools but her power is somewhat limited. She’s taking over an education department with clipped wings.

Experts say she’ll have very little power to mandate vouchers. But she will have influence over other key issues, such as how civil rights complaints are handled and how colleges handle campus sexual assaults.

One Detroit high school student lamented her confirmation. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, the United States of America is going to look like Detroit,” she said.

Clashing over closings

  • The Detroit school board is getting ready to fight school closings in court — and the district’s former Transition Manager predicts the board will prevail.
  • The board hopes to avoid legal action but it has officially retained a law firm and  “reserves the right” to sue if it needs to.
  • Instead of closing schools, the board believes it can improve them. The district’s interim superintendent has ordered all schools on the closing list to submit a turnaround plan within ten days.
  • Mayor Mike Duggan said he reached out to Gov. Rick Snyder in an effort to ‘derail’ the ‘irrational’ closings. “I said, ‘Governor, what the School Reform Office is doing is immoral, it’s reckless, it’s illegal. You have to step in,'” Duggan said as he announced his re-election campaign.
  • Natasha Baker, who heads the state office that’s overseeing closings, defended the effort. “Some of these schools … they’ve been in this position for 10 years, 12 years, 13 years, regardless of the management of the schools,” she said.
  • Though state lawmakers questioned whether the state has a consistent method of judging schools,  Baker said parents need multiple measures. “The goal is for parents to understand they do have options,” he said.
  • State officials have started visiting the schools threatened with closure while teachers and students have continued to protest. “They’re trying to shut down the best school I ever attended. It’s not like a school, but a family,”  one Detroit high schooler said. Another protest is scheduled for next week.
  • Parents say they’ve gotten letters from the state suggesting their kids attend schools as far away as Ann Arbor. “They didn’t tell me, as a parent, where our children are gonna go. So right now I have no clue. I’m in a puzzle like everybody else,” one parent said.
  • Moody’s Investors Service warns that districts could face dire financial consequences from school closings.

In the capitol

  • A charter school advocate steams that Snyder’s proposed education budget punishes charter schools as “political payback” for the defeat of a Detroit school oversight commission last year.
  • The proposed budget would reduce funding for cyber schools since they cost less than brick and mortar schools to operate. At-risk students and high schools meanwhile would get more money.
  • A new bill in the Michigan House would make “21st-century skills” a high school graduation requirement.
  • A new study says Michigan schools are among the lowest performing in the country.
  • Snyder wants businesses and philanthropic foundations to kick in up to $24 million to boost the Detroit Promise college scholarship program, which sends city grads to college for free.

In other news

  • Detroit schools dangled skating parties, visiting orchestras, TV station tours and guest spots for students on a local radio station in hopes of encouraging attendance on Wednesday’s Count Day, which determines how much money schools get from the state.
  • Two education experts urged the new Detroit school board to focus on big-picture issues like improving schools to avoid becoming “a forum for dispute resolution and a source of patronage.”
  • The head of the state school board association says board members want Washington and Lansing lawmakers to leave them alone.
  • This suburban teacher shares how she teaches empathy in an age of divisiveness.
  • A suburban mom was charged with assault for shoving her daughter’s teacher.
  • A suburban teen claims she was expelled from school after reporting a sexual assault.
  • A non-profit executive and consultant says school choice boosts civil rights.
  • A Detroit charter school is holding its winter student art exhibition, a free event featuring 150 pieces of art.

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The target on the back of the state board of education

State lawmakers this week began a push to eliminate the state board of education and replace it with an appointed superintendent. But before anyone starts writing the board’s obituary, note that the controversial effort would require approval from two-thirds of the legislature and voters in a statewide voter referendum.

Detroit schools, meanwhile, continue to struggle with hiring enough teachers to fill classrooms. The main district has taken the unusual step of putting some counselors and assistant principals in classrooms. Leaders hope the short-term measure won’t interfere with meeting the district’s  ambitious goals.

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s school news. Also, mark your calendar for the city’s first State of the Schools address, which will be held on October 25. Seats are available for people who want to attend in person. For those who can’t make it, we will be carrying it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

In the district

Across the state

  • The proposal to get rid of an elected state school board won praise from one editor but got a mixed response from lawmakers during a hearing this week. Eliminating the board, which one lawmaker called “irrelevant,” would require amending the state Constitution.
  • A senate committee has approved a bill that would allow charter schools to get a cut of tax increases that have traditionally benefitted district schools.
  • Trained college grads who give high school students advice about getting into college are relieving pressure on school counselors.
  • A federal court will now consider the legal case filed by a state teachers union against a right-wing spy. Read the union’s complaint here.
  • One educational leader called on the state to develop a way to recruit and retain 100,000 qualified teachers who could serve low-income children in cities and rural communities.
  • A state commission has ruled that a union cannot force the firing of a public school teacher who resigned from the union and stopped paying dues.
  • Career and technical education is on the rise in Michigan — but many students who enroll in those programs don’t complete them.
  • A new survey shows Michigan voters support their local school districts — but are less sure about the quality of instruction across the state.
  • A suburban mom says her son got 8 years of English as a Second Language instruction even though he’s a native English-speaker.

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!

 

Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.