what you need to know

Week in Review: Pressure mounts on Detroit school board, charter growth slows, and more in this week’s news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

The big decision on who will be the next school leader for Detroit could come as early as next week as the Detroit school board stares down a looming (or possibly already blown) deadline — and increasing pressure to slow down.

The board plans to gather Monday to discuss the two finalists — Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti and River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman — and is scheduled to have its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, exactly 90 days after its swearing in.

State law requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office, although the law isn’t clear on whether that clock started Jan. 1, when the board took control of the district, or Jan. 11, when members were sworn in. If it declines to vote, it will be in violation of the law, but it’s not clear what consequences that would have for the district. Both of the city’s major newspapers have called for the process to be slowed.

Read on for more about the candidates, insights into a school board trip to check out Vitti’s schools in Florida, and the rest of the week’s schools news. And be sure to stay tuned to Chalkbeat next week as the board potentially makes the most important decision it’s likely ever to face. Oh, and go Tigers!

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat senior Detroit correspondent

Where the candidates stand

It was Coleman’s turn to face a barrage of questions this week during his 12-hour interview for the city’s top school job. With him, he brought supporters from River Rouge — and a confidence that he can fix Detroit schools. “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he told a board member who asked why the board should trust a man who runs a much smaller district (that has some lower test scores) than the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Here’s our take on the four reasons why Coleman might get the job — and four why he might not, as well as our list of 10 things to know about Coleman. (Plus: Catch up on 10 things to know about Vitti, five reasons why he might get the job, and three why he might not.)

Another thing to know about Coleman: In the 2013-2014 school year, he approved more than $100,000 in out-of-state travel for this small staff, including an educator whose expenses were clearly not work-related.

After the board met with Coleman on Monday, three members flew down to Florida to get a closer look at Vitti’s district. LaMar Lemmons, one of the members on the trip, said he was impressed by what he saw, which included a live-streamed visit to a school Vitti created for dyslexic kids: “We’re even more impressed than we were yesterday … It has been a great, informative experience,” said Lemmons, who said members plan to visit River Rouge on Monday.

Even as board members aim to meet the 90-day legal deadline, the Detroit News and Free Press are both urging them to ignore it. “The board has already shown complete disregard for the same law, which called for closing the worst performing schools in Detroit,” the News wrote. The Free Press urged the legislature to relax the law and give the newly elected board members “time to find the bathrooms and their governance footing before making such a crucial decision.”

Both papers urged the board to reconsider Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who said this week that she hopes her successor will “follow through” on the progress she’s made rebuilding trust and hope in the district. “What I hear, the common theme is, we are in a better place now than we were a year ago,” Meriweather said. “I think we have the evidence to back that up.”

In other Detroit news

  • Detroit’s main school district got a $451,000 “consolidation grant” from the state to cover expenses related to reabsorbing the Education Achievement Authority schools. That’s about $333,000 less than the district requested. Some of the money will go to pay staff taking on extra work related to the transition.
  • As EAA schools are folded back into the main district, school leaders from both districts showed off their best work during a school showcase this week including arts and craft projects, student-built robots, and music and dance productions.
  • New rules have dramatically slowed the growth of charter schools in Detroit, but the new requirements don’t do much to ensure charter school quality.
  • A bus company transported 3,000 Detroit kids to class for about a month with no valid insurance after it failed to pay its premiums, a discovery that this week left many students stranded without rides to school.

Across the state

  • School superintendents say the statewide substitute teacher shortage is showing no signs of abating.
  • The list of 50 schools with the lowest graduation rates in the state includes many alternative programs that serve overage students who fell behind their peers.
  • State civil rights and education officials sent a letter to schools warning of the “possibility” of federal officials raiding schools in search of undocumented immigrants. “All children, regardless of citizenship and immigration status, have the right to equal access to a free public education,” the letter said.
  • The state is submitting its plan to comply with the new federal education law, called ESSA — after a 30 day review by Gov. Rick Snyder.
  • An advocate with a West Michigan business, education, and government coalition offers this prescription to upgrade Michigan’s outdated educational system.
  • A prominent former Detroit charter school leader who served on Snyder’s  21st-Century Education Commission called the commission’s recent report an “urgent” call to action. “Unless we take dramatic and difficult actions soon to rebuild our public education system, neither our children nor our communities have a hopeful future,” he wrote.
  • The Michigan Network for Equity in Education is hosting a night of comedy and improv on “The Absurdity of Michigan’s Corporate Education Reform Movement.
  • These are the best Michigan districts for music education.

Week In Review

Week in Review: A final push to fill classrooms before the start of school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

With the start of the school year now just over two weeks away, pressure is mounting on schools to hire enough teachers before classes begin. That pressure is especially intense for new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has been trying to fill hundreds of vacancies ahead of his first full year as the district’s leader. The new contract approved by the school board this week could help by raising salaries, but the district is still listing nearly every teaching category as an area of “critical need.”

As teachers prepare to return to class, some may be thinking of ways to talk to their students about last weekend’s violent attack on demonstrators protesting white supremacists in Virginia. Chalkbeat has been gathering ideas from teachers about how to help kids through these difficult conversations. Check them out — or add some of your own ideas.

Also, this newsletter is available as a weekly email that can be sent directly to your inbox every Friday morning. Please sign up here.

The final countdown

  • As it tries to recruit enough teachers, Detroit’s main district is using several new tactics. Among them are job fairs like one yesterday that drew 150 candidates. Another job fair is scheduled for Aug. 31.
  • The Detroit News urged Vitti to take his time to make sure the people he hires are up to the task.
  • The head of the city teachers union says the teaching shortage is the direct result of recent state policies.
  • The teachers’ new contract was approved by the school board on Tuesday. If it wins final signoff from a state financial oversight board, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than their peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs.
  • The school board Tuesday also approved a $28 million settlement with a contractor as well as an agreement with the Highland Park School district to educate some Highland Park students — as long as the school board of the tiny district agrees.
  • If you missed the board meeting, you can review contracts, hiring decisions and other actions considered by the board by clicking here. For the first time in recent memory, that information will now be posted online days of ahead of scheduled board meetings.
  • Among teachers joining the Detroit district this year are 11 who’ve come from Spain to teach Spanish.
  • Teachers are not the only target for recruitment. The district is also trying to recruit students, hosting a free day at the Michigan Science Center tomorrow for district families, as well as a special “Slow Roll” bike ride, among other events.

The new boss

  • Vitti says he draws on his memories as a child with dyslexia as he relates to Detroit children with special needs. He and his wife, who are co-hosting a forum for special education families next week, talked with the Free Press about their experience as special ed parents.
  • One school advocate took Vitti to task for a district Tweet that quoted him saying poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for poor school performance. Those comments are “not helpful,” she wrote. “It puts the blame on those who are victims.”

Courting literacy

Across the state

  • The head of a state association of charter school authorizers says the state’s decision not to close low-performing schools means that “future generations of Michigan students are going to be failed by their schools.”
  • A bill that would require schools to teach African-American history is getting a new push from its sponsors after a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Va.
  • A News columnist says the “sad reality” of poor educational quality in Michigan is imperiling the state’s future economic prospects. But the state’s top education and economic officials say they’re ramping up efforts to prepare students for good-paying jobs.
  • The state education department will reduce the overall score students need to pass an English-proficiency test.
  • The state’s largest teachers union opposes a new alternative teacher certification program that a private company can now offer in Michigan.
  • Community groups, churches, businesses and other organizations are hosting school supply drives and shopping sprees to help Michigan kids get ready for school.
  • Parents and advocates are worried that a successful after-school program that last year served 26,623 Michigan students could lose funding under President Trump’s proposed budget.
  • While Detroit has dozens of shuttered school buildings now sitting vacant in city neighborhoods, closed Grand Rapids schools are mostly still occupied.
  • A quarter of the teachers in this district missed more than 20 days of school.
  • These are the state’s top private high schools.

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: A hurry-up-and-wait moment for Detroit’s landmark education lawsuit and more in this week’s school news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Was this week’s education news big? We won’t know for a long time — at least a month, but possibly years.

That’s after a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court. A judge will rule within 30 days whether the suit can proceed over the objections of Gov. Rick Snyder, whom the suit targets and who argues that the state can’t be held responsible for Detroit’s schools. If the suit does move forward, it’s likely to take years to have any real effects on local schools.

Of more immediate consequences: Michigan got a rare reproach from federal education authorities, teacher vacancies remain, and an outside-the-box strategy to reach poor kids over the summer. Read on for that news and more, and have a great weekend!
— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

STILL LOOKING: The main Detroit district is still scrambling to hire hundreds of teachers in hopes of being fully staffed for the upcoming school year.

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Libraries Without Borders is turning laundromats into learning spaces this summer. “At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” the group’s executive director told Chalkbeat. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

ABOUT THAT LAWSUIT: Catch back up on the bleak picture the lawsuit paints. Plus, a city teacher and public school graduate responds to the state’s argument that poverty, not state officials, is holding local students back.

NOT SO FAST: The 70-percent reduction in testing that Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti announced last week won’t be distributed evenly; high school students will take fewer tests, but students in other grades won’t see many changes. Vitti says he wants to do more over time.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK: Less than a week after a phone call that state officials said was positive, the U.S. Education Department rejected Michigan’s plan for holding schools accountable. Now the state has to revise and resubmit — but to whom? The federal official responsible for approving the plans is reportedly on his way out.

A MYSTERY: The number of students in Michigan receiving special education services is on the decline. Were students inappropriately being determined to have special needs? Or are students who need services going without them? A parent group says that’s what’s happening.

TEACHER PREP: A tiny local college, Marygrove, will stop offering undergraduate courses; some local schools employees studying education are among the students stranded. A national group offering an online teacher certification program, Teachers of Tomorrow, got approval from the state to start funneling educators into Michigan classrooms.

STUDENT SHIFTS:  A Wayne State University study shows early evidence that as more African American and poor students choose schools in suburban districts, students in suburban districts choose schools further away from Detroit.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The new Detroit Children’s Fund picked Jack Elsey, formerly a top official in the state-run recovery district, as its executive directorTonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation, has joined an effort to rethink the way schools are funded in Michigan … Get to know Earl Phalen, the head of a growing charter network that has its roots in Indiana and schools in Detroit. … Top Detroit schools official Alycia Meriweather ranks as “the teacher’s favorite” in MetroTimes’ People Issue … And meet Chris Lambert, who’s inspired by God to recruit volunteers to spruce up city schools. (See the sprucing.)

THE DUVAL CONNECTION: Vitti’s former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is gearing up to replace him. According to news reports there, Vitti is also importing one of his deputies from Florida to lead “marketing and rebranding” for Detroit’s schools.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Detroit Public Television’s annual teacher summit is next Friday; educators working in prekindergarten through third grade can sign up now.