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.

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.