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.

Weighing in

Parents rally to demand a voice in the search for New York City schools chief

PHOTO: Courtesy/Shino Tanikawa
Parents and ddvocates rallied on the steps of the New York City education department headquarters to call for a say in the search for a new schools chancellor.

The education department has made it a mission to boost parent involvement in schools. Now, parents are demanding a bigger role elsewhere: In the search for a new schools chancellor.

Parent leaders from across New York City took to the steps of the education department’s headquarters to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio allow them to have a say in the process.

“For the mayor to deny parents the opportunity to represent the interests of our children in this critical decision is to ignore the voices of our most vulnerable, underrepresented New Yorkers,” Jessamyn Lee, co-chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, said in a statement.

Organizers say about 30 members from a range of parent groups gathered in the rain to call on de Blasio to follow through on a campaign promise made during his first run for mayor.

Before he was was first elected, de Blasio said the city needed a school leader who would be “presented to the public, not just forced down our throat.” But he went on to conduct a hushed search, pulling department veteran Carmen Fariña from retirement to become chancellor.

De Blasio recently won reelection for a second term, and, in December, Fariña announced plans to head back to retirement. This time around, the mayor has committed to a quiet, internal deliberation.

Among the organizations represented at the rally were the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, which is made of leaders from school parent organizations; the Education Council Consortium, which represents members of the local Community and Citywide Education Councils; and the NYCKids PAC, a parent-led political committee. Those are not the only groups seeking more access and transparency in the hiring process. Advocates for different causes, including school integration efforts, have all called for the opportunity to weigh in.

One of those calls came this weekend in an online petition asking de Blasio to consider a well regarded state education official for the job. And the Coalition for Educational Justice, which held its own rally on Tuesday outside City Hall, is calling on the city to appoint a chancellor who “has a strong vision for racial justice in schools.” The organization has called on the city to focus on making sure that teachers have anti-bias training and that classrooms reflect all students’ cultures.

Looking back and ahead

Here are six big things that happened in Tennessee in 2017 that will resonate in 2018

PHOTO: TN.gov
Children in Head Start programs in Nashville enjoy games on the lawn of the governor's mansion in 2017. Tennessee is putting more emphasis on pre-K as a key to reaching statewide reading goals.

From another year of statewide testing snafus to a growing consensus that pre-K investments are key to unlocking stubborn reading barriers, Tennessee faced education challenges and opportunities in 2017 that are sure to make headlines again during the new year.

Here are six issues we expect to revisit in 2018.

1. TNReady testing: Will the third time be a charm?

During the first year of Tennessee’s new standardized test, TNReady was canceled for most grades after a testing company’s new online platform stalled on the first day. This year, testing went better, but there were fumbles, including score deliveries that were too late to be useful and a scanning mistake that led to scoring errors on some high school tests. In the spring, when the bulk of this school year’s TNReady testing happens, Tennessee is counting on high schools’ switch to online testing to expedite score delivery and pave the way for online testing the following year for most younger students. State officials say TNReady is off to a good start in its third year, with 266 high schools on block schedules completing the online test this fall.

2. Vouchers again?

The battle over vouchers had been expected to dominate education debate when the state legislature reconvenes in January. But the surprising news that the Senate sponsor Brian Kelsey doesn’t plan to carry the bill in 2018 means vouchers could stall again, unless the House sponsor Harry Brooks finds a new champion in the Senate. (Update: Brooks has since said that he won’t pursue the bill either, effectively killing the proposal.) Either way, vouchers likely aren’t going away and definitely will be an issue in 2018 gubernatorial and legislative races, especially as President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continue to beat the drum for allowing parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision,” DeVos told reporters last month during her first official visit to Tennessee.

3. Priming for pre-K.

For years, Tennessee has waged a war on illiteracy with little success. But as the state seeks to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, the growing consensus in 2017 was that investing in pre-K and early education programs is the key to reaching that goal. This year, for the first time, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding. But in Memphis and Nashville, home to some of the worst reading scores in the state, a significant challenge looms with the mid-2019 expiration of a $70 million federal grant that’s helped pay for hundreds of disadvantaged children to attend pre-K. Both communities are scrambling to fill that gap — a concern that this week compelled the Memphis City Council to pledge $8 million for pre-K classrooms (although without saying where the money would come from). The investment would be the city’s first in public education since handing over control of its schools to Shelby County four years ago.

4. A green light for ESSA.

More than a year and a half after President Obama signed a new federal education law that’s designed to give states more flexibility to innovate, Tennessee received approval this year of its new plan to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Tennessee’s accountability plan includes an A-F grading system, scheduled to roll out in mid-2018, aimed at helping parents and communities know more about the quality of their neighborhood schools. Beyond test scores, it will include measures like chronic absenteeism and the number of out-of-school suspensions. The plan also changes the state’s approach and timeline for holding chronically low-performing schools accountable. Next summer, Tennessee will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, setting the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

5. Tweaking turnaround.

The Achievement School District is in its sixth year of trying to turn around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools, and the state’s education commissioner has called the state-run district its most “rigorous intervention” under ESSA. But Memphis schools taken over by the district’s approved charter management organizations have yielded little improvement in their early years, while academically troubled schools in locally operated innovation zones have shown promise, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. Though the state education department has emphasized its support of the ASD, it’s pivoting next year to a new kind of intervention called a partnership zone, in which the state will partner with Hamilton County Schools to make improvements in five chronically underperforming Chattanooga schools.

6. A microscope on Memphis.

Improper grade changes that teachers say have been happening in the shadows for years is coming to light in Tennessee’s largest district. An external investigation launched this year after a Memphis high school principal noticed discrepancies between report cards and transcripts. The probe has since flagged concerns with at least seven other high schools, and three people have been fired or suspended as a result. Talks on how Shelby County Schools will clean house, help students negatively affected, and build in safeguards against future abuse is expected to dominate the coming year, even as the district enjoyed good news this year about better-than-expected finances and student enrollment.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.