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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

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.

Week In Review

Week in review: As ‘count day’ nears, the scramble is on to lure students and teachers

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan districts are trying to get as many students as they can into school for next week's Count Day. That includes these kids from Detroit's Durfee Elementary-Middle school who met new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on the first day of school.

The scorching temperatures that shut many schools down early in Detroit and across the state this week have finally broken, but in other ways, the heat is still very much on.

Next Wednesday is count day — the crucial day when the number of students who show up for class will determine much of a school’s budget for the rest of the year. Schools are planning special events including carnivals, pizza parties, and giveaways to entice as many students to school as possible. The main Detroit district is offering free breakfast and lunch to parents.

The district is also stepping up its game to bring more teachers into classrooms, considering additional incentives for educators willing to work in “hard-to-staff” schools and in shortage areas such as special education.

Scroll down for more on these stories — plus check out our latest Story Booth from a group of high school students discussing the people who motivate them to succeed.

Also, Chalkbeat has a new national newsletter! Check it out and subscribe here. And, our reporters in New York, Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, and Detroit spelled out what we plan to cover this year — with help from our readers. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback, or making a financial contribution. And for now, read on for all of this week’s headlines.

In Detroit

  • Details of a program that would pay teachers more to take jobs in “hard-to-staff” positions in Detroit’s main district will be worked out through negotiations with the city teachers union.
  • Early numbers show the main district could see its first enrollment increase in years as it absorbs students from shuttered charter schools and the now-dissolved state recovery district.
  • U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed at Harvard University when responding to a question about Detroit schools.
  • Quicken Loans plans to bankroll computer science classes for 15,000 Detroit students. The contribution — announced as part of Ivanka Trump’s visit to Detroit this week — is among half a billion dollars from private companies and the government that will go toward computer science education across the country.
  • Here’s why 2,000 Detroit ninth graders just got free cell phones.
  • This Detroit high school has seen some tough times, but its students mean business.
  • The board that oversees the finances of the city and school district just got a new member.
  • Two researchers explain how the new hockey and basketball arena will take money away from Detroit schools.  
  • A Detroit charter school management company just got a $5 million grant from the federal government, one of 17 charters nationally to get help expanding.
  • A former Michigan governor says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan  — and his successors — should be given control over the city schools. That same governor was just named by DeVos to a national education board.
  • Two Detroit high schools will now have special programs on Saturdays.

Across the state

  • A new study finds the state’s “schools of choice” program, which lets students cross district lines to attend school, has little effect on student performance.
  • State data show that nearly a quarter of Michigan students are not attending school in their home district. Some of those kids are in charters. Others are crossing district lines to attend a neighboring district.
  • These are the 50 Michigan districts that have the largest net loss of students from schools of choice (Detroit is No. 6). These 50 districts saw the biggest gains.
  • A photo essay from an advocacy organization illustrates how a state school funding system that provides no construction funds to districts has created “disheartening disparities in the quality of facilities between tax-rich districts and their poorer counterparts.”
  • This tax loophole is keeping money from Michigan schools.
  • Wednesday is not just count day. It’s also Walk to School day, and 300 Michigan schools are expected to participate.
  • The state court of appeals has rejected an effort by Catholic schools and lawmakers to join the ongoing legal dispute over whether state money can flow to private schools.
  • It’s hard to compare Michigan SAT scores to those in other states because all students here, not just ones heading to college, take the test. Still, here’s how Michigan students did compared to other states with high participation rates.
  • A new study says Michigan teachers have it pretty good compared to their peers in other states.  
  • The state school reform officer who led a botched effort to close 38 low-performing Michigan schools has resigned to take a job in Missouri. The state superintendent is looking for her replacement while planning another round of the “partnership agreements” that districts were able to sign to avoid closure.
  • Thirteen Michigan schools — none in Detroit — were awarded federal “Blue Ribbon” recognition for their test scores.
  • A Detroit education professor pushed back against a state education leader who says Michigan schools are not in crisis. “Michigan’s academic stagnation,” she writes, “is a real and direct threat to our state and our children’s futures.”

In other news