Changing course

After Detroit school board’s reversal, three charter schools face new uncertainty

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Three charter schools are facing new uncertainty after Detroit’s school board voted Tuesday to rescind an agreement to allow them to operate for another five years.

The three schools — Stewart Elementary-Middle School, Murphy Elementary-Middle School, and Trix Elementary-Middle School — have been a part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which is dissolving this summer. While 11 of the EAA schools are re-joining Detroit’s main school district, the board faces a trickier task in figuring out how to oversee the three that have operated independently.

Just last month, the board agreed to give the schools five-year charters. But at Tuesday night’s meeting, the new Detroit school board voted 4-2 to replace that agreement with a new one, allowing the charter schools to operate for just one year.

At that point, the schools could earn new charters or be absorbed fully into the district. Proponents of the change pointed out that allowing for the students to move into the district sooner could bring in needed funding.

“We have a fiscal responsibility to this district first and foremost,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. “In practical terms, we have a $10 million deficit and those children would bring approximately 10 million dollars back to the district.”

“Most importantly, those children were [Detroit Public Schools] children, they are neighborhood children,” he added.

The board’s decision may bring a new set of problems. One is that the charter management organization that had been overseeing the three schools has left, leaving the school board on the hook to find a new one. At last month’s meeting, the director of the district’s charter school office advised the board to offer a five-year contract, saying that securing a charter management company with only a one-year guarantee would be difficult.

Interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather also warned that absorbing students from the charter schools into the district more quickly would mean having to find additional staff when Detroit is already experiencing a teacher shortage.

Board members Misha Stallworth and Sonya Mays said they remained concerned about those issues and voted against the change on Tuesday. Board President Iris Taylor abstained.

Still, the majority of the board felt compelled to reconsider the charter agreement. They said they wanted the opportunity to check in sooner and make a plan once the district’s new superintendent — set to be named this week or next — is in place.

“It will give us an opportunity to look at the data for one year and then make an educationally sound decision based on that, versus all five years,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, who proposed the one-year contract. “That’s the basis for me wanting to change.”

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

What's in a name?

Detroit has one of the nation’s only schools named for a Trump cabinet member. That name could change soon.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

A member of the Trump administration may have his name stripped from a school in Detroit — though not because of politics.

The Detroit school board will consider on Tuesday night a recommendation that would bar naming schools after living people. If approved, the measure would force the renaming of several schools in the city that are already named for living people. Among them is the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

The school, located in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood near the Detroit Medical Center, opened in 2011 to serve students from around the city who are interested in pursuing health professions.

It is named after Dr. Benjamin Carson, a native Detroiter who made a name for himself as a brain surgeon before entering politics, running for president, and eventually accepting a role in the Trump administration. He’s currently Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.

The board plans to debate the policy on Tuesday night before a planned vote at the January meeting.

“When you name a school after a living person whose life is incomplete, sometimes they disappoint you,” said LeMar Lemmons, a school board member. “You may not want to have a school named after that person.”

Another school that would get a name change if the board moves the issue to a final vote is the Bates Academy, which is named after Alonzo Bates, a former school board member and city councilman. He was convicted of five felonies, including theft from a program receiving federal funds.

“Naming a school after someone is to really speak to and honor their legacy, and it’s really difficult to know a complete legacy of a person until after they’ve passed,” said Misha Stallworth, a board member. “We really want to make sure that the names of schools reflect the values of the district and the community.”

Lemmons said the board also plans to review names that were given to schools during the years when the district was controlled by state-appointed emergency managers. That includes Palmer Park Academy, which had been the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, and East English Village High School, which replaced Finney High School on the city’s east side.

Lemmons said he’d also like the board to discuss changing the names of schools that are named after “former holders of enslaved persons.”

Lemmons acknowledged that, in a city home primarily to Democrats, Carson’s status as a powerful Republican could come into play.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” Lemmons said. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

The principal of the school, Charles Todd, did not respond to request for comment, but has said in the past that Ben Carson has generously contributed to the school. It’s unclear what impact the change of the name will have on his relationship with the school.

A spokesman for Carson did not respond to a request for comment.