closing arguments

Three Detroit-area charter schools are set to close in June, but not all parents know

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Britney Love, a parent of a first-grader at Woodward Academy.

At least three Detroit-area charter schools will close in June after years of low test scores, leaving hundreds of families to scramble for new schools — including some who haven’t yet been notified.

The schools set to close include Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools. It opened near downtown Detroit in 1996. Also closing are the Starr Detroit Academy, which is located just across the city line in Harper Woods but serves primarily Detroit children, and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck.

All three schools are being closed for academic reasons, said Janelle Brzezinski, spokeswoman for the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees the schools.

“We’re committed to having high academic quality in our schools,” Brzezinski said. “We’ve always held our schools to a high standard.”

A fourth charter school overseen by Central Michigan is also in danger of closing. The Michigan Technical Academy in northwest Detroit was issued a “notice of intent” in February indicating that the university planned to revoke the school’s charter. The university is still reviewing the school’s response, Brzezinski said.

Michigan Technical Academy, which Chalkbeat featured last year, was among 38 Michigan schools threatened with closure by the state earlier this year for being in the bottom 5 percent of state school rankings for three years in a row. State officials have largely backed away from those plans for now, allowing districts to negotiate “partnership agreements” with the state to keep the schools open. Of those schools, 24 were in Detroit.

A press release from the state Education Department on Tuesday about the agreements said Michigan Technical Academy was being closed down by Central Michigan.

Brzezinski said the press release was not accurate.

“We were surprised by that statement,” she said.

The school closings are bound to surprise teachers and parents connected to the schools.

Families at the Starr Academy were notified that their school would close several weeks ago.  But at the Woodward Academy, where the school’s website as of Wednesday still said it was accepting applications for September, parents dropping their children off Wednesday morning said they had no idea their school would close.

“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” said Porschua Reliford, 28, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January after a bad experience in a traditional district school.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders, Adrian, 10, and Lawrence, 11, have attended, she said. Her first-grader, Torence, 7, is on his second school.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools, is set to close.

Britney Love, 32, said she was told by the school’s principal just three weeks ago that the school would not be closing.

She was alarmed to hear a different report Wednesday morning.

“I need to find out because I need to be looking for another school,” she said. She has a five year-old entering kindergarten in September and a six-year-old now in the first grade at the school.

“I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too,” she said. “I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

Parents just finding out now that they need a new school for next year are already at a disadvantage because many of the city’s top district and charter schools have already begun their enrollment processes. Many schools had application deadlines that passed weeks or even months ago.

“Currently, the timing of when closures are announced and how our city’s enrollment processes work are not in any way aligned to meet the needs of the students and families,” said Maria Montoya, director of Enroll Detroit, an organization that assists families in overcoming enrollment barriers from preschool to college.

“In our work supporting families in securing placements, we hear time and time again from families that it doesn’t make sense to close a school for failing to perform and then not have enough higher quality options available to take on these students,” Montoya said, adding that she’s hopeful that recent conversations will lead to improvements.

Georgia Hubbard, Woodward’s chief academic officer, said the administration planned to inform parents on Friday.

“It’s very upsetting for all of us,” Hubbard said, as she angrily asked a reporter to leave the school’s parking lot Wednesday. “We have 520 children. We have 65 staff people. We are very emotional and very concerned about why they would make such a decision when our school is improving. We are devastated by what they’ve done to us and we definitely need time to orderly communicate this to our parents.”

Woodward has seen some recent improvement in its test scores. On last year’s state exam, 4.9 percent of the school’s students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math and reading, compared to 2.8 percent the year before. But the school is still one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. It was ranked in the fourth percentile among Michigan schools last year.

Charter school authorizers in Michigan have come under fire in recent years for not holding charter schools accountable for low performance.

The quality of charter schools in the state and how they’re overseen by universities was one argument against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearings. Critics charge that DeVos has used her wealth and influence to block regulation of charter schools in the state.

Dan Quisenberry of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, say these closures are not a response to the political climate.

On the contrary, he said, authorizers routinely shut down low-performing charter schools. Three charter schools were closed in Detroit last year, two closed in 2015, three in 2014 and five in 2013, he said.

Closing a school is “a traumatic thing,” Quisenberry said. “No one is saying it’s not. But the goal is to get [students] in a better place.”

Quisenberry’s organization is working with Enroll Detroit to help parents at the Starr Academy learn about other options, he said. The group invited nearby schools that are ranked above the 25th percentile on state rankings to meet with Starr Academy parents.

“I understand the disruption this causes,” Quisenberry said. “The question isn’t, is this ideal? The question is, if kids are in a school that’s not performing for them, should we leave them there? That just doesn’t make any sense.”

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.