Week In Review

Week in review: Can a district with half-empty schools keep them open?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Public school advocates in Detroit are breathing easier now that forced state school closings are off the table,. But school leaders still must address the fact that dozens of city schools are enrolling just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

Our analysis of district data this week identified more than 40 schools that are more than half empty, some housing vacant classrooms, darkened hallways and entire wings that have been mothballed. The vacancies raise questions about how long the district can keep these buildings open but local leaders are hoping the problem can be addressed without the slash-and-burn school closings of the past.

“I hope that the way any of these conversations proceed will be markedly different from the way things were done in the past … These conversations need to be around making sure that we provide the best possible opportunities for kids.”

—   Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Read on for more on this story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, our series on Detroiters telling their school stories this week features a mom who discovered that getting involved in her daughter’s school was the best way to ensure success. If you have a Detroit school story to share — or know someone who does — please let us know. Thanks!


In Detroit

Across the state

  • The Grosse Pointe school board voted unanimously to reject a plan that would have allowed admission for out-of-district students who paid $13,000 tuition a year. Charging tuition is legal, but it isn’t right, a Free Press columnist says. “It reinforces the arbitrary borders that separate cities and school districts, and the social divisions such partitions invite,” she wrote.
  • All nine districts that had schools on the state’s closure list have signed partnership agreements to keep their schools open. Of 38 schools that were targeted for closure in January, just one — a Detroit charter school — is still in danger of closing. The charter school could be closed by its authorizer.
  • Cyber and private schools were winners in the budget plan approved by state lawmakers this week. The plan, which includes a $100 per pupil increase, moved through both houses despite protests from Democrats.
  • In a lawsuit about the use of state dollars to fund private schools, the state argues that it shouldn’t be held to an “extremely literal interpretation” of the constitutional ban on public funding for private schools. A News columnist argued that those “stubborn” restrictions are one reason “students here continue to fall behind their peers in other states.”
  • GOP lawmakers are gearing up for another fight over teacher pensions.
  • The state’s top court ruled that private for-profit schools can qualify for some tax exemptions.
  • The question of when schools should be allowed to start classes in the fall has triggered a fierce political battle, pitting the tourism industry against schools.
  • Here’s how student enrollment has changed in the state’s 50 largest school districts over the last 25 years.
  • A U.S. State Department official paid a visit last week to a suburban charter school that in recent months has absorbed many refugee children from Iraq and Syria.
  • A state appeals court ruled that teachers and other school employees can quit their unions whenever they want, not just during the month of August.
  • Voters in some suburban districts this week approved tax hikes to fund new school buildings and renovations. Others voted no.
  • A News columnist argues that the U.S. News and World Report high school ranking, which put charters at the top of the list in Michigan, is an answer to critics of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who say Michigan charters aren’t delivering results.

In other news

  • A DTE Energy executive explains why the push to prepare kids for 21st century jobs needs to begin in preschool.
  • A Free Press cartoonist wonders what would happen if the U.S. Education Department gave Secretary Betsy DeVos a voucher to pay for her personal security expenses.
  • A suburban school has won a $20,000 “innovators challenge” award to connect students and community members with a nearby tech workshop.
  • A former Detroit school official who was convicted of stealing from the Chicago school district was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. The sentencing came after she received letters of support from Detroit officials including the former emergency manager who hired her to work in the Detroit district.
  • Michigan teams were victorious in an international robotics competition.
  • A Detroit Catholic school held a “signing day” event to celebrate seniors’ college choices. The school says all seniors or going on to college for the seventh year in a row.
  • Here’s how one Detroit private school celebrated May Day.


Week In Review

Week in review: A ‘poor choice of words’ from the state schools boss, Grosse Pointe considers lightening up

The state superintendent was under fire this week after telling a TV interviewer that school choice had taken the state “backwards.” It was a comment he later called a “poor choice of words.”

Scroll down for more on that story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. That includes insight into why Grosse Pointe is reviewing its tough enforcement of its residency rules and the latest on Detroit’s new schools boss, Nikolai Vitti. He was the subject of a major Chalkbeat story this week that looked at his plan to bring order to a district that he says lacked basic financial and academic systems.

Also, if you weren’t able to attend the forum featuring Vitti and the Citizens Research Council this week, you can watch the full video here. If you’re still looking for more, please tune in to American Black Journal on Sunday when I’ll be talking about Detroit schools.

Oh, and we have some exciting news: We’re hiring! If you know any thoughtful reporters who’d be interested in covering one of the most important stories in American education, please tell them to get in touch. Thanks for reading!

The Detroit schools boss

The state schools boss

  • Michigan schools boss Brian Whiston stressed in his clarification about his controversial school choice remarks that he’s a strong supporter of choice but believes giving parents options can’t be the only fix for schools.
  • Whiston’s comments come as advocates lament declining test scores across the state. Among them: a news publisher who blasts Lansing for fiddling while public schools “go to hell” and an advocate who urged Michigan parents to stop telling themselves that their child’s school is probably fine. “In fact,” she writes, “Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003 for all students.”
  • Still, the head of the state board of education says it’s “irresponsible” to suggest that Michigan schools are in crisis.
  • The school choice supporters who were miffed by Whiston’s comments are also still steamed about a New York Times Magazine piece on charter schools last week. One critic said the article failed to tell the whole story about the challenges to education in Highland Park and Detroit. A news site that strongly supports choice scrutinized the way the story characterized the number of for-profit charter schools in Michigan.

In Detroit and across its borders

  • Grosse Pointe schools officials are reviewing their aggressive approach to enforcing residency rules that keep Detroiters and other non-residents out of the district’s schools. In the past three years, the district has spent $74,528 on investigations and legal fees related to out-of-district students and has made all parents jump through burdensome hoops to prove they live in the district.
  • A Detroit teacher (and Chalkbeat reader advisory board member) set out to talk with other educators to “build a more nuanced narrative of Detroit schools.” Among teachers he featured is Janine Scott who the writer discovered when she appeared last spring in a Chalkbeat/Skillman Foundation “Story Booth.” (If you’re a parent, educator or student who wants to be featured in a future Story Booth, please let us know).
  • A principal who moved a Detroit charter school from the 8th percentile on state rankings to the 51st explains how it’s done.
  • Detroit’s main district plans to spend up to $57,000 to establish Parent Teacher Associations in all of its 106 schools.
  • The head of a Detroit high school engineering program explains how it aims to change lives.
  • An organization that places young adults in Detroit schools to provide support got a major gift from Quicken Loans that will help it expand.
  • The construction boom has highlighted the shortcomings of the city school system.
  • Wayne State University’s leaders pushed back against an article last week that highlighted a dramatic decline in African American enrollment — particularly graduates of Detroit schools.

In other news

Week In Review

Week in review: Charter wars ramp up as kids return to school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit's Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

This week not only marked the start of the new school year in Detroit. It also brought an escalation of the city’s ongoing charter school wars.

Charter supporters were fuming over a New York Times Magazine takedown that asserted “children lost” when Michigan “gambled on charter schools.”

And as one charter school leader knocked Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s new superintendent, for refusing to work collaboratively with the city’s privately managed schools, Vitti created a panic among supporters of a new charter that wants to buy a former district building.

Scroll down for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, please mark your calendars for this event Wednesday night where I’ll be joining Vitti and the Citizens Research Council for a salon-style dialogue about Detroit schools.


Charter wars

  • Vitti’s decision to block a charter school from buying the former Joyce Elementary School building could mean it remains vacant while the district loses the $75,000 it stood to make from the sale.
  • One charter leader challenged Vitti with an op/ed calling for an end to the “charter school versus non-charter school rhetoric.”
  • The 7,000-word Times Magazine story explores the financial and academic challenges of a Highland Park charter school and blames the state’s free market charter school laws.
  • The state’s charter school association issued a rebuttal and blasted the author. Leaders of a free-market think tank wrote that the story contains “major errors.”
  • The rebuttal cites a study that finds that Detroit’s charter school students slightly outperform their district counterparts. That study is often cited by both sides of the debate. Read it here.  
  • Or read this story about the role U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos played in shaping the state’s charter school laws and the resulting educational conditions in Detroit.
  • DeVos was the subject this week  of a story on public radio’s This American Life. The piece looked at her volunteer work at a public school in Grand Rapids to provide a window into her views on education. (I’ve done some work on This American Life too. Check it out).
  • A day after blasting the Times story, the state charter school association highlighted its analysis that found that nine of the state’s highest performing schools on the 2017 M-STEP were charters. [Friday, the association sent an update alerting reporters that the initial analysis had been wrong. In fact, just the four highest-performing schools had been charters]. 
  • The number of charter schools in Michigan is down this year for the first time in the 23-year history of the state’s charter school law.

Back to school

  • As Detroit kids returned to class this week, Vitti said he was disappointed that 250 teaching positions in the district remained unfilled. He saw the effects of that shortage as he toured schools Tuesday.
  • Many of the vacancies were left by teachers who worked for the state-run recovery district until its dissolution in June. Teachers reported they weren’t given credit for their years of experience. That meant steep pay cuts.
  • If the 55,000 kids who’ve signed up to attend schools in the main district actually enroll, it would represent the first significant increase in years. Just 36,000 kids were in class Tuesday but Vitti said first-day attendance rates are typically around 70 percent.
  • Among kids who’ve enrolled in district schools: Vitti’s four children.
  • In a back-to-school Q&A that covered a number of issues, Vitti said the district could eventually decide to close some schools but has no plans to do so this year.
  • Absences are not just high on the first day of school. A News columnist notes that 60 percent of district students were chronically absent in a recent year.
  • The chronic absence rate across the state was 30 percent.
  • The Free Press put together a list of ten things to know about the new school year.
  • The state superintendent — who recorded this “welcome back message” for students — says he plans to make Michigan a top ten state by 2026.


State of our schools

  • A top state lawmaker is pushing for an A-F grading system for schools.
  • State lawmakers are reviewing test options as they consider replacing the M-STEP in the 2018-19 school year.
  • Michigan could be holding back nearly half of its third graders by 2020.
  • A website has created a list of the state’s top elementary schools.
  • The Detroit News has tapped a veteran education reformer to curate a series of commentaries about education that will be published throughout the school year.
  • The first piece in the News’ series looks at the state’s education crisis by the numbers.
  • A Free Press columnist expresses alarm at low reading scores across the state and writes that we’re no closer to a solution today “than we were four, eight or 20 years ago.”

In other news

  • Here’s the story of how a California-based nonprofit law firm catapulted seven Detroit schoolchildren into a civil rights suit in federal court.
  • The number of Detroit graduates enrolling at Wayne State University has plummeted over the last decade.
  • A Detroit teacher has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the main district and the city’s mayor saying she was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on tainted water in her school.
  • A former DPS principal is on her way to prison.