Looking to leave?

As two Detroit districts merge, uncertainty over leadership and pay stokes fear of teacher exodus in 11 schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

Stefanie Kovaleski loves teaching kindergarten at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

“I love this building. I love the kids in it,” she said as she doled out hugs and high-fives to her young students while they lined up to get their backpacks at dismissal. “I love that I have autonomy and that I’m treated with professionalism here.”

She hopes to stay in her classroom and remain a part of her students’ lives, she said, but she’s actively talking to banks and credit unions about working outside education.

“I can’t see myself out of teaching but I’ve definitely started looking in the private sector,” she said.

Kovaleski, 33, is one of many teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority who say they’re considering leaving their schools in what some fear could be a mass exodus — the kind of disruption that could drive down test scores, drive up behavioral issues and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives,” Kovaleski said of a school where 98.7 percent of students are identified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. “The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

The EAA teachers fear major pay cuts and changes to school leadership when their schools return this summer to the main Detroit school district after five years of state control. Their departures could undermine  a group of 11 schools that have weathered multiple changes and enrollment declines since they were taken out of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012 and put into the state’s recovery district.

As the two districts prepare to reunite July 1, officials in both districts say they’re taking steps to ensure as much stability as they can.

The main district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — extended offers to all EAA teachers who have not been rated ineffective so they can stay in their current jobs.

The Detroit school board this week lifted a hiring freeze that had been holding up decisions about principal and assistant principal jobs in the schools.

And leaders from both districts have been meeting regularly to discuss details of the transition, from summer school to building upgrades.

But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, EAA teachers still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who their principals will be and they’ve grown impatient with the lack of information.

“Many of us now feel that our backs are against the wall,” wrote Rubye Richard, an English teacher at the EAA’s Mumford Academy High School, in one of many letters EAA teachers have written to the Detroit school board in recent weeks.

“If decisions are not made and communicated to us, we are forced to continue searching for employment in other districts,” she wrote.

The delay in teachers knowing their salaries is related to the fact that the main district is negotiating a contract with its teachers union.

If negotiations don’t change salaries much from the current contract, EAA teachers could see major pay cuts. First-year EAA teachers, who are not in a union, now make $45,000 a year compared to less than $36,000 for their unionized DPSCD counterparts.

Some of the pay discrepancy is because EAA teachers worked summers while Detroit district teachers can make extra money teaching summer school. A DPSCD spokeswoman noted that the main Detroit district also pays more generous benefits than the EAA.

But the larger impact on EAA teachers will come from the decision about how much experience EAA teachers will be given credit for when they become DPSCD teachers.

When the EAA calculated teacher salaries, it gave new hires credit for all their years of experience. That means Kovaleski now makes $65,000 a year — a salary based on ten years of teaching including four years at Bethune, one year in the Dearborn school district and five years at a Detroit charter school.

But under Detroit’s current union contract, new teachers to the district typically get just two years of credit, regardless of how long they’ve worked in other districts.

Though the contract lets the district credit teachers with up to eight years of experience under special circumstances, such as critical vacancies, teachers like Kovaleski could essentially have to start from scratch.

The current Detroit teacher contract pays $40,643 to teachers with a master’s degree and two years of experience so Kovaleski could be looking at a nearly $15,000 pay cut.

Kovaleski’s mother lives with her, has congenital heart failure and $50,000 in debt from a recent hospital stay, she said. “The bills keep rolling in so when I stop and think, man, can I afford to take [a pay cut]? I just don’t know.”

Teachers union president Ivy Bailey said she regrets that some EAA teachers might take pay cuts. But she also notes that teachers in the main district have had stagnant wages for years.

“It would not be fair for someone from the EAA with only two years to come in here and make more than a teacher who has been here and … weathered the storm through all of this,” Bailey said.

Salary Comparison

The uncertainty has already driven some EAA teachers out the door.

District data show that 43 percent of EAA teachers did not come back for the current school year — twice the attrition rate from the year before. And principals say more teachers than usual have left mid-year.

At Bethune, principal Alisanda Woods said four of her 32 teachers have left since September.

Some left because they were worried about their salaries in DPSCD, Woods said. Others left because Bethune was one of 25 Detroit schools that were threatened with state closure this year. The closures were averted when the district this month signed a “partnership agreement” with the state, but some teachers were already gone.

Massive teacher turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s part of a deliberate improvement plan, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.

In Washington D.C., public schools saw improvement as a result of teacher turnover. “It was a very high functioning school district investing a lot of effort into screening new teacher applications and encouraging ineffective teachers to leave,” Goldhaber said.

But absent an effort like that, he said, studies show that too many new teachers will hurt kids. “Even if you were to replace a teacher with a second teacher of equal quality, just the disruptive effect of a teacher leaving will have” a negative impact, he said.

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, who is leaving Detroit to start a new job in July, said she’s been working closely with her DPSCD counterparts to keep the EAA schools as stable as possible after the transition, but unanswered questions about teachers and principals are making that difficult.

“I’m really worried about the fact the we haven’t finalized offers” for teachers, Conforme said. “It’s the middle of May … That’s deeply concerning.”

The EAA schools, which were put into the district originally because of years of poor results, are still some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but most of them have seen recent improvements. Conforme said she worries that progress could be disrupted if teachers leave.

The main Detroit district is already trying to fill more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

The EAA schools saw dramatic teacher turnover back in 2012 when the new district began.

“There was a big shakeup,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who wrote a paper on the early years of the EAA. But that big shakeup wasn’t well planned, he said. “The EAA was a spectacular train wreck right out of the gate.”

These years later, he said, he was hoping the process of returning the EAA schools to the main district would be smoother. (Of the original 15 EAA schools, three have been converted to charter schools and one has closed).

Conforme said she hopes most of her teachers  ultimately will decide to stay because if they leave, families will follow.

“What families and students care about is that there’s consistency with the teachers that have been teaching them, the support staff that have been supporting them and the leaders the families have gotten comfortable with,” Conforme said. “That part is critical.”

 

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

measuring progress

Fixing Detroit’s schools won’t happen overnight. Here’s what new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he can do by next year.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.