Week In Review

Week in Review: The teachers union contract that wasn’t, Vitti’s move and more

A new charter school opening on the east side next year will look familiar to many Detroiters — and that familiarity has some people worried. The new charter school will be a publicly funded version of the private Cornerstone School. That means the school can access millions of dollars a year in state funds. But it also means the school must remove religious teachings that are deeply entwined in its curriculum.

The change has upset Cornerstone parents who had chosen the school for its religious values (and didn’t mind paying tuition). It also has triggered alarms for public school advocates who are worried that supporters of religious schools such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are looking for “backdoor vouchers” to steer public funds to private and religious schools. Vouchers are unconstitutional in Michigan but there are no limits on how many charter schools can open here.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting. Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

— Peter Hammer, director, Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University law school

Read on for more on that story, plus the latest details on Detroit’s new superintendent, the teachers contract that wasn’t, and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Thanks for reading!

The new boss

  • Now that Nikolai Vitti has officially signed a contract and started packing up his Florida house to move to Detroit, he’s making plans and laying out a hopeful agenda for fixing Detroit schools. Here’s a look at Vitti’s 100-day plan for his first few months in office.
  • Among his top priorities is meeting with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather about finding a role for her in his administration. Another priority is finding schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District his four children, though the fact that some have special needs could complicate the effort.
  • Vitti and his family also need to find a house in Detroit. (We at Chalkbeat are trying to help and invite our readers to add Vitti housing suggestions on Facebook).
  • In interviews with Chalkbeat, the Free Press, and the Detroit News over the weekend, Vitti offered hopeful optimism — if not many specifics — about his vision for the future. He told the News that he wants Detroit to become a “mecca of traditional public school transformation.”
  • In the Free Press, among other topics, Vitti addressed the delicate question of race, telling the paper that he knows some parents and educators in this majority-black city were hoping the new superintendent would be African American. He responded by noting he’d improved schools for African-American students in “some of the toughest districts in the country,” and is the father of African-American children. “I come home to the achievement gap every day,” he said.
  • Vitti’s call for “better quality control” for charter schools prompted a response from a state charter school organization. “Only by working together can we make Detroit one of the truly great educational cities in America,” the group’s president wrote. Another school choice advocate urged Vitti to focus on quality control in his district, rather than worrying about charter schools.
  • Vitti has an eight-point plan to boost enrollment in the district that includes improving transportation, training employees in customer service, and launching a massive marketing campaign.
  • The new superintendent’s $295,000 salary has generated controversy, especially in a week when contract talks with the city teachers union hit a snag.
  • Days before leaving Jacksonville, Vitti shifted principals at 11 schools in the Duval County School District. His departure has triggered a mixed response  among parents and educators.
  • Vitti said he plans to arrive in Detroit early next week. He’ll soon head to the elite Mackinac Policy Conference to address corporate titans and political power brokers — something that one advocate says is essential right now. (I’ll be interviewing him live there and will report back on what he says).

In other Detroit news

  • Cornerstone’s switch from private school to charter school raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it.
  • The Detroit Federation of Teachers reached — then scrapped — a tentative deal with the district for a new contract.
  • The decision to lease a west side elementary school to a non-profit business incubator has angered some parents and community leaders and raised questions how the deal was made without community discussion.
  • Court documents assert that Detroit’s main district should have paid its debt to a janitorial company with money it got last year from the state.
  • A comprehensive plan to revitalize Detroit’s Cody-Rouge neighborhood includes a new STEAM camp, a mentorship program, and other efforts that will benefit local students and schools.

Across the state

  • For the third consecutive year, the percentage of Michigan public school students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals has declined. Look up the free lunch rate in Michigan schools and districts here.
  • The Detroit News says the latest effort to study how schools are funded in Michigan is likely to be little more than a “more expensive, longer version” of a school funding study that came out last year — and has largely been collecting dust since. But the study’s defenders argue that the first step to reforming Michigan schools is “an independent, bipartisan look at how we fund Michigan’s public schools.”
  • Teachers are continuing their opposition to A-F grades for schools even as the state has largely backed off a plan to assign them. The head of a school research and advocacy organization, however, says letter grades would improve transparency and promote school quality.
  • A set of bills passed in the state Senate this week would ban schools from suspending or expelling students solely for poor attendance.
  • A fight over teacher pensions has derailed state budget talks.
  • A Republican state lawmaker is likely resigning to work for U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos.
  • The heads of two state charter school groups make their case for why charters have “helped breathe new life into the state’s K-12 landscape.”

In other news

  • A $250,000 grant from Google will provide more Detroit-area high school students with hands-on science and engineering after-school programs at the Michigan Engineering Zone.
  • Students at a Detroit charter school won a national chess tournament.
  • A Detroit charter school student saw his winning textile design — “Fist Full of Power” — made into a 5ft x 7ft wool after winning a design competition.
  • Hundreds of volunteers helped beautify three southwest Detroit schools on National Arab American Service Day last weekend.

 

 

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.