Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.

Closing forever

The Detroit school district fought to keep 24 struggling schools open. At the same time, it was closing an east side charter school

The Ross-Hill Academy charter school closed its doors in June, 2017.

Leaders of Detroit’s main school district spent much of this year fighting to keep schools open.

At the same, however, the district was preparing to shut a school down.

That school, the Ross-Hill Academy charter school, quietly closed forever last month after serving Detroit children on the east side for 19 years.

The kindergarten to eighth-grade school had taken on too much debt, district officials said, and was in danger of not having enough money to stay open through the next school year.

“As a district, we always try to do what’s right for children and, in this case, it would have been irresponsible to allow a school to stay open that had really any chance of potentially leaving parents stranded,” said Kisha Verdusco, the district’s director of charter schools. “If we had allowed them to go into another school year, you’re taking a gamble that they’re not going to have enough students to be viable.”

Ross-Hill, which enrolled just 110 students last year, had been one of 13 charter schools overseen by the Detroit district.

Under new superintendent Nikolai Vitti, the district has been rethinking its approach to charter schools. That could lead to additional charter school closings in coming years. But Vitti’s predecessors have been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Unlike the 100-plus traditional schools that are managed directly by the district, charter schools have independent managers who report to independent school boards.

In its role as authorizer, the district keeps tabs on charter schools, making sure they’re academically and financially viable. The district’s charter school office determined in March that Ross-Hill was not on stable footing.

“Enrollment had been declining for some years,” Verdusco said. “We track schools’ quarterly financial performance so we were really keeping a close eye on what was going on.”

Unless the school dramatically found a way to raise enrollment, which would bring in more state dollars, officials did not believe the school could survive, Verdusco said.

A woman who answered the phone at the school said its principal and management company were not available to comment. The school closed last month.

Ross-Hill has had a mixed academic track record over the years but its low scores last year put the school near the bottom of state rankings. It ranked in the 4th percentile, behind the vast majority of Michigan schools.

The school was hardly alone at the bottom of state rankings. Of 162 Detroit schools that were ranked in 2016, 69 were in the bottom five percent of Michigan schools.

That’s part of why state officials announced plans to shutter 24 Detroit schools that had been in the bottom five percent for three years in a row.

That effort triggered loud community protests and lawsuits by school boards that led the state to back down. Instead of closing schools, state officials brokered partnership agreements designed to help them improve.

As a result, the only Detroit schools being shut down this year are charter schools. (One district school, Durfee Elementary-Middle School, is moving into the adjacent Central High School).

Ross-Hill is among at least seven charter schools in or near Detroit that closed forever last month.

Central Michigan University, the state’s largest charter school authorizer, declined to renew the charters of the Woodward Academy and the Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit; the Starr Detroit Academy in Harper Woods, the Taylor International Academy in Southfield and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck. Also closing is the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, a strict discipline academy that served children who had been expelled by other schools or referred by the juvenile courts. It had been overseen by the Wayne County intermediate school district.

At some of those schools, parents complained that they weren’t notified in a timely manner. At the Woodward Academy, some parents found out about the closing from a Chalkbeat reporter. At Taylor International, the school abruptly shut its doors two weeks before the end of the school year when it ran out of money and its management company left.

Verdusco said she took steps to make sure the closing of Ross-Hill went smoothly. A parent meeting was held in April for parents to voice their concerns about the closing and an enrollment fair helped families find other schools options.

Some parents chose district schools. Others chose charters, she said.

Converting Ross-Hill to a district school was not an option because the charter school was in a building owned by a church, Verdusco said.

Calming the chaos

A year after the tearful demise of a proposed Detroit school oversight commission, backers seek another way to bring order to Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit district and charter school leaders are meeting to see if they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

It’s been more than a year since the tearful, emotional night when a divided state legislature blocked a major effort to bring order to Detroit schools.

Now some of the parties involved in last year’s fight are regrouping and looking for new ways to improve city schools.

Only this time, they’re less likely to look to Lansing for laws that would force schools to report to a powerful school oversight commission.

Instead, early discussions appear to be centered on bringing together the historically competitive leaders of district and charter schools. The hope is that they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

“We’re trying to figure out as a group how we can work together on finding solutions that are in the best interest of providing quality education for students,” said Cindy Schumacher, who heads the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees many of the city’s charter schools. “We all have different roles but there are things that I think we can find common ground on.”

Roughly half of Detroit schools are run by the main city school district and the other half are run by a host of unaffiliated charter school management companies, overseen by unaffiliated charter school authorizers. But unlike Denver, New Orleans, Washington and other cities that offer families many school options, Detroit does not have any kind of centralized board, agency or coordinating partnership to help parents navigate the landscape.

No single entity in Detroit has sway over where new schools should open or where struggling schools should close. That means many children live in neighborhoods without quality schools and have to travel long distances to access better options.

Families searching for schools face a dizzying mix of enrollment procedures and deadlines. Some schools offer bus transportation. Others don’t. And schools aggressively compete for students and teachers while parents are often left with few tools to figure out which of the city’s largely low-performing schools can meet their children’s needs.  

When top community, civic and business leaders came together in 2015 as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, they offered a solution to bring more cohesiveness to Detroit’s school landscape.

That solution was a single, powerful school oversight board called the Detroit Education Commission that would have had authority over the opening and closing of district and charter schools. The proposed commission would have graded schools, held them to high standards and helped coordinate things like enrollment and transportation.

But when the plan for a seven-member, mayoral-appointed Detroit Education Commission was sent last year to the legislature as part of a package of bills designed to keep the Detroit schools out of bankruptcy, the idea was met with strong, vocal opposition.

Both district and charter school supporters saw the DEC as a threat to their independence, and charter supporters feared the commission would favor district schools over charters. One of the commission’s chief critics was Betsy DeVos, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. Her powerful Michigan political organization led the fight against the commission and her family contributed $1.45 million to the lawmakers who eventually voted it down in a politically charged, highly partisan episode.

The final package of bills sent $617 million to Detroit to create the new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. But, with no DEC, the bills passed without support from Detroit lawmakers or Democrats.

Now, a year later, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the school, union, business and community leaders that proposed the DEC in the first place, has begun a process called Coalition 2.0. This year’s goal is to take on some of the unfinished business from last year’s school improvement push.

The Coalition 2.0 effort has eight focus areas including special education, student attendance, teacher recruitment and retention, literacy, parent support, and pathways for students to college and careers. The group will study ways to increase the number of Detroit students who attend schools in Detroit, including both district and charter schools.

And, to take on the work that the initial Coalition hoped the DEC would tackle, Coalition 2.0 is bringing together top leaders of the main Detroit school district and the only two charter school authorizers that currently have the credentials to approve new charter schools in Detroit: Central Michigan and Grand Valley State universities.

Leading up this “citywide coordination and planning,” group for Coalition 2.0 are Schumacher from CMU; Rob Kimball, who leads the charter school office at Grand Valley; and Alycia Meriweather, the first Deputy Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Charter school authorizers have been criticized for allowing poor-performing charter schools to proliferate in Detroit and across the state.  But last year’s Detroit education law raised the standards that authorizers have to meet. Now, only authorizers that have been accredited by a national organization can open new charters in Detroit.

Kimball said having the two accredited authorizers involved could help pave the way to solving some of the problems the DEC aimed to address. Authorizers were not involved with the original Coalition, though individual charter school leaders were.

“The table is now more diverse,” Kimball said. “The authorizers are now at the table, participating in designing a process in which many of these DEC-like functions can occur.”

The citywide coordination and planning group could, in theory, propose something like a legally empowered DEC but early conversations appear to be geared more toward creating voluntary collaborations between schools.  

A preliminary planning document shared this month with city and community leaders says the group plans to review the DEC recommendations from the original Coalition report and “identify areas/measures that can be implemented voluntarily” by district and charter schools.

The group will also “develop recommendations to collaboratively advance DEC-like functions” including planning for how schools open and close, and looking for ways that schools could work together on enrollment, transportation, data, common standards and common learning/practices. 

If a new citywide commission comes together, it could take over some of the functions that had been done by the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last week.   

Excellent Schools Detroit, which was founded in 2010 to help families find quality school options in the city, published an annual report card that graded schools. It also led a $700,000 effort to create a unified enrollment system that would allow parents to use a single application to apply to district and charter schools. The unified enrollment effort has been largely stalled amid political controversy but its future could be one of the subjects discussed as part of these new conversations. For now, the Excellent Schools Detroit’s functions have been passed on to other organizations. 

Whatever the group comes up with, it’s not likely to be something that would require support from Lansing.

In a memo to Coalition steering committee members earlier this year, Coalition co-chair Tonya Allen wrote that, this time around, the group is looking at things Detroiters can do without state lawmakers.

“Our intentions and energy will look to Detroit, not Lansing,” wrote Allen, the President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat supporter). “Detroiters must develop a vision, a plan and execute it with fidelity if we are to improve education practices in our city.”

“The initial work of the Coalition was …triage,” Allen wrote. “Our efforts were focused on keeping the district alive.”

Now, she wrote, “our next body of work must be focused on transition …. This phase is about setting an education vision for our city and mobilizing ‘doers’ to begin to implement strategies locally.”

The Coalition last year got many of the things it fought for including the new district and the return to power of a locally elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

This year’s effort has an ambitious timeline. Organizers hope to have a list of final recommendations by early August with an eye toward publishing them in the fall.