new day

On a superintendent’s first day, just another Tuesday for 37 Detroit first-graders with no music or art or gym

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Detroit schools have been buzzing these last two weeks with what feels like a fresh start.

A new superintendent —  Nikolai Vitti — has landed in the city and started his job as the first new leader of what is officially a new district.

He uses words like “transformation” and “vision” and “hope” to describe a future when Detroit schools will begin to address the intensive challenges that have contributed to some of the lowest test scores in the nation. He sees Detroit becoming “a mecca of improvement” that will draw young teachers from around the country who will want to be part of a city’s metamorphosis.

But spend a morning in a Detroit classroom and it quickly becomes clear exactly how much will have to change in this city before it looks anything like the “mecca” that Vitti imagines.

Spend a morning in Room 106 at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side.

That’s the room where first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey arrived on the morning of May 23rd — Vitti’s first full day on the job — to discover that another teacher was out on jury duty. Since substitute teachers are rarely available, Sturkey would — again — have to double up. That morning, she’d have 37 kids.

A teaching shortage has prevented the school from hiring for non-academic classes such as music, art and gym. So Sturkey and her students will be crowded together in their cluttered classroom for seven hours, with only a break for lunch and recess. She and her colleagues get none of the prep periods that are standard for teachers in schools with more resources.

“They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said. “We make the best of what we’ve got. We work together as a team here. We support each other. But we’re exhausted.”

In addition to the crowded conditions, Sturkey says her curriculum didn’t arrive until March. Her kids are tested on computers they don’t know how to use and key supports such as social workers and counselors are hard to come by.

Sturkey has heard Vitti’s hopeful message, she said, but teachers in this city have heard a lot promises over the years and have seen the painful effects of disappointment on the city and its most vulnerable children.

“I’m keeping an open mind,” said Sturkey, a 17-year veteran of the Detroit district who grew up in the city and attended its schools. “I have to. I care about this city. I care about these kids.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
With 37 students in her class, first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey is unable to gather her students on the floor for story time as she prefers. “You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

On the morning of May 23, Sturkey started her day moving desks around to accommodate an additional class of 20 kids. Soon, it would be difficult to walk between the packed-in desks. Some were jammed against the blackboard, others clustered near the door.

When storytime arrived, Sturkey had to lean against a wall to read to her students instead of sitting on the floor as she prefers.

“You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them as she opened “The Garden” story from the Frog and Toad series. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

Sturkey read loudly and clearly to be heard over the tapping pencils, squeaking chairs and shuffling feet of more than three dozen 6- and 7-year-olds. Some kids listened to the story. Others, unable to see the pictures in the book, gazed out the window. One boy had his head down on his desk, apparently asleep.

“Heads down! Mouths closed!” Sturkey snapped when the noise level got too high. “What is all this noise? I hear a lot of talking!”

The noise level in the class is a direct result of a district-wide teacher shortage. Across the city last month, more than 200 teaching positions were unfilled, including two at Robeson.

Principal Jeffery Robinson says his openings are not a priority because they’re not in core subjects like reading or math. And low salaries make hiring difficult. First-year teachers earn $35,683 a year in Detroit according to the current contract with the city teachers union. Many suburban districts pay thousands of dollars more.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson said.

The absence of those teachers is compounded by the lack of substitutes, he said.

When the school’s seventh-grade teacher was out for an eight-week medical leave this year, the district sent a substitute for only one day, Robinson said.

Help didn’t arrive until the seventh-grade teacher returned last month from her leave.

The rest of the time “we had to make do,” Robinson said. “My teachers and I, we switched around. We did the best we could given the situation but my children’s achievement suffered.”

The doubling up in Sturkey’s classroom, which happens roughly three or four days a month, she said, is one way the teachers at Robeson make do.

It’s difficult, she said, but not as difficult as last year when she had 38 students enrolled in her classroom every day.

With that many kids, “it’s like you’re literally going into survival mode,” she said. “You’re constantly stopping for behavior or emotional needs or not knowing what’s coming in through the door that morning. For the most part, we’re able to teach, but some days it can be challenging.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side, said she didn’t get the workbooks she’s required to use to teach math until March this year.

 

Working with too many kids is only one of the challenges Sturkey has faced this year. Another was a math curriculum that didn’t arrive until March.

The textbook arrived on time, she said. But the workbooks that are a key part of the district’s math program were missing through the fall and winter.

“They just kept saying it was coming,” she said. But months passed without anything arriving.

“I supplemented with whatever materials that I had on my own, whatever research materials I could find online to use for the children,” she said. “But if you require that we use it and you’re expecting for us to use it, it should be here for us to use.”

The lack of materials have affected her students’ performance on the tracking tests the district requires her students to take, she said. But the fact that the tests are administered online makes it difficult to really evaluate their skills.

That’s because the school only has one computer lab, and that lab is dedicated almost exclusively to online testing.

When Sturkey’s students come into the lab for testing, they spend most of their time trying to figure out how to use a mouse, she said.

The lack of computer time also affects older kids in the school, including those in grades 3-8 who take the high-stakes exams that state officials use to determine which schools should be closed for poor performance.

The state exams require older kids to write short essays but Robeson students struggle with using a keyboard, Robinson said..

They’re “in there all day because they’re hunting and pecking,” Robinson said. “So on top of the challenges that the test itself presents, they have a tactile, a physical challenge because they’re not able to do the test.”

The Detroit district has some of the lowest-performing schools in Michigan. Just a fraction of students in grades 3-8 — 4.1 percent — were reading and doing math at grade level last year.

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent leaders Aliya Moore, left, and Stephanie Beal have organized protests at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy to protest a teacher shortage that has left kids without needed instruction.

Paul Robeson Malcolm X claims to be the first public school program in the United States to provide an African-centered curriculum.

The school “still produces greatness. It really does,” said parent leader Aliya Moore, 36. “Despite the shortcomings, the staff that is here finds creative ways to let a child, you know draw, or do the music part, but it’s hard now because their creativity is smothered.”

The Detroit district she attended as a child was “full of resources,” Moore said. “I had art. I had music. I had gym. I had free drivers’ training. Supplies were plentiful.”

Moore puts the blame for the district’s current lack of resources squarely on intervention by the state of Michigan.

She graduated in 1998. The following year, state lawmakers led by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, removed the elected school board and replaced it with a seven-person reform board, appointed largely by the mayor, that ran the schools for six years.

A decade later, another governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, named the first of a series of emergency managers who ran the district — and presided over skyrocketing debt and plunging enrollment.

Last year, state lawmakers created a plan to address the district’s crippling debt by forming the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new debt-free district that replaced the the Detroit Public Schools.

A newly elected school board took over the new district in January. It chose Vitti in April, hiring him away from the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

At an event last week, Vitti told a gathering of business and political leaders that he recognizes that Detroit teachers have experienced “trauma” from the “chaos” of recent events.

“We have to recognize the past and understand the pain that’s connected to that past because it’s real,” he said at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. “You hear it from teachers on a daily basis, but you also see the beauty of what’s happening in the school system.”

Vitti has vowed to address the teacher shortage and to do what he can to raise teacher pay. During his job interview, he boasted of expanding music and arts in Florida. He talked of better technology for schools and says he’s listening to teachers and administrators.

The parents and educators at Robeson remain skeptical. They know that despite the district’s status as a new, debt-free entity, it still faces severe financial constraints.

But they’re hopeful that some things, somehow, will change — and that students in the district will someday have the same opportunities as their peers across the state and nation.

“Our kids come to school because they want to learn,” Sturkey said. “We need for them to have a level playing field.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job, May 23, 2017

charter wars

Another weapon for charters in their war with the Detroit school district: A new ‘parent’ group that will lobby on behalf of charter schools

PHOTO: Detroit Voice for School Choice
Parents at the GEE Edmonson Academy in Midtown, Detroit, showing support for SB 574.

In the escalating battle over charter schools in Detroit, a local advocacy group is gearing up for an offensive that includes a new weapon: the support and involvement of charter school parents.

The recently formed group, Detroit Voice for School Choice, is planning to recruit, educate and train charter school parents to help advocate for charter-friendly legislation in Lansing and generally push back against what they see as unfair criticism of the independently managed schools.

Detroit Voice for School Choice is in itself a powerhouse of educators and advocates committed to seeing more public money funneled to charters. Pro-district forces argue that sending more tax dollars to charters means less money for Detroit’s district schools. Many of Detroit’s schools, both district and charter, suffer from low test scores and criticism over their effectiveness.  

Members of the group are pulled from some of the largest and most highly respected charter school networks in Detroit, including the leaders of the University Prep Schools and the Cornerstone Schools and New Paradigm for Education schools. New Paradigm runs prominent schools like the Detroit Edison Public School Academy.   

In late November, the group unveiled its parent engagement strategy, which begins with educating parents at partnered charter schools on issues relevant to supporting and expanding the role of charters in the city.

The group’s chairman, Mark Ornstein, who heads the seven-school University Prep network, described it as a “grassroot effort” based in Detroit that is working on the local level for many of the same issues that are also being addressed by a statewide advocacy group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA.

He said Detroit Voice was given $300,000 in seed money by private, pro-charter funders that he declined to identify, though he did specify that no funding is coming from the billionaire philanthropist and pro-charter advocate Betsy DeVos, who now serves as President Trump’s education secretary.

Ornstein said Detroit Voice “has to be in Detroit to really do this work” — a point underscored by Moneak Parker, executive director of Detroit Voice and so far the group’s only staff member.

“Detroit parents are our main focus,” Parker said.

The creation of the group is part of a larger nationwide trend: charter advocacy groups, funded by wealthy donors, that are working to reshape entire school districts. In Denver, New Orleans and Indianapolis, advocacy groups have dramatically shifted enrollment from traditional public schools to charters.

Detroit already has one of the largest charter school enrollments in the nation, with more than half of its roughly 100,000 students attending charters in the city and surrounding suburbs. The charter movement has strong advocates across the state, notably from a powerful political organization called Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by DeVos.

But charters have taken a public relations beating in Detroit in recent years, notably during DeVos’ confirmation hearing when critics linked the poor quality of schools in Detroit to pro-charter laws that were pushed in Michigan by DeVos and her Great Lakes Education Project.

Detroit charters are also facing new challenges as district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recently seized upon criticism of charters in his public vow to “put them out of his business.”

“In the context of Michigan, choice has been disastrous because it has not had guardrails,” Vitti said at a forum in October. “We should not be allowing schools to open as if they’re corner gas stations, hoping that they do well for children.”  

Ornstein said an “anti-choice sentiment” had fostered a climate that required charters to unite to push back. “This is the first time various charters organizations have come together to work together,” he said.

Dan Quisenberry, the president of MAPSA, said the state-level group will collaborate and support the new Detroit-centric group.

“I look forward to giving them information on what is happening in Lansing,” he said. “We’re collaborating. They’re brand new and we support parents, so I look forward to seeing how this develops.”

The group’s first call to action was to gain parent support on Senate Bill 574, which would allow charter schools to receive funding from a millage currently given only to district public school students. Opponents of the bill say it would take money away from district schools already feeling squeezed by what they see as a lack of funding.

As the group gets off the ground, parents will continue to be a large part of its strategy. Already Parker, the group’s executive director, has been visiting Charter Management Organization partner schools and providing workshops on education reform once a month. Parents who show interest are invited to attend six weeks of training to become a fellow.

The fellows will assist Parker in organizing and rallying other parents. Those who complete the training will be paid an annual stipend of “a couple of hundred dollars,” Ornstein said, with the exact amount still to be determined.

“Working with so many different [charter school managers] and charters, we wanted to work in a manner that’s efficient, and utilizing parents who know the school environment and their specific type of campus, it’s important to not have just a cold call, you’re taking advantage of very active parents,” Ornstein said.

David Hecker, president of the AFT, the local teachers union, said he is in favor of empowering parents, no matter their point of view. “If parents want to get together and advocate for schools they think are best, then more power to them,” Hecker said. “I just hope it’s a real parent-led organization, not a charter management-led organization. Whether we agree or disagree, more power to them.”

The group is now looking for additional funding to continue expanding.

“We are a very lean meat organization; there’s not a huge amount of overhead at this point,” Ornstein said. Nevertheless, he said, “There will be the need to look for outside, additional funding. We’ll see where we go in terms of money. If we do the right thing, money will follow.”.

The board of Detroit Voice for School Choice includes:  Ornstein; Ralph Bland, CEO, New Paradigm for Education; Renee Burgess, CEO, Equity Education; Reid Gough, CEO, Cornerstone Education Group; Raymond Smith, vice president, Innovative Teaching Solutions; Kyle Smitley, executive director, Detroit Achievement Academy; and Marwaan Issa, senior executive, Global Educational Excellence.

Marwaan Issa and Ralph Bland are members of both Detroit Voice and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.