Week In Review

Week in review: A morning in a crowded classroom and 13 other things you should know about Detroit education

Swooping in: Wth several charter schools closing this year, Detroit's main district is seizing on the opportunity to try to lure displaced students. Signs like this have sprouted at major intersections.

There was a lot to read about Detroit schools this week including our peek inside a Detroit classroom where 37 first-graders have no music, art or gym. Meanwhile, the sudden closure of a charter school weeks before the end of classes angered teachers and advocates and sent parents scrambling.

Also this week we featured a short film that asked Detroit teachers to say how they would change schools to make them better. Some offered some radical suggestions. What changes would you make ? Email us at [email protected] or comment on Facebook.

— Julie Topping, Chalkbeat Editor, Detroit

GETTING REAL: As new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti aspires to transform Detroit schools, a classroom with 37 first-graders who get no music, art or gym shows what he’s up against. Our story on that classroom led a Free Press columnist to argue that the school’s problems are a direct result of school choice policies. The district’s former interim superintendent meanwhile called for a focus on kids to improve education in Detroit.

STRAIGHT TALK: Vitti talked candidly about race and his interracial family in an interview in the Michigan Chronicle. “We should be proud of our identity,” Vitti said. “Far too often, whites try to erase race, which is linked to an identity. Idealistically, I look forward to a world where we recognize each other based on race because that’s linked to a history and a culture, experiences and values.”

ABRUPT SHUTDOWN: The surprise closure of a Southfield charter school left parents in the lurch and angered charter school advocates. “This was totally disrespectful and sad for families who trusted the school to inform them and educate their children,” a local advocate wrote. A state charter association has created a website to help parents and teachers find a new school for fall.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Another sign from Detroit’s main district, which is seizing on the opportunity to lure displaced students.

PENSION COMPROMISE: Gov. Snyder and GOP leaders reached a tentative deal that would steer new hires toward 401(k)-style retirement savings plans but retain a hybrid pension option for teachers, paving the way to finalizing the state’s $55-billion budget by the end of the month.

OTHER BUDGET BATTLES: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was told by a Senate committee that proposed cuts to education in President Trump’s budget likely wouldn’t happen. DeVos suggested more money was not the answer for schools, but studies show otherwise. Local students react to the news that the Trump budget would slash their federally funded after-school program.

PAYING FOR CHOICE: Although school choice supporters are celebrating the Trump administration’s plan for funneling private school aid to the states, experts say Michigan would face huge legal obstacles in qualifying for the federal money.

TEACHER STABILITY: Detroit’s severe teacher shortage mirrors a mounting national problem. One problem locally is low teacher salaries in Detroit’s main district. Teachers protesting wages and conditions outside the district headquarters could have a new ally in Vitti who said after the protest that protesters’ complaints “all have merit.” But the teacher shortage could be compounded next year when the schools in the state-run recovery district return to the main district. Only about half of teachers in the state-run district have applied to stay on, stoking fears of a teacher exodus that could destabilize those schools.

EDUCATION EQUITY: With so much left unfinished 63 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a local schools advocate called for a conversation to “bring these stark realities out of the shadows and ensure that every conversation begins with an open conversation about educational equity.”  

POOR RESULTS: A new study shows that Michigan’s school improvement efforts since 2012 haven’t worked.

SPECIAL NEEDS: A Detroit parent advocate tells the story of a mom who is now home-schooling her special needs child after her child’s school threatened too many times to throw him out.

WHICH DETROIT? One public education advocate says she sees two Detroits: One caused her to enroll her children in 22 different schools in search of a quality education. The other Detroit is the one sold to outsiders as a hip and gritty town ripe for revival.

SUCCESSFUL GRADS: It’s graduation season and schools are celebrating success stories including the main Detroit district, which honored top students at its excellence awards ceremony. A state charter school association touted inspiring stories of charter school grads. And one charter school boasted that all of its graduates were accepted into college, trade school or the military.

COLLEGE READY: These 50 Michigan schools have the state’s top college readiness rates.

LOW-COST MEALS: Get information about a nearby food service program to find healthy meals when school is out for the summer. Families can also find information about this program by dialing 211 or texting “Food” to 877-877

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.