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

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. 

 

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.