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. 

 

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

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.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!

 

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”