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.

Uphill battle

Recruiting when your team is full of ‘detractors’: As the Detroit district searches for talent, most of its employees aren’t on board

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

Michigan’s largest school district has its share of critics, from lawmakers pushing for school closures to families who send their children to schools in the suburbs.

As it turns out, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has plenty of detractors on the inside, too. A survey of 19,000 teachers, students, parents, and district employees underlined the challenges facing Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s administration as it races to fill nearly 200 teaching positions and boost enrollment before the first day of school next fall.

Only a quarter of administrators are happy with the district’s hiring processes. Fully 63 percent of office staff are “not at all likely” to recommend the district.

“If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?” Vitti asked at a school board meeting this week.

Students reported their own concerns, especially about the climate and safety of their schools. Less than half of students in grades 3-8 felt safe, putting the district in the bottom 10 percent that asked the same question nationwide.

But one of the survey’s more promising results also came from students, 60 percent of whom said they felt a sense of “school belonging.” Among schools nationwide who asked the same question, more than two-thirds reported a lower score.

Nonetheless, as Vitti pointed out, the survey labels 40 percent of parents, 50 percent of instructional staff, and 63 percent of office staff as “detractors,” meaning they were not likely to recommend the district.

Response rates for the survey were: 97 percent of teachers, 55 percent of office staff, 29 percent of families, 85 percent of students. Most took the survey online.

Scroll down for results from the full survey.

Looking to Michigan

Detroit teachers unions won’t be hurt by the Janus decision. They already survived.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Unionized teachers at the Southwest Detroit Community School gathered last month to demand a new contract.

Faced with a looming Supreme Court decision that could adversely affect unions, some labor leaders from across the country are looking to Michigan for a way forward.

“We’re constantly deluged by staffers in non right-to-work states,” said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the public teachers union. “They ask, ‘how did you stay alive?’”

Michigan’s legislature passed so-called right-to-work legislation in 2012, dealing a blow to the coffers and membership of public sector unions, including those that represent teachers.

At issue are the fees paid by all workers, including those who are not unionized, in some union workplaces. The fees cover services, such as legal representation, that are provided by the union to every worker regardless of their membership status. In right-to-work states, such such mandatory contributions are prohibited.

Now, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision in Janus v. AFSCME that would expand right-to-work to the 22 states where it doesn’t already exist.

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who says he shouldn’t have to pay union fees because he disagrees with the political activities of the union that represents his workplace, AFSCME. He filed suit in 2015 to overturn a legal precedent established in 1977, in Detroit, when the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that these fees were constitutional.

Detroit’s teachers union, which recently negotiated for its members $30 million in bonuses and salary increases, is evidence that teachers unions won’t likely disappear even if the Supreme Court votes to expand right-to-work. But drops in union membership — MEA saw a 25 percent decline — have some observers looking to Michigan to understand the possible implications of Janus.

“We’re already in a post-Janus world,” Crim said.

Before the law went in to place, union dues could be deducted directly from teacher paychecks. That’s now illegal, so Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has become a dues collector in addition to her other duties.

Despite devoting a “big part” of her time to collections, she said that teachers are less likely to pay for union membership when it doesn’t happen automatically.

That’s why unions in Michigan have ramped up their efforts to recruit teachers, and why unions in states that could be impacted by Janus are preparing to do the same.

If a ruling in favor of Janus has any impact in Michigan and other right-to-work states, it will be indirect. Problems for national teachers unions could mean trouble for local affiliates, which receive some funding from their national umbrella group. In Detroit, such funding is minimal.

The National Education Association, of which MEA is a subsidiary, expects to lose about 10 percent of its members and $50 million in revenue if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, according to a report published in the 74.

In this scenario, the national union “would certainly downsize, as would revenue and support that we receive from NEA,” Crim said.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, teachers unions won’t be disappearing any time soon. The Michigan Education Association remains the largest public union in the state with about 140,000 members, and has said that membership has stabilized and may even be growing.

When right-to-work passed in Michigan in 2012, legislators “felt that would destroy unions in Michigan, specifically us, Crim said. “That hasn’t happened.”