Detroit week in review

Week in review: A hurry-up-and-wait moment for Detroit’s landmark education lawsuit and more in this week’s school news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Was this week’s education news big? We won’t know for a long time — at least a month, but possibly years.

That’s after a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court. A judge will rule within 30 days whether the suit can proceed over the objections of Gov. Rick Snyder, whom the suit targets and who argues that the state can’t be held responsible for Detroit’s schools. If the suit does move forward, it’s likely to take years to have any real effects on local schools.

Of more immediate consequences: Michigan got a rare reproach from federal education authorities, teacher vacancies remain, and an outside-the-box strategy to reach poor kids over the summer. Read on for that news and more, and have a great weekend!
— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

STILL LOOKING: The main Detroit district is still scrambling to hire hundreds of teachers in hopes of being fully staffed for the upcoming school year.

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Libraries Without Borders is turning laundromats into learning spaces this summer. “At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” the group’s executive director told Chalkbeat. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

ABOUT THAT LAWSUIT: Catch back up on the bleak picture the lawsuit paints. Plus, a city teacher and public school graduate responds to the state’s argument that poverty, not state officials, is holding local students back.

NOT SO FAST: The 70-percent reduction in testing that Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti announced last week won’t be distributed evenly; high school students will take fewer tests, but students in other grades won’t see many changes. Vitti says he wants to do more over time.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK: Less than a week after a phone call that state officials said was positive, the U.S. Education Department rejected Michigan’s plan for holding schools accountable. Now the state has to revise and resubmit — but to whom? The federal official responsible for approving the plans is reportedly on his way out.

A MYSTERY: The number of students in Michigan receiving special education services is on the decline. Were students inappropriately being determined to have special needs? Or are students who need services going without them? A parent group says that’s what’s happening.

TEACHER PREP: A tiny local college, Marygrove, will stop offering undergraduate courses; some local schools employees studying education are among the students stranded. A national group offering an online teacher certification program, Teachers of Tomorrow, got approval from the state to start funneling educators into Michigan classrooms.

STUDENT SHIFTS:  A Wayne State University study shows early evidence that as more African American and poor students choose schools in suburban districts, students in suburban districts choose schools further away from Detroit.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The new Detroit Children’s Fund picked Jack Elsey, formerly a top official in the state-run recovery district, as its executive directorTonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation, has joined an effort to rethink the way schools are funded in Michigan … Get to know Earl Phalen, the head of a growing charter network that has its roots in Indiana and schools in Detroit. … Top Detroit schools official Alycia Meriweather ranks as “the teacher’s favorite” in MetroTimes’ People Issue … And meet Chris Lambert, who’s inspired by God to recruit volunteers to spruce up city schools. (See the sprucing.)

THE DUVAL CONNECTION: Vitti’s former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is gearing up to replace him. According to news reports there, Vitti is also importing one of his deputies from Florida to lead “marketing and rebranding” for Detroit’s schools.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Detroit Public Television’s annual teacher summit is next Friday; educators working in prekindergarten through third grade can sign up now.

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The target on the back of the state board of education

State lawmakers this week began a push to eliminate the state board of education and replace it with an appointed superintendent. But before anyone starts writing the board’s obituary, note that the controversial effort would require approval from two-thirds of the legislature and voters in a statewide voter referendum.

Detroit schools, meanwhile, continue to struggle with hiring enough teachers to fill classrooms. The main district has taken the unusual step of putting some counselors and assistant principals in classrooms. Leaders hope the short-term measure won’t interfere with meeting the district’s  ambitious goals.

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s school news. Also, mark your calendar for the city’s first State of the Schools address, which will be held on October 25. Seats are available for people who want to attend in person. For those who can’t make it, we will be carrying it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

In the district

Across the state

  • The proposal to get rid of an elected state school board won praise from one editor but got a mixed response from lawmakers during a hearing this week. Eliminating the board, which one lawmaker called “irrelevant,” would require amending the state Constitution.
  • A senate committee has approved a bill that would allow charter schools to get a cut of tax increases that have traditionally benefitted district schools.
  • Trained college grads who give high school students advice about getting into college are relieving pressure on school counselors.
  • A federal court will now consider the legal case filed by a state teachers union against a right-wing spy. Read the union’s complaint here.
  • One educational leader called on the state to develop a way to recruit and retain 100,000 qualified teachers who could serve low-income children in cities and rural communities.
  • A state commission has ruled that a union cannot force the firing of a public school teacher who resigned from the union and stopped paying dues.
  • Career and technical education is on the rise in Michigan — but many students who enroll in those programs don’t complete them.
  • A new survey shows Michigan voters support their local school districts — but are less sure about the quality of instruction across the state.
  • A suburban mom says her son got 8 years of English as a Second Language instruction even though he’s a native English-speaker.

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!

 

Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.