staffing up

Sweetening the deal: Detroit considers dangling extra cash to hire 150 teachers

PHOTO: Aliyah Moore
Parents at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy say a teacher shortage is to blame for the 42 kids in a second-grade class.

After weeks of struggling to hire enough teachers, Detroit’s main school district is now looking for new ways to lure them in.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s working with the city teachers union to negotiate incentives that might convince certified teachers to take “hard-to-staff positions.”

The incentives — which would need union approval — would benefit new teachers as well as current ones.

“We know that in order to go deeper with staffing, we’re going to have to offer a set of incentives at particular schools that have been more challenging,” Vitti said.

The details are still being worked out, he said, but the district is focused on attracting special education teachers and those who will teach core subjects like reading, math, science and social studies.

The district has hired about 100 teachers since the first day of school to bring the number of vacancies down to 150, Vitti said.

Over 300 have been hired since July, he said. “We know we can bring them into Detroit. We just obviously need more time to go out and recruit.”

Teachers union leader Ivy Bailey said the district has long offered bonuses to teachers working in critical shortage areas but the new incentive program would be more extensive.

The union is open to the idea, she said. “We’re committed to increasing student achievement and we know that to do that, we’ve got to fill these vacancies with qualified teachers.”

For now, most of the classrooms without certified teachers are being staffed by long-term substitutes, Vitti said.

But there are also classrooms around the city where the shortage has forced teachers to take on 40 or 50 students.

Among schools facing that challenge is the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side. Last year Chalkbeat visited a classroom at the school where 37 first-graders were crammed in together without breaks for music or art or gym.

This year, those first graders are in a second-grade class that has 42 students — and the school still doesn’t have an art teacher.

“It’s just frustrating,” said parent leader Aliya Moore whose daughter Tyliya is in that class. 

“I’m constantly hearing that teacher holler,” said Moore who sent Chalkbeat a photo of the crowded classroom. “She’s trying to gain the attention of all those students and instructional time is constantly getting broken up because she has to tell a child to be still, to sit, to ‘put that down.’ She’s an excellent teacher but the load is just too high.”  

Vitti said he was aware of that classroom and others like it but said the district is now starting to level classrooms so that schools with too many kids will get more teachers from schools that had lower-than-expected enrollment.

School advocates worry that leveling takes so long that some parents will get impatient and remove their children, ultimately hurting the school when its budget is reduced because of declining enrollment. But in a city where many families spend September figuring out where their children will go to school, the district has typically waited weeks to start moving teachers.

Not every school has the space to create another classroom, Vitti said.

“It’s not as simple as saying they need another teacher,” he said. “Now that we have enrollment settled, we can do the analytics to define the problem and come up with solutions.”

Moore says she believes it’s not likely that another teacher will come to Paul Robeson Malcolm X. She said the school principal told her on Thursday that because the school has an elective class in which kids learn to create African-inspired art and poetry — part of the school’s African-centered curriculum — it technically has enough teachers for its current enrollment.

She fears that elective will be canceled to reduce the size of the second grade but Vitti stressed that the district will not cancel elective classes linked to a school’s mission.

Principal Jeffery Robinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that class.

Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman, said the district conducted a preliminary review of staffing levels at the school and found that the “school’s schedule indicates that the principal can address the class size issue by maximizing all certified teachers as other schools have tried to do.” 

Once that has been done, she said, the district “will revisit the school’s allocation.”

In addition to considering incentives to hire teachers now, Vitti said he’s also planning for long-term recruitment. He’s having conversations with colleges like Wayne State University about placing more student teachers in Detroit schools this spring in hopes that they’ll come work for the district when they graduate.

“We need to have an active pipeline for teachers,” he said.

charter wars

Another weapon for charters in their war with the Detroit school district: A new ‘parent’ group that will lobby on behalf of charter schools

PHOTO: Detroit Voice for School Choice
Parents at the GEE Edmonson Academy in Midtown, Detroit, showing support for SB 574.

In the escalating battle over charter schools in Detroit, a local advocacy group is gearing up for an offensive that includes a new weapon: the support and involvement of charter school parents.

The recently formed group, Detroit Voice for School Choice, is planning to recruit, educate and train charter school parents to help advocate for charter-friendly legislation in Lansing and generally push back against what they see as unfair criticism of the independently managed schools.

Detroit Voice for School Choice is in itself a powerhouse of educators and advocates committed to seeing more public money funneled to charters. Pro-district forces argue that sending more tax dollars to charters means less money for Detroit’s district schools. Many of Detroit’s schools, both district and charter, suffer from low test scores and criticism over their effectiveness.  

Members of the group are pulled from some of the largest and most highly respected charter school networks in Detroit, including the leaders of the University Prep Schools and the Cornerstone Schools and New Paradigm for Education schools. New Paradigm runs prominent schools like the Detroit Edison Public School Academy.   

In late November, the group unveiled its parent engagement strategy, which begins with educating parents at partnered charter schools on issues relevant to supporting and expanding the role of charters in the city.

The group’s chairman, Mark Ornstein, who heads the seven-school University Prep network, described it as a “grassroot effort” based in Detroit that is working on the local level for many of the same issues that are also being addressed by a statewide advocacy group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA.

He said Detroit Voice was given $300,000 in seed money by private, pro-charter funders that he declined to identify, though he did specify that no funding is coming from the billionaire philanthropist and pro-charter advocate Betsy DeVos, who now serves as President Trump’s education secretary.

Ornstein said Detroit Voice “has to be in Detroit to really do this work” — a point underscored by Moneak Parker, executive director of Detroit Voice and so far the group’s only staff member.

“Detroit parents are our main focus,” Parker said.

The creation of the group is part of a larger nationwide trend: charter advocacy groups, funded by wealthy donors, that are working to reshape entire school districts. In Denver, New Orleans and Indianapolis, advocacy groups have dramatically shifted enrollment from traditional public schools to charters.

Detroit already has one of the largest charter school enrollments in the nation, with more than half of its roughly 100,000 students attending charters in the city and surrounding suburbs. The charter movement has strong advocates across the state, notably from a powerful political organization called Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by DeVos.

But charters have taken a public relations beating in Detroit in recent years, notably during DeVos’ confirmation hearing when critics linked the poor quality of schools in Detroit to pro-charter laws that were pushed in Michigan by DeVos and her Great Lakes Education Project.

Detroit charters are also facing new challenges as district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recently seized upon criticism of charters in his public vow to “put them out of his business.”

“In the context of Michigan, choice has been disastrous because it has not had guardrails,” Vitti said at a forum in October. “We should not be allowing schools to open as if they’re corner gas stations, hoping that they do well for children.”  

Ornstein said an “anti-choice sentiment” had fostered a climate that required charters to unite to push back. “This is the first time various charters organizations have come together to work together,” he said.

Dan Quisenberry, the president of MAPSA, said the state-level group will collaborate and support the new Detroit-centric group.

“I look forward to giving them information on what is happening in Lansing,” he said. “We’re collaborating. They’re brand new and we support parents, so I look forward to seeing how this develops.”

The group’s first call to action was to gain parent support on Senate Bill 574, which would allow charter schools to receive funding from a millage currently given only to district public school students. Opponents of the bill say it would take money away from district schools already feeling squeezed by what they see as a lack of funding.

As the group gets off the ground, parents will continue to be a large part of its strategy. Already Parker, the group’s executive director, has been visiting Charter Management Organization partner schools and providing workshops on education reform once a month. Parents who show interest are invited to attend six weeks of training to become a fellow.

The fellows will assist Parker in organizing and rallying other parents. Those who complete the training will be paid an annual stipend of “a couple of hundred dollars,” Ornstein said, with the exact amount still to be determined.

“Working with so many different [charter school managers] and charters, we wanted to work in a manner that’s efficient, and utilizing parents who know the school environment and their specific type of campus, it’s important to not have just a cold call, you’re taking advantage of very active parents,” Ornstein said.

David Hecker, president of the AFT, the local teachers union, said he is in favor of empowering parents, no matter their point of view. “If parents want to get together and advocate for schools they think are best, then more power to them,” Hecker said. “I just hope it’s a real parent-led organization, not a charter management-led organization. Whether we agree or disagree, more power to them.”

The group is now looking for additional funding to continue expanding.

“We are a very lean meat organization; there’s not a huge amount of overhead at this point,” Ornstein said. Nevertheless, he said, “There will be the need to look for outside, additional funding. We’ll see where we go in terms of money. If we do the right thing, money will follow.”.

The board of Detroit Voice for School Choice includes:  Ornstein; Ralph Bland, CEO, New Paradigm for Education; Renee Burgess, CEO, Equity Education; Reid Gough, CEO, Cornerstone Education Group; Raymond Smith, vice president, Innovative Teaching Solutions; Kyle Smitley, executive director, Detroit Achievement Academy; and Marwaan Issa, senior executive, Global Educational Excellence.

Marwaan Issa and Ralph Bland are members of both Detroit Voice and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.