Togetherness?

Detroit city leaders to district and charter schools: Please work together to improve education for kids

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

Tensions might be high between Detroit district and charter schools these days, but a powerful coalition of city leaders says the warring factions need to start working together to solve Detroit’s educational crisis.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which includes prominent leaders from government, schools, non-profits, businesses, unions and philanthropy, today issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools.

Among them are things like a centralized attendance system that would track children’s absences, regardless of whether they attend a district or a charter school.

Other recommendations include a city-wide #DetroitProud marketing campaign designed to lure families back to the city from suburban schools to attend either district or charter schools, as well as a “Teach Detroit” tool to help all schools recruit educators. Currently district and charter schools compete aggressively for both students and teachers and rarely, if ever, work together.

Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has taken a combative stance against charters since his arrival in Detroit last spring, has expressed skepticism in the past about whether the district would benefit from collaborations with charters but his cooperation would likely be key to implementing these measures.

Vitti served as a member of the coalition’s steering committee, as did several charter school leaders. He attended the coalition’s press conference on Wednesday and said he is “fully supporting what is embedded in these initiatives” because they align with the district’s goals of improving student achievement and conditions for kids.

But how the district and charter schools will ultimately cooperate with each other — and what that could look like — isn’t yet clear.

“How we begin to execute those recommendations and how we approach citywide strategies [is something] we still need to negotiate,” said Tonya Allen, a coalition co-chair who heads the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat supporter). “We’ll figure out some places where there are tension points and we expect that … but we believe as a community that if we don’t do it, then we are creating a sentence for our children and it’s not one of prosperity.”

The coalition isn’t calling for mandatory cooperation this time around.

The first time the group issued recommendations for Detroit schools back in 2015, a key proposal was a “Detroit Education Commission” that would have had authority over district and charter schools and could have overseen efforts such as common enrollment and transportation systems.

That proposal was eventually defeated in Lansing after it ran into strong opposition from charter school backers — including now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who feared the commission would favor district over charter schools.

This time around, the so-called “Coalition 2.0” effort is calling for a voluntary “education ecosystem” that would be facilitated by the mayor’s office. It would set quality standards for all schools and would work with school leaders to “voluntarily create a charter-district compact that reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings … and opportunities for citywide collaboration in areas such as a centralized data system.”

The Coalition 2.0 report stressed that this mayoral commission “would not usurp the authority” of the district or charter school boards.

Another major difference between Coalition 2.0 and its predecessor is that this year’s effort is more focused on things that don’t require support from lawmakers in Lansing.

One exception is a call to change the way the state funds special education so that the state would cover the cost of services that schools are required to provide. Recommendations also include a school funding formula that would send more money to schools whose students have greater needs.

Read the full report here:

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.