Togetherness?

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

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:

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.

What's in a name?

Detroit has one of the nation’s only schools named for a Trump cabinet member. That name could change soon.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

A member of the Trump administration may have his name stripped from a school in Detroit — though not because of politics.

The Detroit school board will consider on Tuesday night a recommendation that would bar naming schools after living people. If approved, the measure would force the renaming of several schools in the city that are already named for living people. Among them is the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

The school, located in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood near the Detroit Medical Center, opened in 2011 to serve students from around the city who are interested in pursuing health professions.

It is named after Dr. Benjamin Carson, a native Detroiter who made a name for himself as a brain surgeon before entering politics, running for president, and eventually accepting a role in the Trump administration. He’s currently Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.

The board plans to debate the policy on Tuesday night before a planned vote at the January meeting.

“When you name a school after a living person whose life is incomplete, sometimes they disappoint you,” said LeMar Lemmons, a school board member. “You may not want to have a school named after that person.”

Another school that would get a name change if the board moves the issue to a final vote is the Bates Academy, which is named after Alonzo Bates, a former school board member and city councilman. He was convicted of five felonies, including theft from a program receiving federal funds.

“Naming a school after someone is to really speak to and honor their legacy, and it’s really difficult to know a complete legacy of a person until after they’ve passed,” said Misha Stallworth, a board member. “We really want to make sure that the names of schools reflect the values of the district and the community.”

Lemmons said the board also plans to review names that were given to schools during the years when the district was controlled by state-appointed emergency managers. That includes Palmer Park Academy, which had been the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, and East English Village High School, which replaced Finney High School on the city’s east side.

Lemmons said he’d also like the board to discuss changing the names of schools that are named after “former holders of enslaved persons.”

Lemmons acknowledged that, in a city home primarily to Democrats, Carson’s status as a powerful Republican could come into play.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” Lemmons said. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

The principal of the school, Charles Todd, did not respond to request for comment, but has said in the past that Ben Carson has generously contributed to the school. It’s unclear what impact the change of the name will have on his relationship with the school.

A spokesman for Carson did not respond to a request for comment.