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:

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”

report card

Coming soon to Detroit (and only Detroit): Letter grades for schools that could lead to closures

PHOTO: Community Education Commission
Monique Marks, chair of a new mayoral commission, showed off the group's Detroit schools guide in an appearance on local television. Future editions of the guide will include letter grades for every school.

Every school in Detroit will soon receive a letter grade that could result in some persistently low-scoring schools being shuttered by the state.

Starting this fall, a new mayoral commission will begin hammering out the specifics of a state-mandated school grading system that could result in some schools getting As and many more getting Ds and Fs.  

Though some state lawmakers have been pushing for an A-F grading system that would apply to every school in the state, this report card will bring another wave of high-stakes scrutiny only to the city of Detroit, where education leaders already face considerable pressure to improve test scores.

That’s because the grading system — and the potential consequences of low grades — were among the strings attached to a $617 million state aid package that helped Detroit’s main district avoid bankruptcy in 2016.  It was one aspect of a comprehensive deal that drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers and Detroiters who universally opposed the new law in a tearful, late-night vote.

The law calls for Detroit schools that get multiple Fs to be closed. That means decisions about how much weight to give to attendance versus graduation rates, for example, could have far-reaching consequences for families in Detroit.

The law specifies that 80 percent of a school’s grade must be based on test scores. It calls for the state’s school reform chief to develop the grades, but the task is being delegated to Mayor Mike Duggan’s Community Education Commission, which includes representatives of Detroit’s main district, charter schools, and the Michigan Department of Education.

The potential consequences of the grading system weigh heavily on commission chair Monique Marks.

“I can’t say I haven’t lost a couple of nights’ sleep,” Marks, who is also the CEO of the nonprofit Franklin Wright Settlements, told Chalkbeat last week.

But Marks says the commission’s role in creating the report cards gives Detroiters a measure of control over school grades that would otherwise be produced by state officials. In a written statement, she also pointed out that the lowest-performing schools will have three years to improve before facing closure by the state for low grades.

“Detroit’s schools will be rated by Detroiters,” Marks said in the statement. “We are in the early stages of building a common rating system that will help us determine the performance of our schools and identify opportunities for our schools to improve and grow. We will ensure everyone’s voice is heard as we develop a transparent process.”

Efforts by state leaders to close low-performing schools are not new. More than a quarter of Detroit schools are are already in danger of being shuttered because of the same law, which called for the state to use its top-to-bottom ranking system to shut down persistently low performing schools until a letter grade system could be created. That led the state to list 38 schools — including 25 in the city — for closure last year. Those schools, as well as 30 others that were later added to the list, were eventually given three years to improve, but the consequences for falling short remain unclear.

Grades for Detroit schools will come on top of Michigan’s existing school rating system, which already ranks every school in the state based on six factors that are rolled into a 0-100 point scale.

Advocates for school grading systems say public scrutiny pushes schools to improve and helps parents make smart decisions about where to send their children, but critics say most grading systems oversimplify the complex work of educating children. Test scores are highly correlated with economic factors so schools that enroll affluent children tend to have higher scores.

In Detroit, where more than half of children come from families that live in poverty, schools have routinely posted the lowest test scores in the state.

Education activist Helen Moore said the grades will only remind the world that many Detroit schools are struggling, and that any resulting closures would make matters worse. She said the policy has racial overtones, pointing out that American schools are more likely to be shut down if they serve more students of color.

“They’re going to grade the schools knowing what the grade was already, knowing it’s a trap,” she said. “We need more time” to improve schools in Detroit.

For years, the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, which has now dissolved, graded every school in the city, but those grades didn’t come with consequences like closure. They were mainly designed to help parents choose schools. The citywide report did not paint a pretty picture: Just a fraction of the 145 schools that were graded in 2017 received a C+ or better, with the vast majority getting Ds or Fs.

The grades will have teeth this time around, but the commission will have some leeway to decide what the grades will be based on.

While the law specifies that test scores must account for 80 percent of each school’s score, it is up to Marks and the commission to decide, for instance, how much of the 80 percent is based on the percentage of students in a school who pass the state exam versus whether student scores improve from one year to the next.

The commission also must decide what should go into the remaining 20 percent of each grade. That could be attendance or graduation rates or the results of parent and teacher surveys.

For many schools, those factors could make the difference between a D and an F. Schools — both charter and district — could be closed by the state if they receive an F for three years in a row, with the law specifying that the state can only allow a school to remain open if closing it would pose an “unreasonable hardship” on students.

School closings have been shown to benefit students only if they wind up attending a better school instead — an especially tall order in Detroit’s school deserts.

Marks said the process will be “extremely delicate,” with the future of struggling schools hanging in the balance.

The commission includes Ralph Bland, who manages a network of six Detroit charter schools, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the city’s main district, and representatives of the state, the teachers union, and nonprofits.

The public will also be able to weigh in at monthly public meetings held by the commission. Since holding its first meeting this summer, the group established a school bus route in northwest Detroit and published a guide to the city’s schools.

The new school guide does not include any information about school quality or test scores but Marks said future editions will have that information and will include letter grades when they’re finalized before the 2019-2020 school year.

The commission will begin discussing the scoring process this fall after receiving recommendations from John Barker, a consultant who formerly worked as Chief of Accountability for Chicago’s public school district and who will continue to advise the commission throughout the next year, Marks said. Barker declined to comment, referring questions to Marks.

The commission’s next meeting is Monday, August 20 at 11 a.m. at the Northwest Activities Center.

Update: Aug. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to include an additional statement from Monique Marks, chair of the Community Education Commission, emphasizing that Detroiters will have a say in the creation of a state-mandated school grading system.