A race against time

Can this Detroit principal help her students learn quickly enough to save her school?

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Principal Alisanda Woods checks on a student writing assignment in a sixth-grade English class at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-MIddle School.

Students were clearly hard at work when Principal Alisanda Woods stopped by her school’s sixth grade English class one morning last month.

Some of the sixth-graders were working on a writing assignment. Others plugged away at a reading comprehension lesson, answering questions about an article they had read on conflict resolution. One child worked independently on a laptop.

The room was quiet enough that students were able to meet one-on-one with their teacher to discuss goals for an upcoming test. To a casual observer, it seemed like everything was running smoothly.

But Woods was not a casual observer. And simply having a classroom run smoothly wasn’t going to cut it at this school — not any more.

“We’ve got sixth graders at a third-grade level,” Woods said. “We need to take it up a notch.”

Woods’ school, Bethune Elementary-Middle School, was one of 38 in Michigan that were threatened with closure by the state last spring after years of rock-bottom test scores.

The schools on the closure list — including 24 in Detroit — were allowed to stay open only after their districts signed “partnership” agreements with state officials requiring the schools to boost their scores — and do so quickly — or face additional consequences.

What those consequences would be isn’t clear. The partnership agreements refer vaguely to the option to “consolidate or otherwise reconfigure” schools that don’t turn things around. But most observers suspect that schools like Bethune face shuttering if things don’t improve. Woods and her staff could be fired. And her students could face yet another disruption to lives that, in many cases, have already been rocked by violence, homelessness and other trials of poverty. All of Woods’ students — 100 percent — are from families whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level, she said.

There are countless schools like Woods’ across the country that are staring down the threat of state or district intervention, struggling to get better results after years of falling short.

Whether Bethune will be one of the schools that manages to beat the odds and succeed remains to be seen, but observing what’s happening at Bethune offers a window into what schools like this are up against — and the tools they’re using to try to gain some ground.

“This is a heavy lift,”  Woods said. “We’re dealing with things that are not always in our control, but … all I can say is, I have a lot of hope.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Principal Alisanda Woods talks with a sixth-grade student at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School about an online learning tool he’s using.

Woods’ challenge is particularly daunting because she has to do two very difficult things in a very short period of time.

She must take a school full of children who are far behind their peers and get them caught up on material they should have learned years ago. That won’t be easy in a school where tracking tests show that roughly 90 percent of students are two or more grades behind where they should be in reading and math, Woods said.

And, at the same time, she must make sure they gain the skills and knowledge they’re expected to learn this year, in their current grade, even if that means working with fractions before mastering whole numbers or with paragraphs before mastering sentences.

Because regardless of why a child is behind, regardless of where the student previously attended school, regardless of whether family illness or unstable housing might have forced a child to miss too many days of class, and regardless of whatever else is going on at home, the state’s annual high-stakes M-STEP exam is the ultimate benchmark, and it won’t be impressed if a student jumps from say, a third-grade level to a fifth-grade level. If that student is in the sixth grade and isn’t doing sixth-grade work, he won’t get a passing score.  

And if not enough students can leap over that grade-level threshold, then Bethune won’t meet partnership agreement targets that require the school to increase the number of students who can pass the M-STEP by 3.6 percentage points over the next two years.

That could be tough at a school where, last year, the percentage of students who passed the English Language Arts and Math exams in grades 3-8 was 0.6 percent — a handful of the 348 kids who were enrolled in those grades.

But more alarming than the threat of consequences from the state or district, Woods said, is the knowledge that if her students can’t reach grade level, they won’t be prepared for high school.

“It’s not about whether central office is watching. I don’t care,” Woods said. “It’s about our babies here. We want them to make progress.”

Woods says she’s determined to help each student accelerate two years this year.

“If our kids only grow one year, our kids will still be way behind,” she said. “We’ve got to speed it up.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Second grade teacher Angela Willis leads a reading lesson at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

Many of the challenges facing Bethune are outside Woods’ control.

There’s nothing she can do, for example, about the fact that roughly half of her students are new to Bethune this year. Foreclosures, tax auctions, and other housing challenges in Detroit have conspired with school choice laws to create a culture in which families change schools frequently, hopping again and again between district and charter schools, even weeks or months into the school year. (Bethune’s turnover was worsened this year by the school’s return to the main Detroit school district after five years in a state-run recovery district. Among other things, the transition changed the rules about who could ride the school bus to Bethune.)

Though the school has a social worker, an attendance agent, and someone from the state Department of Health and Human Services to help families weather tumultuous home lives, there’s not much the school can do about the poor transportation or untreated health conditions that make it difficult for some kids to get to school every day.

More than a third of Bethune’s students — 36 percent — had missed more than two weeks of school by the end of November, enough to be characterized as “chronically absent” — and it hadn’t even snowed yet. Attendance at Detroit schools typically nosedives in the winter.  

Woods also doesn’t have much control over who teaches at her school. Since many of her teachers from last year faced steep pay cuts when the school reverted to the main district this summer, many left. That meant Woods had to fill 19 of her 27 teaching positions over the summer. And she had to do so at a time when a severe teacher shortage was forcing schools across the city to scramble for educators.

She found enough teachers, but didn’t have the luxury of requiring them to do a model lesson or to go through a lengthy interview process to get hired.

“If you came in and you were certified,” she said, you pretty much got the job.

Woods can’t do much about class size, either. She considers herself lucky to have enough teachers for all of her classrooms, but a first grade class has 39 students. A third grade class has 41.

What Woods can control, she said, is what happens inside her classrooms. And that’s where she’s directing her attention.

“The focus for me has got to be on instruction. Period,” she said. “It can’t be anything else.”

So when Woods visited that sixth-grade classroom — taught by Samantha Vann, a second-year teacher who started at Bethune in September — she was looking for any possible way to maximize learning.

The boy on the laptop, she noted the next day when she met with Vann in her office, didn’t seem like he was focused enough while using an online learning program.

“He was just clicking on stuff,” Woods said. “We don’t have time like that to waste.”

The boy should instead be given a specific assignment based on the skills that tracking tests found lacking.

And while that reading comprehension lesson was interesting and the kids were clearly engaged with it — “It’s a great topic,” Woods said — she was concerned that the article the students were reading was too easy for sixth-graders.

“They need a little more rigor,” she told Vann.“Just because I’m not a great reader doesn’t mean I can’t comprehend [sixth-grade materials]. You still can teach the skill.”

Woods suggested that Vann replace the passage on conflict resolution, which had been taken from an elementary school teaching resource called K-5, with a passage from an old M-STEP exam.

“We just want to make sure we expose them to [the M-STEP] because if we wait until 30 days before the test, we’re in trouble,” Woods said.

*       *       *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Bethune Elementary-Middle School Principal Alisanda Woods listens in as sixth-grade teacher Samantha Vann meets individually with students.

Districts and states have long searched for silver bullets for improving schools: new academic programs, new technology, new grade configurations, even yoga and meditation. Many states have ramped up consequences for failing schools or have encouraged competition from charter schools in hopes that higher stakes would yield better results.

The partnership agreements, which are Michigan’s latest effort to turn around struggling schools, don’t have the teeth of earlier efforts, like last year’s aborted plan to shutter as many as 38 struggling schools across the state.

Gov. Rick Snyder turned to the agreements last spring when he took closings off the table after months of political pressure and lawsuits. But the decision angered GOP lawmakers who said the governor was ignoring a law he signed last year that required the state to shut down persistently low-performing schools in the city. (A new governor will be elected next year who could take a different approach).

Public school supporters embraced the partnership agreements, which were the brainchild of State Superintendent Brian Whiston, as a way to support schools rather than punish them. A state education department press release this week touts support schools have gotten with things like data analysis and improving school culture and climate.

But in Detroit, the support available to partnership schools is limited, just because the needs are so great. The state just added another 24 Detroit schools to the partnership agreement based on low scores in 2017. That means that 50 Detroit district schools — nearly half of the 106 schools in the district — are now subject to the agreement. And most of the other district schools are struggling as well.

So while Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s ramping up support for all districts schools, those in the partnership program aren’t likely to get many extra services beyond some additional coaching for teachers and principals that’s being provided by Wayne RESA, the county intermediate school district. Vitti says partnership schools will be among the first to get new programs such as student mental health services, but there are no dedicated extra funds to help these schools.

For now, Woods says she’s relying on what she has. She has tracking tests to figure out which skills students need to learn. She has teachers’ aides and corps members from the City Year program, which places recent college grads in schools to work as tutors, to make sure that students get one-on-one or small-group time to work on academic deficits.

And she has devoted teachers who she tries to support, however she can. “You do a lot of informal observations,” she said. “You give a lot of feedback, making sure there are accountability measures in place, making sure teachers are teaching the curriculum and that they’re using their planning time to plan and do great instruction.”

She sits in on classrooms, then brings the teachers into her office the following day to strategize about what’s working, and whether there’s anything they could be doing to move the needle on the M-STEP.

When she saw that a seventh-grade social studies teacher was asking students to give oral presentations on different countries, she asked if he could require the students to also write a report.

“The M-STEP is all writing and our blocks are 75 minutes. Are they really getting enough time in ELA to practice writing?” she asked the social studies teacher, Stephen Reynolds.

She urged him to grade students on not just what they write, but also to work with them on how to write.

“The next project, writing has got to take place for all of them because M-STEP is coming,” she said, and Bethune students can’t afford to wait until right before the test to start preparing. “Our kids are so far behind that they need to start this now.”

And while you’re at it, she asked Reynolds as they met in her office, could you possibly get the students to include math in their next presentation?

“I could,” Reynolds said. “Maybe some bar graphs?”

When Woods sat in on a second-grade reading lesson, she thought the students were connecting well with their teacher, Angela Willis, but she was concerned that Willis had called on the same student more than once.

“Be careful with that,” Woods cautioned when she met with Willis the next day. “You might not realize that you pick some of the same babies because sometimes we’re just moving so fast but … We need to really pay attention to are they responding to what we’re doing? … Who are the babies that are making progress, that are getting it? And who are the ones that … are still not getting it? We have to provide them with additional support.”

In every meeting with teachers, Woods said she asks them what they need and how she can help.

“You want people to feel good when they walk away and feel empowered to do the work because if they feel attacked, they can go make $7,000 more at the local charter school,” she said. “My thing is, I build people’s capacity. If you have a desire to teach, I’ll get you where you need to be.”

The teachers say they appreciate the feedback.

Vann said she hadn’t been sure how to find passages from the M-STEP before her meeting with the principal. Now, she said, she would hunt them down.

“I’m looking at my class through my eyes and I’m thinking it’s going smooth, but sometimes you can come in and see something,” Vann said. “If you notice something that I didn’t notice, I’m going to take your direction and then either try to fit it in or accommodate it any way.”

It can be daunting working with kids who have so many needs, said Reynolds, who is new to Bethune this year after working for 16 years in Detroit charter schools. But teaching is the best tool he has to help them, he said, so that’s where he’s focused.

“You will move the bar,” he said. “You just got to go in and do what you can.”

Woods isn’t promising fast, sweeping change at Bethune but she said she believes that things can improve for students.

“This is work that’s going to take a while, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “It won’t come overnight. But can it be done? Sure it can.”

Still, she added, “The problem is, you get new students and then they come with a different set of baggage. And then you start all over, so to speak.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Social studies teacher Stephen Reynolds meets with his school’s principal and an academic administrator to discuss ways to incorporate more writing in social studies to help students prepare for a high-stakes exam at Bethune Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.