Battle to buy a school

New state legislation aims to help private and charter schools — like Detroit Prep — buy vacant school buildings

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School has sat vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009. A charter school has been blocked from buying it.

The Michigan state senate has approved legislation that supporters hope will pave the way for a Detroit charter school to buy a vacant former school building on the city’s east side.

The Detroit Prep charter school has been trying to purchase the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood from a private developer but the sale has so far been blocked by the main Detroit school district.

The district has the power to block the sale due to a restriction in the property deed that allows the property to be used only for residential purposes unless the district grants an exception. So far, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refused to grant that exception for the Joyce school saying the district first wants to conduct a review of the district’s property needs.

The legislation, introduced Dec. 5 and approved by the Senate last Wednesday, is designed to smooth the path for charter and private schools that want to buy deed-restricted buildings. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the bill would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to prevent educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

“These are taxpayer assets, that aren’t being used, and we want to make sure that these buildings are utilized,” said Brad Wever, who is the chief of staff to bill sponsor Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the senate education committee.

The new legislation is designed to clarify a measure that was signed into law over the summer. While the earlier legislation barred school districts and other government entities from imposing deed restrictions that would interfere with efforts by charter schools and private schools to acquire buildings, the new bill would specifically bar government entities from enforcing or applying those restrictions. 

The restriction on the Joyce school has been in place since the district sold that building to a developer, Dennis Kefallinos, for $600,000 in 2014. The property, like many former school buildings in Detroit, has a deed restriction that requires the building to be used for residential purposes. 

Any use of the building for non-residential purposes must be approved by the school district and, so far, Vitti has refused to grant approval for Detroit Prep’s purchase of the building.

The bill passed the senate largely along party lines, with no support from Democrats. The House could take up the bill as soon as January.

Detroit Prep’s founder, Kyle Smitley, said the bill would help her school — but not only her school.

“The legislation is intended to prevent buildings from becoming blight and to prevent neighborhoods from suffering,” Smitley said. “These deed restrictions are not a fair use of taxpayer money.”

The Joyce school has been sitting vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009.

Smitely hopes the bill becoming law will force the district to allow her to bring that building back to life, but Vitti has signaled that he plans to keep fighting.

When he was in Lansing last month testifying before a House committee, he was accused by a state legislator of violating the law with his refusal to sign off on the Detroit Prep sale.

“The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now,” Rep. Tim Kelly, head of the House Education Reform committee told Vitti, referencing the earlier law. “Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

But Vitti questioned whether that law was enforceable.

“I’m glad we have a court system,” he said.

After Vitti’s testimony in Lansing, he told Chalkbeat that signing off on the sale to Detroit Prep would “set a precedent with the court regarding our ability to determine the future of property owned by the local Detroit taxpayers.”

If the sale isn’t allowed by February at the latest, Smitley said she would need to find a different building to house her growing school. The school, now in the basement of an Indian Village church, serves students in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade but will be adding a third grade next year.

“Worst case looks like us having to find a building that is far away and completely letting down the kids and families that we currently serve and hope to serve, because we told them we would do our best to stay close,” Smitley said.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect more accurately how the bill was clarified. 

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

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 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 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.