city hall watch

No longer distancing himself from education, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is looking for ways to impact schools

After largely steering clear of education during his first term, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is now looking for ways to become more invested in the city schools.

City Hall is already leading an effort called the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative that will put more social workers, therapists, and family support staff into schools. But the mayor is also having conversations with education and civic leaders about ways he can have a more significant impact on the state of education in the city. The low test scores and poor conditions in Detroit schools are often cited as the largest roadblock to the city’s recovery.  

What the mayor’s involvement will look like — and how it will go over with school leaders and parents wary of government involvement after years of state intervention in city schools — is still not clear.

“We’re trying to explore every lever that we can possibly pull to ensure that there are good schools in Detroit, so that’s what we’re looking at,” said Eli Savit, a top advisor to Duggan. “We don’t control the schools. We don’t want to control the schools. But anything we can do to help, we’re willing to do and that can take a number of different forms.”

A recent report from a prominent group of business and civic leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren anticipated a possible role for the mayor.

One of the coalition’s recommendations was to “Ask the Mayor to work with Coalition leadership to facilitate education ecosystem planning for the City of Detroit and appoint highly credible Detroiters” to work with him.

The coalition said it would ask the mayor to get involved in several delicate — and possibly divisive — issues including working with state education officials to “set school quality standards for all schools.” That could take many forms but some school advocates have raised concerns that the mayor could decide to issue letter grades or otherwise pick winners and losers in a city where most experts expect some low-performing, half-full schools to close in coming years.

The coalition also asked the mayor to take the lead on finding common ground between the city’s combative district and charter school leaders. The coalition report calls for a “charter-district compact that reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings,” and that finds “opportunities for citywide collaboration in areas such as a centralized data system and a campaign to address chronic absences.” The recommendations assert that this compact should not make decisions about openings and closings or “usurp the authority” of district and charter school leaders.

Savit said the mayor is taking those recommendations seriously.

“We heard that recommendation loud and clear,” Savit said. “The coalition was a diverse set of stakeholders that came to us with that recommendation. Of course we’re looking at it and how … to potentially move that forward.”

As mayor, Duggan does not have much power over schools. The city’s main district is now run by an elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers. The city’s 90 charter schools are run by a host of education management companies and organizations that report to charter school boards and are overseen by 11 different colleges, universities, and school districts.

The result is a sometimes chaotic environment in which schools compete with each other for students and staff and rarely share ideas or resources. It was a situation that some city leaders hoped to address two years ago through the creation of a mayor-led Detroit Education Commission that would oversee issues such as where new schools should locate and how school success should be measured.

Duggan vocally campaigned for the commission when it was being considered in the legislature in 2016, but the idea met with strong opposition from both charter school and district school supporters who raised concerns about how the mayor’s influence might affect schools.

The commission was ultimately defeated in a contentious, tearful, middle-of-the-night vote, without any support from Democrats.

Since then, Duggan has not said much about whether he would again try to get involved with schools. But community leaders say he’s been holding meetings in recent weeks to figure that out.

One effort that is already underway is the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative.

The success initiative is focused on expanding “wraparound services” for schools including social workers, therapists, and support staff that can help families facing homelessness, transportation challenges, health issues, and other problems that make it difficult for children to come to school and succeed.

Schools across the country are increasingly turning to wraparound services after recognizing that earlier efforts like creating new schools and putting pressure on teachers to boost test scores were not sufficient to help children living in poverty.  

Savit declined to comment on the initiative, beyond saying that it’s a work in progress that’s being led by the city health department.

“We’ve been pulling together stakeholders and having discussions,” he said. “But … there’s nothing to announce at this time.

Several people involved in the effort say it began with a three-year, $15 million grant from an organization called the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Rather than give the money to specific schools or districts, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority approached the city about leading the effort, said Bernard Parker who serves on the Authority board and is also the CEO of the Timbuktu Academy, a charter school on Detroit’s east side.  

The mayor is using the money as a starting point to raise additional funds, working with local charities and foundations, Parker said. “We would like to double the money to $10 million [a year].”

As for how to distribute the money once it’s raised, conversations are still preliminary, Parker said.

“The model that’s been talked about is having a nonprofit organization already involved collaborate with a school,” Parker said. “The nonprofit would get the grant and could collaborate with people at the school to do various supports.”

Some advocates are hoping that if Duggan can bring district and charter school leaders together around supporting families for the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative, that could lead to other kinds of collaborations, such as efforts to recruit and train educators to teach in Detroit.

“The concept was to be a catalyst for change,” said Tom Watkins, who as CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority last year first asked the authority’s board to find money for the initiative.

“If it’s just used as another funding source,” he said, “then we’ve missed an opportunity.”

Watkins, who was the state schools superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said he’s seen lots of money flow to lots of programs but their impact is often limited.

With this money, he said, “the whole concept was to pull the players together and to figure out ways in which we could really attack in a systematic way the issue of why kids aren’t successful. A lot of that resolves around the extra needs of children coming from poverty and all the social issues that go with that. What are the things outside of the academic environment that prevent children from succeeding?”

Watkins left the Mental Health Authority in August but said he was glad to hear that City Hall is moving the effort forward.

“The mayor is the epicenter to bring people together. Community groups, foundations, businesses, civic associations, whatever,” Watkins said. “Oftentimes, who convenes the meeting will bring players to the table.”

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.