Clean

With clean clothes, this Detroit school sees a new attitude and improved attendance

Last year, administrators at the A.L. Holmes Academy of Blended Learning struggled to get children to come to school every day. More than half the schools’ students – 60 percent – were chronically absent, missing more than 15 school days, and 160 students were suspended the first half of the school year.

This school year has been different. Absences are down at least 10 percent, and suspensions — which contribute to absences and may be exacerbated by children falling behind — have dropped to 60, school officials reported.

What changed? The school added a washing machine.

Across the country, there has been a growing awareness that making simple adjustments at schools to address students’ basic needs can affect students’ ability to succeed. Having clean clothes, deodorant, feminine products and extra uniforms, clothes, coats and gloves can remove some of the barriers that prevent children — particularly poor children — from fully participating in the classroom.

Most directly, educators have found that providing life essentials encourages attendance, one of the most surefire ways to promote learning and students’ engagement.

Yet Holmes’ addition of an on-site washing machine is an anomaly among Detroit schools, which suffer from the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of the nation’s 100 largest school districts released in June 2016.

In some ways, that is not surprising. Detroit’s main school district has endured decades of inadequate school funding, control by state-appointed emergency managers, and turmoil that has left the city’s public schools among the most challenged in the nation. How can a district lacking books, supplies, and teachers with constantly changing leadership, personnel and philosophies, even get to that level of educational service?

Yet Holmes has done it, and to great effect.

“If we help remove these barriers,” said Tammy Mitchell, Holmes’ principal for three years, “students feel comfortable coming to us and asking for what they need. So they don’t have to avoid school, go to class, and not have clean clothes, deodorant, or not feel good about themselves.”

“It gives them the confidence to be ready to learn. They don’t have to be self-conscious and worried about somebody talking about or bullying them.”

Eighth grader Antoine Harris enjoys the washer at school.

That’s been the experience of Antione Harris, an energetic eighth grader at Holmes, who sometimes loses his clothes and forgets to wash his school and basketball uniforms. The school’s clothes closet and laundry program make him feel wanted, he said.

“It makes me feel comfortable, like I’m welcome at this school,” said Harris, who continued attending the school with his twin brother, Anthony, despite relocating to Warren. “I feel like I’m at home, and that’s why I would choose this school over any other school.”

“Everybody has an opportunity to do something here,” he said.

Parent Lamar Perdue volunteers to wash and dry clothes.

Lamar Perdue, Holmes’ parent teacher association president, also serves as a hall monitor and is one of the volunteers who washes the students’ clothes and transports them to the laundromat to be dried (the school is hoping for the donation of a dryer). He said he’s noticed the difference the single machine has made.

“They feel uplifted because some of them don’t have,” he said. “When they get a clean uniform, a new uniform, it makes them feel better. I see more smiles and bright attitudes.”

Nearly 58 percent of Detroiters in the main district were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year compared to a national average of 13 percent, the AP report said. The federal government defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days or more in a school year – whether those days out are excused or not.

Children who miss a lot of school tend to be from low-income families, state education data show, which means that many start school already behind.

Education experts say chronic absenteeism, which starts as early as preschool, increases the chances children won’t be able to read sufficiently by third grade; will fail classes in middle school; and will drop out of high school.

Offering students laundry services has caught on in recent years. The idea has worked in cities such as St. Louis, where an elementary school principal appealed to Whirlpool, the washing machine maker, after discovering students weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have clean clothes. Their families didn’t have the money for a washer or a laundromat — and sometimes they lacked water or electricity. When Whirlpool delivered a washer and dryer, attendance and attitudes at the school almost immediately improved, a Whirlpool spokeswoman said.

Wondering if this was a fluke, Whirlpool surveyed 600 teachers with similar concerns and soon after launched its Care Counts laundry program, which donates a washer, dryer, laundry bags and detergent for children to bring laundry to school and get it cleaned. It has been so successful that in the 2016-17 academic year, a survey of teachers around the country about Care Counts reported that 95 percent of participants were more motivated in class, and more likely to interact with peers and participate in extracurricular activities. Besides that, the most at-risk students showed up for school an average of nearly two more weeks than the previous year.

In just a few months after the start of the Care Counts pilot program, more than 1,000 teachers and principals reached out seeking washers and dryers. Today, the laundry program serves nearly 60 schools across the country in 10 cities, and Whirlpool is making plans to expand the program this year, a Whirlpool spokesperson, said.

Washers and dryers have also become a popular request on DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding site that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help. Holmes obtained its washer through DonorsChoose.org off a request written by Serena Horton, Holmes’ academic engagement administrator. Now, Horton is hoping to get a dryer.

“A lot of times, at the beginning of the school year, everybody wants to donate school supplies,” Horton said. “But being clean, having clean clothing – uniforms, toiletries, and resources to wash the clothing like a washer and detergent – is what really affects attendance.”

“Kids will come to school without school supplies,” she added.

Besides the laundry service, the school maintains a closet with clean uniform pants and shirts, toiletries; and warm clothing like coats and gloves, supplied by a DonorsChoose.org grant, parents and community support.

“If you smell bad, you don’t feel good, and other kids can be mean sometimes,” said Mitchell, the principal. “That shuts them off and it also plays a part in their behavior because if I know that something is wrong with me, I come in defensive, I come in ready to fight. So if I come in and I feel good about myself, I come in ready to be a student.”

Initiatives to address students’ social needs have increased so much that DonorsChoose.org expanded its site a year ago to address what the company refers to as “student life essentials” — projects for clean clothes, cold weather gear, shoes, eyewear, food for the evenings and weekends, personal hygiene items and laundry supplies, said spokesman Chris Pearsall.

“We have seen a good number of washer and dryer requests, many to help students – and sometimes their families – with laundry because they don’t have easy or affordable access to laundry facilities at home,” Pearsall said. “Other reasons might include machines for washing sports uniforms, teaching life skills, or helping young students who have accidents at school.

“We know these are all items that students from low-income families need,” Pearsall said, in order “to be able to focus at school – or sometimes simply attend – and our teachers have shared the profound changes they’ve seen from students who’ve simply been able to practice good self-care.”

Pearsall said DonorsChoose.org is now exploring options for adding commercial grade washers to its list of available products because of five recent requests from across the country, including from New York City, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, California — and Detroit.

“If you don’t address the social and emotional issues that come along with not having clean clothes, not having food, you can’t get to the part of why we’re here, the academic part,” said Mitchell, who chose teaching 20 years ago instead of a computer science when she discovered her niece couldn’t read in the fifth grade.

“We can’t concern ourselves with what’s not happening at home,” she said. “We have to do what we can to make sure it’s happening here.”

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”