State of the City

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan looks to grade schools, help district and charter schools work together on transportation

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan delivers State of the City Address, March 6, 2018.

Add Mayor Mike Duggan to the list of people interested in grading schools in Detroit.

Even as state education officials are starting to measure schools using a 100-point scale, and as GOP lawmakers are pushing legislation that would assign A-F letter grades to every school in the state, Duggan announced in his State of the City Address Tuesday night that he, too, is looking for a way to measure city schools.

“Parents need to have information to choose their schools,” Duggan told a packed auditorium at Western International High School in southwest Detroit. “What if we got representation from Detroit Public Schools and charters, from the parent community, and academics, and we put out report cards that parents could rely on every year? And we did it together so parents had a basis for comparing?”

The report cards were one of several education initiatives that Duggan announced in his fifth state of the city address.

After largely steering clear of education in his first term, Duggan led off his nearly hour-long speech — the first state of the city of his second term — with several proposals related to schools.

In addition to report cards, Duggan proposed testing out a new busing system that would serve students attending both district and charter schools.

The leaders of district and charter schools are notoriously combative in Detroit, fiercely competing against each other for students and teachers.

Previous efforts to get the two sides to collaborate have fizzled, including a $700,000, multi-year effort to get district and charter schools to use a single enrollment system.

But Duggan pitched an idea for a bus route — based on one that operates in Denver — that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, doing pick-ups on designated street corners and dropping students off at both district and charter schools.

Liberal school policies in Michigan make it possible for Detroit students to attend potentially hundreds of schools in the city and surrounding communities, but many schools don’t provide bus transportation, putting school choice out of reach for many families.

In a city where a quarter of residents don’t have cars and where public transportation is woefully insufficient, some families make extreme sacrifices to access quality schools for their children.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded one-third by philanthropy, one-third by the schools and one-third by the city — could even facilitate after-school programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create, Duggan said.

“This is the concept we’re talking about,” Duggan said. “We’re shooting to get it done this fall. I don’t know if it’ll be six schools or 12 schools, but I can tell you from the enthusiasm [from schools] that if we could get DPSCD and the charters working together and collaborating, we could provide good choices right here in the city of Detroit and my role is going to be to support them, not to choose sides between them.”

Duggan said he brought district and charter school leaders together last week and they seemed game to work together.

“It was the most fascinating meeting,” he said. “It was almost historic. They’re getting along and I’ll show you why.”

Duggan then flashed a slide on the screen showing where Detroit children go to school: 51,000 students attend schools in the main district, 35,000 attend charter schools in the city and, Duggan said, “32,500 children got up this morning and went to school in the suburbs. That says that what we’re doing is not working …. It’s not working because we’re not working together. We’ve got lots of schools who are nearby who could share resources.”

The city plans to first roll out the bus system in northwest Detroit, Duggan said, and if it works, add additional routes across the city.

After many years of seeing Detroit schools controlled by state-appointed emergency managers, some Detroiters might be wary of mayoral involvement in the schools. It’s too early to say how well Duggan’s ideas will go over with educators and residents.

But he said his goal is to get people to work together, not to make anyone do anything.

“I’m not imposing myself on anybody,” he said.

Grading schools might be a controversial idea, especially considering that the city has many half-empty, low-performing schools. Some schools advocates might be worried that bad grades could be used as a basis to shutter some schools and allow others to stay open.

It’s also not clear that Detroit parents want a school grading system. A now-defunct nonprofit called Excellent Schools Detroit published school report cards for years using both test scores and other measures to grade schools. But few parents have used it.

Duggan, however, said when he pitched the report card idea to school leaders, they were on board.

“They said if the state gets behind it, we’d like to have you play that role,” Duggan said. “It was very interesting.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti introduced Duggan before the speech and returned to the stage afterward to hand the mayor a brick — a reference to people working together to build communities, each bringing their own brick.

“It’s about breaking down territorialism to do what’s right for children,” Vitti said.

Mayor Mike Duggan shows proposed school bus route that could bring students to district and charter schools in northwest Detroit.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”