Bridging the divide

Will the Detroit district and charter schools agree to work together on busing and school grading as Mayor Duggan suggests?

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

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan believes he has found a way to bring together the city’s warring education factions — charter schools and the district.

In his state of the city speech Tuesday, Duggan announced two programs he says can unite the two — an experiment in joint bus routes, and an effort to give report cards to all schools in the city.

It’s unclear whether key players on the two sides will find common ground on the two efforts, but Duggan already has secured one key ally: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Charter school leaders might be a harder sell. Charter schools as recently as two years ago fought a proposal to give the city some authority over district and charter schools, and the notion grading of schools has long been controversial.

Vitti lent his endorsement in his presence — he introduced the mayor before his speech and joined him again when it ended. Vitti has been vocal about viewing charter schools as competitors. He’s vowed in the past to put charter schools “out of business.”

But he said he’s on board with the mayor’s proposals — including the grading of schools.

“I feel much more comfortable working with the mayor and Detroiters and charter schools in Detroit on a grading system than one created in Lansing,” Vitti told Chalkbeat after the speech. “I believe that the public school system and its practitioners in charter schools have more in common in understanding the day-to-day reality of raising student achievement than the [Michigan Department of Education] does.”

Vitti has pushed back against school grading before. He came under fire from state lawmakers last year during his testimony before a House committee where he was skewered for, among other things, failing to create a grading system for Detroit schools that lawmakers say is required by state law. The law they were citing, however, calls on the state education department to create that grading system, not the school district.

Vitti told lawmakers at the time that he didn’t think there should be a grading system just for Detroit that didn’t apply to the rest of the state.

But now, he said, he hopes a Duggan-led grading system would “create a school grading system that’s more fair” than something developed by the state or the legislature that would apply to all schools including urban, suburban, and rural schools across the state.

“With the mayor’s political capital, we will be able to create something that reflects the reality of working with children in Detroit,” Vitti said.

He said he wants a grading system that would be “reflective of what our work looks like in Detroit because we are so unique and different from the rest of the state.”

Vitti said he’s also on board with the proposal to get some district and charter schools to join together on a bus route that would pick up students from designated stops and drop them at as many as 12 different schools, including both district and charter schools.

Charter schools likely have the most to gain from such a system because many charter schools do not provide busing, while many district schools do. But Vitti said he nonetheless supports the idea — especially in the area of northwest Detroit where Duggan has proposed to run the pilot effort.

“It targets an area where I think we have competitive schools,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the cost of the bus route — which would be split between schools, the city and philanthropy — would be low enough that the district would get its money back even if it picked up only a few new students as a result of its participation.

And the idea, he said, might open the door for the district to explore multi-school bus routes elsewhere in the city.

“There’s a way to be more competitive and … to share resources,” he said. “If it’s an environment where resources are shared to bring Detroiters back to the city, schools will be willing to put more resources into this.”

How the mayor’s plans will play in the charter community is less clear. Chalkbeat contacted eight charter leaders for their thoughts on Wednesday, and most declined to comment.

It was primarily charter school leaders — backed by now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she was a Michigan philanthropist and activist — who fought an effort two years ago to create a mayoral-led commission focused on schools in the city.

The commission, which would have had some oversight over district and charter schools, was conceived as a way to bring order to Detroit’s splintered school system, which is nearly evenly split between district and charter schools. But some charter school leaders worried at the time that the commission would tip the scales in the district’s favor in Detroit’s heated school environment, in which district and charter schools compete aggressively for students and teachers and rarely work together.   

Several charter school leaders, however, say they are on board with Duggan’s plan to create bus routes that would serve both district and charter schools. Among them is Nicole Wells Stallworth, president of the board of MacDowell Prep, a charter on the proposed route.

Wells Stallworth said she supports the combined busing plans because it would make her school an easier choice for parents who live outside the school’s bus routes.

“It would increase our ability to capture more students who might not live in the three-mile radius,” she said.

The school currently pays the district for using its busing, and may stand to save money if two-thirds of the cost of transporting students were covered by philanthropy and the city.

Charter leaders who spoke to Chalkbeat said they support a report card grading system for schools, but have concerns about how whether the city’s measures might conflict with the ones already used by the state.

“Schools are state entities and, if the systems collide, that’s not a good thing — not for parents, schools, or the state,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “But I do believe we can meet the needs of the city and the state and align [the measurements.] It is essential to school success.”

Duggan said the charters and traditional schools were working together due in part to a bigger problem: currently more than 30,000 Detroit residents leave the city every day to attend district and charter schools in the suburbs.

The mayor views the two proposals laid out in his state of the city address as ways to bring some of those students home.

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.