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 and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti chat.

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.

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 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 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.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.