a temporary home

These students lost their school to a mold problem. Here’s how they’re doing in their new temporary digs

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
A bus waits to take Palmer Park students from their closed school to the Detroit International Academy for Young Women.

Five school buses line up outside the closed Palmer Park Preparatory Academy on Thursday morning. Hundreds of elementary students, in a flurry of backpacks and spring jackets, climb on board and embark on the six-mile ride from their school — which contained mold — to a temporary home at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women.

At the end of their journey across the city, they file off the bus and enter the building through a special entrance only for them — a bright blue banner indicates which door is for the 437 displaced children.

This the latest fallout from years of disinvestment in Detroit’s schools and could be a glimpse into the future of other buildings if the Detroit district is unable to make urgent repairs across the city. Two years ago, teachers shut down nearly every school in the district when they called out sick to protest school conditions. The protest made national headlines.

After losing their school building to mold contamination last month, students have an extra 15-minute commute across the city and back, and teachers had to pick up and move their classrooms. Now, students and teachers are jostling for space at another school.

“Some people are mad because the kids get dropped off later, and we have to leave earlier in the morning as well,” said Rosa Davenport, a grandmother of two children who attend the school. “Before we could leave the house at 8:40 in the morning, and now we have to leave at 8:15.”

Two classes of preschool Montessori students now have to share one space instead of working in separate classrooms, said Palmer Park parent Alaina Dawkins.

“It’s a large room, with one teacher on one side and one teacher on the other,” she said. “You can see and hear the other students.”

She said her daughter, Ariahn Dawkins, misses her old school and has asked when they’ll be returning. The district said students will be transitioned back in the fall of 2018 for the new school year, if all goes according to plan.

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations, but the state of Palmer Park was so dire it needed immediate action. Crews are repairing the roof, fixing the second floor that has been closed since 2011, repainting the walls, and replacing water-stained ceiling tiles.

“Under emergency management, there was gross neglect of all of our facilities, and of the children and their interests as a collective,” school board member LaMar Lemmons said. “Most of the buildings are not in satisfactory, safe, and healthy condition for our children.”

Principal Shirita Hightower did not respond to requests for comment. We will update the story when we hear from her.

Due to a leaky roof, many areas of the building have been affected by water damage. A report released late last month detailed widespread damage, but the district said airborne mold was not found in areas where children spend time. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti met with families last month to quell concerns about exposure to mold. 

Because of the health concerns over the building and the inconvenience of moving to a temporary home, some students have already left the school, though a district spokeswoman said she believes students will “return to the school in the fall.”

But Palmer Park parent Blake Bradley said he’s considering moving his preschooler to a school in the suburbs.

“I moved him here from another school one week before Palmer Park closed,” he said. “They were professional enough to let us know what was going on, and I understand things happen…but he might go to school in Southfield now. That was always a consideration.”

 

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid what they deserve if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise pay for the first time in years.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

In the past, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of newly hired teachers who could help alleviate the shortage. New teachers could only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts.

Vitti has said low pay in the Detroit district is the main reason it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep the ones they have. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The subcommittee also recommended giving a one-time bonus for teachers at the top of the salary scale to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes would make a huge impact. It’s a major change for district teachers who have been stuck in a pay freeze and could draw new teachers into the district now that their experience may be recognized, allowing them to start at a higher salary.  

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” she said. Specifically, the federation wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.