tick tock

As a school board decision looms, some Detroit charters are jumping ship. Others have their fingers crossed.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Escuela Avancemos! is one of a handful of schools that are waiting to find out how long they can operate charters in district-owned buildings.

Three Detroit schools aren’t waiting around for the outcome of a debate over the future of charter schools overseen by the main Detroit district. For others, the clock is ticking.

Nearly a year after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti first suggested that the district should stop authorizing charter schools, a final decision over the fate of 13 district-authorized charter schools serving roughly 4,000 students has been slow in coming.

A vote that was expected earlier this year still hasn’t happened even as some schools — Murphy, Stewart and Trix academies — have charters that are set to expire in just 47 days, at the end of June. For those schools, the window for a “plan B” is closing.

Vitti has argued since last summer that the district shouldn’t use its resources to monitor the same schools it competes against for students, teachers, and state funds.

Now, facing unclear signals, some charters overseen by the district are leaving. New Paradigm Glazer and Loving academies, part of one charter school system, received a seven-year charter in February from Grand Valley State University, extending the schools’ lives until 2025. A third school, Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center, is awaiting approval from GVSU to transfer out of the district under a similar contract.

To operate in Michigan, charters need the backing of a college, university, or school district. These backers are called authorizers. When a new school board took over the main Detroit district last year — the first elected board after seven years of state-appointed emergency management — the district assumed oversight for 13 charter schools, some of which were previously district schools.

Now the board is reconsidering its role with those schools. After putting off a vote originally scheduled for December, they are set to take up the issue at a meeting of the finance committee on May 21, Vitti said.

Questions about the future of district-authorized charters come as Vitti has promised to ratchet up competition between the main district and charters, boasting that he can improve district schools enough to put charters out of business. For the moment, about half of Detroit schools are charters — including the handful that are overseen directly by Vitti’s staff, some of which also lease buildings from the district.

If that arrangement comes to an end, students at Murphy, Stewart and Trix academies could find themselves scrambling this fall.

“We’ll be in a very difficult position,” said Earl Phalen, head of Phalen Leadership Academies, which manages the three schools. Phalen says he is expecting the contract will be renewed, despite mixed signals from the district.

If he’s wrong? “It would obviously be complicated to make that fast of a turn. It would be challenging,” Phalen said. “But we’re really committed to our scholars. Difficult, not impossible, is how I’d say it.”

The schools have discussed transferring their charter to Central Michigan University, but have not submitted the paperwork to initiate a transfer, said Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for CMU’s charter office.

Adding another layer of doubt, the buildings that house Murphy, Stewart, and Trix are owned by the main district and leased to the schools, raising the possibility that they could eventually be forced to find new buildings in addition to new charters.

Taking on more school buildings could pose a challenge for a district that has struggled to fill its 106 existing schools, some of which sit nearly half empty. It would also add to the district’s building roster as it gears up for a review of deteriorating district properties. But the move fits with Vitti’s long-term goal of creating an array of specialized schools to compete with charters.

“I still believe overall as a district that we need to focus on our 50,000 students,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last week. “Every second we spend trying to manage and problem-solve with district charters is time away from that focus.”

The board, meanwhile, has shown no sign of agreeing on next steps. Last week, the district entered a one-year lease with Escuela Avancemos!, allowing the charter to stay in a district-owned building at least until its charter expires next year.

But officials also made clear that things could soon change. When the lease is up, “the District will consider whether it is feasible to continue leasing Escuela space in its building or, whether it will use the building for its own educational purposes,” according to documents presented at the meeting.

Rob Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at GVSU, says some of the district’s charters have begun asking themselves whether they can win the approval of other authorizers.

“It’s creating a level of uncertainty for them,” he said

School board members argue that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, says he would be willing to reauthorize certain charters, but not schools — like Murphy, Stewart and Trix — that were removed from the district’s control by emergency managers, only to be returned as charters.

“I don’t want to undercut a parental choice,” he said. “On the other hand, if the charter is receiving students only because it’s the only school in the vicinity, then that school needs to be returned to [the district] as soon as possible.”

The uncertainty is being felt in neighborhoods already hit by school closures. Escuela Avancemos! occupies a building that formerly housed Logan Elementary, a district school that was shuttered in 2012 by state-appointed emergency managers. Rosa Placencia, a parent who lives nearby in Southwest Detroit, says she would be forced to make extreme sacrifices to get her children to school if they attended buildings further from her neighborhood. Placencia drops her children off at three different schools before work.

Sean Townsin, principal of Escuela Avancemos!, insists that his school will find another backer if the main district stops authorizing charters. The school has a year to figure out what’s next — not a month, like Murphy, Stewart, and Trix — but it is still under pressure. It could be forced to move because it occupies a building owned by the district.

That’s a bleak prospect for Placencia, who is pleased with instruction her eight-year-old is receiving in Spanish, the language they speak at home.

“I hope they never move it, because where else would they go?” Placencia said

Townsin says his staff isn’t focusing on scouting alternate locations. Instead, they are working to hit performance goals that would help them appeal to another charter authorizer if the main district follows Vitti’s recommendation.

“In the event DPS chooses not to authorize charter schools, we’ll have more options in front of us,” he said.

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.”