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.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.