Sweltering schools

‘Sweatbox’ conditions close aging Detroit schools a third day as board member seeks help

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
After her 11:40 a.m. dismissal Thursday, Lataliah Madden, a third grader at Davison Elementary-Middle School, said this week's early school closures due to extreme heat cut her education short

Thousands of Detroit parents were awakened Thursday morning to the news that district schools would be closing early again for the third consecutive day.

With temperatures predicted to soar into the high 80s, school officials decided to close the 106 buildings—most lacking air-conditioning—of Detroit’s main district three hours early before the temperatures hit a high of 87 degrees.

The early school closures were the latest fallout for a district with many aging buildings that haven’t been well maintained in recent years. The district let students in air-conditioned buildings leave early so siblings who attend different schools could be dismissed together. Schools will open Friday, when the high is expected to reach 80 degrees.

Not only do approximately 61 of our buildings not have air conditioning but windows do not open in many of the classrooms. This creates ‘sweatbox’ conditions in many schools and classrooms,” district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said in a statement.

“The decision has been well received by our staff because previously their voice was not heard” when the state ran the district, Wilson added.

Nevertheless, parent Gina Reichert felt frustrated as she  picked up her 8-year-old daughter, Eva, early from the Davison Elementary-Middle School for the third day in a row.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Gina Reichert and daughter, Eva

“We want the kids to be safe, and you don’t want them sitting in the building sweating,” the independent artist said after the 11:40 a.m., dismissal. “But it’s not even June yet. What should we expect for the rest of the year? The district needs to invest in these buildings.”

Tashia Madden called the early dismissal an inconvenience, but said she realizes the district “barely has any money.” Her daughter, third grader Lataliah, also had some thoughts about it.

“When you get out early, your education is cut short,” she said.

The early closing not only affected parents’ schedules, it also impacted students’.

As he waited for a bus on Ryan Road at East Seven Mile Road outside Pershing High School after his noon dismissal, 16-year-old Keshawn Holton, a 10th grader at the school, said he wasn’t happy because the early closure interfered with his schoolwork.

“I feel like it’s not good logic to let school out,” said the aspiring firefighter. “OK. It’s hot, but it’s hot everywhere. What do they do in places like Birmingham, Alabama? I’ve got work I’m missing, and I can’t do it.”

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Keshawn Holton

He said he had an online chemistry assignment he needed to complete, and planned to do the work at school because he lacks home internet access. “On top of that, we can’t go on any field trips,” he said.

But even an air-conditioned building, Cass Technical High School, has been closed all week, and will remain closed Friday because of a malfunctioning cooling system.

“The reason for the school closures is due to [having] only one of five chillers operating to cool the school building,” Wilson said. “Required repairs are extensive but temporary chillers are being installed in the meantime to cool the building by Monday.”

The district is reviewing its facility needs, Wilson said.

Most of the area’s other districts and schools remained open, with a few exceptions.

The district could have difficulty upgrading its buildings because of a quirk in state law that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. The new district is free from most of the debt that imperiled its predecessor, the Detroit Public Schools, but the new district is barred from borrowing money to pay for capital improvements.

That’s likely why district school board member Sonya Mays put out a call for help on Mackinac Island where the state’s business and political leaders were gathered for the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan’s largest annual political event traditionally held the week after Memorial Day.

“We have several decades of poorly maintained buildings, deferred maintenance and tons of vacant buildings for which there is no clear purpose,” Mays told a well-heeled audience assembled at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

“I don’t know that I can overstate how much of a hurdle that has become in consistently educating and providing a safe environment for our students.”

Mays, who heads Develop Detroit, a nonprofit real estate development agency, said helping the district take care of its properties would be the best way for business leaders to offer support. She cited this week’s early dismissals as evidence that the district needs help.

“Just think about the disruption that that causes, and you multiply it out across a whole school system,” she said.

The district’s early dismissals fall on the heels of a new study released Monday that shows warm classrooms hamper student learning. The research by the National Bureau of Economic Research also suggests that air conditioning, still missing in many schools, is a worthwhile investment.

Under Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s year-old administration, the Detroit district has been dealing with crumbling buildings, and malfunctioning heating and cooling systems, even as it has focused on improving instruction and test scores. Earlier this year, a school had to be shuttered after a leaking roof led to dangerous mold growth.

Administrators have had to be “superior managers of property and buildings in an environment that’s not like any other across the country. It’s not their core competency,” Mays said.

She pleaded for help from business and political leaders.

Mayor Mike Duggan, who was on the same panel with Mays and Vitti, recalled the business community lining up to help Detroit schools after a similar plea at the 1999 Mackinac conference. Eager to help, he said, they forged robust partnerships. But most of that receded after the district spiraled downward in later years.

Mays is seeking new partnerships to help the district.

“It’s an area where the broader community could really step up and collaborate and help solve some of the problems we have with our buildings.”

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.