troubled water?

Detroit district tests drinking water after lead or copper discovered in 6 schools

PHOTO: Flickr

Students at six Detroit schools have been drinking bottled water for weeks since tests revealed dangerous levels of lead or copper in the schools’ water fountains.

Elevated toxic levels, found in the six schools for the second time since 2016, have prompted expanded retesting in the rest of the 106-school district.

After the 2016 discovery, the district coated pipes at some schools with a silicate to prevent leaching of metals and bacteria, and has continued testing. But retesting this year again discovered elevated levels of metals, and Detroit’s main district shut off water fountains and brought in bottled water.

The discovery is yet another blow to a district struggling with dilapidated  buildings neglected by a series of state-appointed emergency managers during a mounting budget crisis. Last week, district schools were closed early for three consecutive days because of “sweatbox” conditions in unairconditioned buildings, and earlier this year, one school closed after a leaky roof led to mold in the ceiling tiles.

The district initially discovered lead and copper in water pipes in aging district schools when it started testing water in 2016, a move prompted by the Flint water crisis.

The renewed discovery of lead and copper occurred in six schools that tested positive for them in 2016, as did 13 other district schools then. Parents at the six schools have been notified, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti informed board members in a memo last month.

“We transparently and proactively have discontinued the use of water at schools when and where concerns have been raised while communicating to parents when concerns have surfaced,” Vitti said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are proactively testing the water at all of our schools even though this is not required by federal, state, or local laws.”

A facility review of district buildings will be shared with the community later this month, Vitti’s statement said, and will “define our district’s facility challenges moving forward.”

The six affected elementary and middle schools schools are J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Bow Elementary School, Burton International Academy, Carver STEM Academy, Detroit Lions Academy and Sampson Webber Leadership Academy.

While she’s grateful the district voluntarily tests the water and informs parents and students, Burton International Academy’s PTA President Dana Dacres said the water shutoff has been a great inconvenience for students, teachers and staff.

Teachers line younger students up for water breaks at coolers dispersed around the pre-K-8 school, thus reducing classroom instruction time. Previously, most students drank from hallway water fountains as needed. Four-ounce foil-covered water cups also are available around the school, she said.

As a result, Dacres said, custodians have increased workloads because of spills and litter from the water cups, and kitchen workers lack water they need for reheating and cleaning.

“It’s just a lot more waste, and it’s because of this aging building” on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the city’s historic Corktown district, she said.  “It’s got questionable material and changing the pipes is going to be costly and time consuming, but something needs to be done.”

Dacres also said she’s concerned about how long the repairs will take because summer school will be held in the building.

District board member LaMar Lemmons said he’s alarmed.

“I’m concerned about all our children in these buildings,” he said.

Lead exposure can cause serious damage to children’s developing brains, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and there is no safe level of exposure.

Studies show most lead exposure doesn’t immediately cause symptoms, but as the concentration of lead in the body  rises, symptoms can include headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite or constipation. Research also shows lead exposure also can lead to developmental delays, decreased intelligence and cognition, behavioral issues and an array of other health issues. Copper can cause gastrointestinal issues, and long-term exposure to copper can damage the liver or kidneys.

The district began testing for lead, copper and other contaminants in 2016 after concerns in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the source of the city’s drinking water was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive Flint River.

The Flint water wasn’t sufficiently treated, and more than 100,000 residents were believed to be exposed to high lead levels in the drinking water. Many residents, who are still drinking bottled water, grew ill because of the lead exposure. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016, and the city’s corroded lead water pipes are still being replaced.

Detroit district buildings are undergoing a review of its building conditions, many of which are in serious disrepair. It’s a problem that became a national story more than two years ago when the district cancelled most classes because so many teachers called in sick to protest school conditions.

School board member LaMar Lemmons said the news of the water contamination is upsetting.

He had wanted to sue the state and questioned Vitti about children’s safety. “He said we’re doing this 18-month study. My problem is what happens in the interim? Our children are being exposed to possible contamination, and that’s a health and safety risk.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.