Charter Churn

‘Winging it.’ This principal just lost his job at a struggling Detroit charter school. Here’s what he saw on the inside.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Parents filled the school gym last month to advocate a new teacher contract and protest administrator turnover.

Frank Donner was sold from the moment he heard the pitch in 2013.

Lighthouse Academies promised that their new school in Southwest Detroit would emphasize arts instruction — a rarity in the city. And, crucially, they went to unusual lengths to get input from parents and leaders in the neighborhood.

Donner, a veteran Detroit educator, had heard from too many parents who felt disconnected from their schools. He signed up to teach.

But the problems began almost right away, and they have continued since Donner lost his job in April as principal. He had held the job for almost two years, longer than anyone else in the school’s five-year history. Officials at the school are now searching for its fifth principal.

Chalkbeat visited a parent meeting last month at the renamed Southwest Detroit Community School to find out why this school founded with deep community support is struggling to make it in the city, but we couldn’t reach Donner before the story was published.

Frank Donner, a veteran educator in Detroit, was named principal of a struggling charter school at the behest of parents and teachers.
PHOTO: Southwest Detroit Community School
Frank Donner, a veteran Detroit teacher, became the school’s principal at the urging of teachers and parents.

In phone interviews this week, he said that his belief in the school’s mission didn’t waver when administrators began to leave and it became clear that the school lacked basic curriculum resources. In 2016, he was named principal with the support of parents.

“What was so exciting about Lighthouse and then Southwest (Detroit Community School) was being responsive to the community,” he said. “We weren’t completely successful, but we made some strides. The more we can really engage with all the stakeholders, that’s where we’re going to make some progress.”

What happened next was not unusual for any of Detroit’s troubled schools. But given the school’s promising start, it provided a stark reminder that enthusiastic good intentions aren’t always enough to overcome an education environment as unforgiving as Detroit’s. Lighthouse had no experience operating in Michigan, where state policy encourages fierce competition among schools. And the person tapped to turn the school around when Lighthouse failed — Donner — had never worked as a principal before.

Donner was confronted with the school’s problems almost as soon as he stepped into the principal’s office. He told Chalkbeat this week that administrative confusion and scant resources hurt the schools ability to serve its more than 400 students. He traces the issues partly to Lighthouse, and partly to an education system in Detroit that requires schools to invest time and energy into competing with each other.

“There wasn’t much infrastructure,” he said, recalling his first year on the job. “There was no institutional knowledge. There weren’t clear curriculum resources. There wasn’t a body of lesson plans that had been written down. It was a lot of winging it. Curriculum components had changed every year it was operating.”

Making matters worse, Florida-based Lighthouse struggled to grasp the requirements placed on schools in Michigan.

“It was a little choppy for Lighthouse operating in Michigan as an out-of-state operator,” Donner said. “They didn’t have as much context for the nuances of the Michigan scene.”

Lighthouse also ran up against headwinds faced by every school in Detroit, where they must compete for students and teachers.

“We’re not the only neighborhood where you’ll have a school that opens up on a corner without telling anybody,” said Christine Bell, a board member at Congress of Communities, one of the community organizations that offered advice to the new school. “And then they’re siphoning kids from another school, and then nobody wins.”

With hundreds more open classroom seats than students to fill them, competition between schools in Southwest Detroit is fierce. In Michigan, where state education funding is tied to school enrollment, schools struggle to survive without full classrooms.

Charter schools were flooding into Southwest Detroit in 2013, when the school opened. Districts outside the city were recruiting heavily in the area, Bell recalled, even offering free busing to students who would leave their neighborhoods. More than a dozen charter organizations announced plans to open schools in the area, she said.

“We had a position dedicated to going out into the community to recruit,” Donner said. “All of these things take a lot of time, energy, and people power — and then the return might be one or two students.”

Despite its struggle to stay afloat, Donner says a core of parents and teachers have remained committed to the school and to the values of inclusivity and community involvement that underpinned it from the start. That core was on display last month, when a march to support the teachers union in its upcoming contract negotiation drew dozens of parents and children to the school.

“There is in some ways a lot of stability at that school, even as there’s more instability than any other school I’ve seen,” he said.

Nonetheless, Donner became the latest principal to leave the school after the charter operator decided in April that test scores weren’t rising quickly enough. The school faces possible closure by the state if scores don’t improve. Heather Gardner, president of EAS Schools, which replaced Lighthouse as the charter operator, says the school needs a more experienced principal with a track record of turning struggling schools around.

Donner says he was aware of his own inexperience, but took the job anyway because teachers and parents asked him to.

“I agreed to do it as a member of the community,” he said. “It was daunting, certainly, but I felt that it was the right thing to do, to try to bring some continuity to the school.”

Now, as parents organize to fight for a new teacher contract, he is looking for another job. He wants to be back in a school by next fall, either as an administrator or a teacher. It could be a charter school or a school in the main district — as long as it’s been around for a while.

“As I look for places where I want to work, I’m looking for places that are a little bit more established,” he said.

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 department will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That request will make Michigan 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 within a year of 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 stories hone in on the Detroit area, 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 Devos’ education department 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.