Seats at the table

Meet the 11 people charged with helping Detroit’s district and charter schools work together, starting with a new bus loop

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks about a bus route that will carry district and charter school students in northwest Detroit. Charter operator Ralph Bland and Mayor Mike Duggan stand at his right.

A mayoral commission designed to bring competitive district and charter schools together began to take shape on Monday.

Speaking before television cameras at a recreation center on Detroit’s northwest side, Mayor Mike Duggan named the people who will lead the commission’s signature project — a bus loop that will carry students to charter and district schools this fall, along with after-school programs.

Duggan also confirmed for the first time that the loop will feature a tracking system capable of sending text messages to parents each time their child gets on or off the bus and swipes an identification card. The loop will give as many as 200 children access to after-school programming, including swimming and tutoring, at the Northwest Activities Center.

The mayor’s announcement signaled the opening of enrollment for the program. Parents can visit its website or call 313-224-1222 to enroll.

The appointees to sit on the Community Education Commission are:

  • Monique Marks, Franklin Wright Settlements, commission chair
  • Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District
  • Tonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation
  • Marsha A. Lewis, a DPSCD teacher
  • Ralph Bland, manager of University Yes Academy
  • Rachel Ignagni, a teacher and founder of Detroit Achievement Academy
  • Nate Walker, of the American Federation of Teachers in Detroit
  • Teferi Brent, of Detroit 300 and Goodwill Industries
  • Sherita Smith, of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development
  • Vanessa Kessler, of the state Department of Education
  • Matthew Simoncini, former head of Lear Corporation

Bland said the loop will benefit students at University Yes, his school, but said more cooperation is needed.

“It’s not charter school students and DPSCD students, it’s Detroit students,” he said. “At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about: Detroit students.”

The commission’s founding document makes clear that the group’s focus could expand. The group may organize an effort to rate Detroit schools, and serve as a clearinghouse for other philanthropic projects in the city’s schools.

The bus loop is intended to fight the tide of students who leave Detroit’s borders to attend school. Almost half of the city’s school-age children attend the main district, with another 30 percent attending charter schools, and the remaining 27 percent — more than 30,000 children — attending a private school or a public school in the suburbs.

But a few extra buses alone won’t be enough to reverse that trend, Vitti said after the press conference.

“There has to be a broader network of transportation lines,” he said. “But most importantly, there has to be an improvement of student performance, and student safety, and quality of programs and instruction.”

While most details were already known, Duggan’s announcement marked the first time the plan was completely unveiled after months-long negotiations that were not without speed bumps.

The newly named GOAL Line (GOAL stands for “get out and learn”), will run from 6:30-9:00 a.m. and 2:30-6:30 p.m. on school days. Four buses will transport students between 10 school buildings — four charter and six district schools — covering roughly a five-square-mile area on Detroit’s northwest side.

GOAL bus map
PHOTO: City of Detroit
The GOAL Line will travel between 10 schools and a community center in a roughly five-square-mile area of Northwest Detroit.

The program is open to any parents who want to put their children on a bus at one of the participating schools. In the afternoon, the buses will stop at the Northwest Activities Center, where after-school programming will be provided to a maximum of 200 students.

Expected to cost upwards of $1.2 million, the project will be paid for by three parties, and each will contribute about one-third of the expense.

Duggan says the project is expected to continue for five years, and he wants to add more bus lines to other areas of the city before then. Detroit’s main district, however, reduced its commitment to one year amid concerns about the cost of the program. Board members plan to reevaluate the program next spring.

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”

report card

Coming soon to Detroit (and only Detroit): Letter grades for schools that could lead to closures

PHOTO: Community Education Commission
Monique Marks, chair of a new mayoral commission, showed off the group's Detroit schools guide in an appearance on local television. Future editions of the guide will include letter grades for every school.

Every school in Detroit will soon receive a letter grade that could result in some persistently low-scoring schools being shuttered by the state.

Starting this fall, a new mayoral commission will begin hammering out the specifics of a state-mandated school grading system that could result in some schools getting As and many more getting Ds and Fs.  

Though some state lawmakers have been pushing for an A-F grading system that would apply to every school in the state, this report card will bring another wave of high-stakes scrutiny only to the city of Detroit, where education leaders already face considerable pressure to improve test scores.

That’s because the grading system — and the potential consequences of low grades — were among the strings attached to a $617 million state aid package that helped Detroit’s main district avoid bankruptcy in 2016.  It was one aspect of a comprehensive deal that drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers and Detroiters who universally opposed the new law in a tearful, late-night vote.

The law calls for Detroit schools that get multiple Fs to be closed. That means decisions about how much weight to give to attendance versus graduation rates, for example, could have far-reaching consequences for families in Detroit.

The law specifies that 80 percent of a school’s grade must be based on test scores. It calls for the state’s school reform chief to develop the grades, but the task is being delegated to Mayor Mike Duggan’s Community Education Commission, which includes representatives of Detroit’s main district, charter schools, and the Michigan Department of Education.

The potential consequences of the grading system weigh heavily on commission chair Monique Marks.

“I can’t say I haven’t lost a couple of nights’ sleep,” Marks, who is also the CEO of the nonprofit Franklin Wright Settlements, told Chalkbeat last week.

But Marks says the commission’s role in creating the report cards gives Detroiters a measure of control over school grades that would otherwise be produced by state officials. In a written statement, she also pointed out that the lowest-performing schools will have three years to improve before facing closure by the state for low grades.

“Detroit’s schools will be rated by Detroiters,” Marks said in the statement. “We are in the early stages of building a common rating system that will help us determine the performance of our schools and identify opportunities for our schools to improve and grow. We will ensure everyone’s voice is heard as we develop a transparent process.”

Efforts by state leaders to close low-performing schools are not new. More than a quarter of Detroit schools are are already in danger of being shuttered because of the same law, which called for the state to use its top-to-bottom ranking system to shut down persistently low performing schools until a letter grade system could be created. That led the state to list 38 schools — including 25 in the city — for closure last year. Those schools, as well as 30 others that were later added to the list, were eventually given three years to improve, but the consequences for falling short remain unclear.

Grades for Detroit schools will come on top of Michigan’s existing school rating system, which already ranks every school in the state based on six factors that are rolled into a 0-100 point scale.

Advocates for school grading systems say public scrutiny pushes schools to improve and helps parents make smart decisions about where to send their children, but critics say most grading systems oversimplify the complex work of educating children. Test scores are highly correlated with economic factors so schools that enroll affluent children tend to have higher scores.

In Detroit, where more than half of children come from families that live in poverty, schools have routinely posted the lowest test scores in the state.

Education activist Helen Moore said the grades will only remind the world that many Detroit schools are struggling, and that any resulting closures would make matters worse. She said the policy has racial overtones, pointing out that American schools are more likely to be shut down if they serve more students of color.

“They’re going to grade the schools knowing what the grade was already, knowing it’s a trap,” she said. “We need more time” to improve schools in Detroit.

For years, the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, which has now dissolved, graded every school in the city, but those grades didn’t come with consequences like closure. They were mainly designed to help parents choose schools. The citywide report did not paint a pretty picture: Just a fraction of the 145 schools that were graded in 2017 received a C+ or better, with the vast majority getting Ds or Fs.

The grades will have teeth this time around, but the commission will have some leeway to decide what the grades will be based on.

While the law specifies that test scores must account for 80 percent of each school’s score, it is up to Marks and the commission to decide, for instance, how much of the 80 percent is based on the percentage of students in a school who pass the state exam versus whether student scores improve from one year to the next.

The commission also must decide what should go into the remaining 20 percent of each grade. That could be attendance or graduation rates or the results of parent and teacher surveys.

For many schools, those factors could make the difference between a D and an F. Schools — both charter and district — could be closed by the state if they receive an F for three years in a row, with the law specifying that the state can only allow a school to remain open if closing it would pose an “unreasonable hardship” on students.

School closings have been shown to benefit students only if they wind up attending a better school instead — an especially tall order in Detroit’s school deserts.

Marks said the process will be “extremely delicate,” with the future of struggling schools hanging in the balance.

The commission includes Ralph Bland, who manages a network of six Detroit charter schools, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the city’s main district, and representatives of the state, the teachers union, and nonprofits.

The public will also be able to weigh in at monthly public meetings held by the commission. Since holding its first meeting this summer, the group established a school bus route in northwest Detroit and published a guide to the city’s schools.

The new school guide does not include any information about school quality or test scores but Marks said future editions will have that information and will include letter grades when they’re finalized before the 2019-2020 school year.

The commission will begin discussing the scoring process this fall after receiving recommendations from John Barker, a consultant who formerly worked as Chief of Accountability for Chicago’s public school district and who will continue to advise the commission throughout the next year, Marks said. Barker declined to comment, referring questions to Marks.

The commission’s next meeting is Monday, August 20 at 11 a.m. at the Northwest Activities Center.

Update: Aug. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to include an additional statement from Monique Marks, chair of the Community Education Commission, emphasizing that Detroiters will have a say in the creation of a state-mandated school grading system.