high stakes

Are Detroit schools making progress towards state benchmarks? Either way, the stakes are rising

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will decide whether dozens of Detroit schools could face closure.

Test results released on Tuesday suggest that 14 Detroit schools are not on track to meet student achievement targets set last year to spare them from closure by the state.

That news came on the same day as the Michigan Legislature’s latest attempt to ratchet up the consequences for schools that fail to meet those targets. The state budget sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk on Tuesday would require the closure or “reconstitution” of schools that don’t fulfill their partnership agreements – spelling potentially dire consequences for dozens of schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Under the “partnership” agreement, the district is required to make progress towards academic goals, measured at 18 months and 36 months. Principals have already begun buckling down.

But a document presented to the school board Tuesday night shows that 14 elementary and middle schools in the district are not on pace to meet those goals.

Midyear test results suggest that most of the schools saw “minimal growth” in math and reading, while only half of the schools saw improvements in third-grade reading, according to the document.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne RESA, a countywide education agency that is helping the district meet state targets. He said a curriculum overhaul announced this year, one of several districtwide changes, won’t begin to pay off until next year.

“That’s what they’ve been about this year, is changing systems,” Liepa said, adding: “They have to implement things before they can see improvement.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti also noted that the test scores cited in Tuesday’s report don’t reflect schools’ ability to meet the benchmarks laid out in their partnership agreements.

Based on the data alone, “it would be inappropriate to signal success or failure of achieving the goals stated in the agreement,” he said in a statement. “We are confident in our partnership plans and believe that we will meet the academic goals set when the deadline arrives.”

The stakes for his district — already high — could rise further.

If Snyder approves the proposed budget, it would mark another twist in the debate over what to do about Michigan’s lowest-performing schools. It would be felt disproportionately by Detroit’s main district, where more than half of schools — 58 in all — are covered by partnership agreements, and thus could face closure within three years.

The agreements were championed by former state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who sought a compromise after a plan to close dozens of troubled schools was aborted in the face of lawsuits and political opposition. Whiston died last month.

The agreements didn’t clearly spell out the consequences of failure, angering Republican lawmakers who pointed to a clause in the state’s $617 million bailout mandating the closure of Detroit schools that ranked among the worst in the state for three years in a row. Now, pressure from those legislators threatens to cut into the time Vitti says he needs for a district turnaround.

Snyder could refuse to sign the budget in its current form. If he signs it, the ill-defined option of  “reconstitution” could still leave some wiggle room for schools that don’t meet the state-imposed benchmarks.

LaMar Lemmons, a Detroit board member, called the targets built into the district’s partnership agreement “subjective,” saying the future of the district’s struggling schools will depend on the Legislature, not on their academic performance.

“It all depends on the politics of Lansing,” Lemmons told Chalkbeat. He recently filed to run for state Senate.

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 he 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 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.