Round Two

With primaries over, Detroit school board candidates look to November

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The newly elected Detroit school board voted unanimously in 2017 to fight school closures in court.

As yard signs from Tuesday’s primary elections come down, Detroiters are preparing for another election that could have a significant impact on students in the city.

A school board election in November will give Detroit voters their first chance to weigh in on the changes that have come to the Detroit Public Schools Community District since the local elected board regained power from the state last year. The race could have profound implications for the long-term sustainability of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to turn around the struggling district, which so far has enjoyed consistent support from the board.

Nonetheless, the race is shaping up to be quieter than in 2016, when 63 candidates, many of them virtually unknown, threw their hats in the ring for the seven school board seats. This time, nine candidates, including incumbent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, are running for two seats. Another incumbent, LaMar Lemmons, dropped out of the race this week despite submitting the paperwork needed to run.

The winners will join a board that has worked to stabilize the state’s largest school district after decades of financial woes, declining enrollment, and leadership changes as the state installed emergency managers to run the district who were not accountable to local parents or voters.

At the center of the turnaround effort is Vitti, who was hired by the new board in 2017 for his record of improving test scores in urban schools, and who has largely kept their support for his plan to rebuild the district’s most basic services, from its curriculum to its special education services to its decision to reinstate mandatory recess.

The district’s progress under the current board progress has yielded a cautious sense of hope among some district veterans and observers.

Sheila Cockrel, head of Citizen Detroit, a nonprofit that plans to hold a forum with the school board candidates, said the two open positions are “very significant,” in part because they could alter the board’s relationship with Vitti.

“The board has been able to fashion a majority that does an extraordinarily good job of being the check and balance, providing the kind of oversight and the kind of partner to the superintendent that makes it possible to see a strategy to really rebuild the district,” she said.

Even with a strategy in sight, there is a long way to go for Michigan’s largest school district.

Test scores in the district remain the lowest in the nation, and it could be years before recent changes translate into academic improvements. Staff morale is at a troubling low.  The district’s crumbling buildings need $500 million in repairs, a figure that could double if nothing is done in five years, but it doesn’t have the money or a way to raise new funds without help from Lansing or private philanthropies.

Lemmons, one of the board’s most frequent critics of Vitti’s administration, said he is leaving to start an organization focused on increasing the number of black-run businesses that contract with the district, something he can’t do while sitting on the board.

“I needed to give someone else the opportunity to serve and to focus on some other things I want to do that are in conflict” with serving on the board, he said on Wednesday.

Lemmons’ wife, Georgia Lemmons, is one of two board members currently serving a six-year term, while the remaining three members will be up for reelection in 2020. The law that reconstituted the school district in 2016 created the staggered terms to reduce turnover on the board.

Lemmons’ sister, Deborah Lemmons, is among the candidates vying for his vacant seat.

LaMar Lemmons said he was confident that should his sister win the “Lemmons caucus” will continue to fight for “parity for African-Americans and all Detroit students.”

Scroll down for a list of candidates in alphabetical order by last name.

Terrell George works at the Motor City Casino. He is head football and basketball coach at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in the district.

Natalya Henderson, an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, became interested in education policy as a student activist in 2016, when she helped stage student walkouts to protest low teacher pay.

Incumbent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former superintendent of the Redford School District, now runs of an education consulting firm

Deborah Lemmons, a Detroit resident, is listed as self-employed on her Facebook page.

Reverend David Murray (his legal name) is a retired social worker and a minister at the Church of God in Christ in Detroit. Murray faced scrutiny for his personal life during his 16-year tenure  on the old Detroit Public Schools board, which began in 1999.

Britney Sharp is a professional photographer who helps run Lions Dream, a mentorship program. She taught for seven years with Math Corps, a tutoring and mentorship program for Detroit public school students.

Shannon Smith works for JPMorgan Chase & Co, helping to manage a $150 million grant fund that aims to boost economic growth in Detroit.

Corletta Vaughn is the founding pastor of Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide, a church in Detroit.

UPDATE: Shawn Blanchard, a motivational speaker and author who specializes in youth mentorship, is no longer running for school board.

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.