looking forward

Despite heat, water problems, Detroit students get a fresh start

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Principal Kim Pritchett, left, welcomes students to the first day of school at the Southwest Detroit Community School. She is the latest principal who hopes to turn the school around.

It took a lunch table of high schoolers to give Superintendent Nikolai Vitti some good news on the first day of school.

After a morning spent answering reporters’ questions about the Detroit district’s drinking water, several students told him that they came to the Detroit School of Arts from charter schools or schools outside the district — a good omen for the district’s quest to reverse decades of declining enrollment.

Then he walked out of the cafeteria and past a brand new water cooler — a physical reminder of the lead contamination that led Vitti to shut off district water fountains as a precautionary measure last week, and a sign of the immense challenges that remain.

News that he shut down drinking water in all of the district’s 106 schools — though not water for handwashing and other purposes — has made national headlines and dominated TV coverage of the first day of school. Most of the attention has focused on the Detroit Public Schools Community District, although, as Vitti pointed out, the problem is likely widespread in the city. Still, he said the district continues to press forward, pointing to early indications that enrollment is up for a second straight year.

“In the schools I visited today, the focus was not water, it was teaching and learning,” he told reporters during a tour of four district schools that saw improvements in their test scores this year.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Superintendent Vitti and Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, vice-president of the school board, speaking to several students who said they came to the Detroit School of Arts from outside the city’s main district.

And no matter the challenges facing Detroit children, the first day of school had the familiar feeling of a fresh start.

Earlier that day, before temperatures climbed into the 90s, families waited outside the Southwest Detroit Community School for the charter school’s front doors to open. A few blocks away, at Academy of the Americas, a dual-language school run by the city’s main district, the youngest students were busy laying down the foundations of a year of learning. A classroom of kindergartners was hard at work learning their art teachers’ name, while outside in the hallway a group of students practiced walking in a single file line.

If students looked nervous, they weren’t the only ones. For administrators in Detroit, the first day of school marks the start of a sprint across an education landscape marred by uncertainty about even the most basic facts, like how many teachers would show up for the first day of school.

The city’s main district, for instance, still had nearly 100 classrooms without a certified teacher on the first day of school, although that number has fallen from 275 since Vitti took over. And even as schools compete fiercely for students and teachers, dozens of the city’s lowest-performing schools could face serious consequences if they don’t improve their test scores.

Schools like Southwest Detroit Community School, a K-8 charter school.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s scary,” said Principal Kim Pritchett, as she sat in front of a whiteboard covered in a half-finished to-do list. Already done: creating an online folder of lesson plans. Still to do: lay out a professional development schedule for the year. Pritchett, who started on the job less than a month ago, says she spent much of the weekend in this office in feverish preparation for the school year.

“They have to trust me and understand that my commitment is to them,” she said of teachers and students at the school.

Pritchett is the fifth principal in five years at a charter school that went from being a symbol of strong school-community relations to a reminder that good intentions aren’t enough to sustain a school.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
A family marks the first day of school with a selfie at Southwest Detroit Community School.

On Tuesday morning, there were indicators that high administrative turnover wasn’t enough to spoil the goodwill between the community and the school. As many as 93 percent of last year’s students re-enrolled, according to Pritchett. And while she is still hoping to hire a couple of classroom aides, she said that every teaching position at the school was filled by a certified teacher on the first day.

“It’s gonna be a good year,” said Nicole Cole, who has three sons at the school and plans to enroll a fourth next year. “The teacher-parent relationship has always been close.”

A good year is badly needed. After years of poor test results, the school was placed in March on a state watchlist, putting it in line for additional oversight and even for closure if its test scores don’t improve within three years. Pritchett has been in this situation before: As principal at Plymouth Educational Center, another Detroit charter, she says she helped that school lift its academic performance and escape the priority list.

More than 60 of Detroit’s roughly 200 public schools (both charter and traditional) are under similar pressure. Yet test scores released last week made clear that most are not hitting the targets laid out in contracts with the state.

For those schools, the coming academic year is especially high-stakes. Vitti has promised to improve the academic performance of Michigan’s largest school district, which contains more than 50 schools on the state watchlist. They could face consequences if they don’t reverse years of low test scores, but Vitti says they’ll benefit from newly adopted math and English curriculums, which are in use starting this year. Those gains, however, won’t be apparent at least until the next round of test scores are released next summer.

Nonetheless, he used a first-day-of-school tour of four district schools to highlight those that saw improvements in their test scores last year.

At Academy of the Americas, where English scores have risen by 12 percentage points over the past three years of testing, he took over the PA system with an encouraging message for teachers.

“We get questions about what our children are capable of doing,” he said. “And you have demonstrated what they are capable of doing, and what they’re capable of doing in the future. So continue to work hard, continue to put students first, and we’ll always be willing to showcase the great work that happens at Academy schools.”

Walking between classrooms, Vitti kept a close eye on students. When one walked by in tears, with cotton balls wadded in his nose (apparently to quell a bloody nose), Vitti briefly laid a hand on his shoulder. Earlier in the day, on a visit to Gardner Elementary School, he helped fix an untied shoelace.

As the afternoon heat rose, classrooms at Academy of the Americas were well above room temperature — a reality in a district where aging electrical systems would make running air conditioning difficult even in schools that have that equipment. The heat, along with the water problems, are two symptoms of infrastructure problems so serious that they would cost $500 million to fix. Earlier in the day, Vitti told reporters that he considered releasing students early from school, as the district has done on other hot days, but chose not to, in part because he believes it is important to establish routines on the first day of school.

As his tour of the school concluded, Vitti and reporters walked past a student who was being supported by a staff member after fainting from apparent dehydration. A few minutes later, another overheated student was brought to the front office, and given water and ice for the same complaint.

Vitti said they’d been playing outside, which both students confirmed once they were feeling better. Asked about the students, he said the district has no plans to close schools early this week, but also isn’t ruling it out given a forecasted high temperature of 90 degrees on Wednesday.

“We’re going to look at the weather,” he said.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Superintendent Vitti told a freshman science class at the Detroit School of Arts that they would help rebuild the school into the “mecca of the arts in Detroit.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:


Michigan’s ‘band-aid’ for filling teaching jobs is expanding. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Teachers welcome students to the Southwest Detroit Community School on the first day of school. Seven of the charter's 31 educators last year entered the profession through a fast-track training program.

There aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms across Michigan — and especially in Detroit. That’s why state officials have opened the door to a controversial way of filling classrooms, loosening restrictions on so-called alternative certifications for educators.

In addition to Teachers of Tomorrow, a fast-track, for-profit teacher certification program that began placing teachers with virtually no classroom experience in schools this year, another for-profit company, #T.E.A.C.H., was recently approved to help expand the state’s teacher pipeline. They’ve joined long-running nonprofit programs like Teach for America, whose corps members typically get some in-classroom training and more hours of teaching classes.

If the expansion continues, it could change the face of schools across the state, in cities like Detroit most of all. In states like Texas — home to Teachers of Tomorrow — nearly half of new teachers take non-traditional routes to certification.

As policymakers gear up for a tug of war over teacher certification, Chalkbeat obtained last year’s teacher certification data for the entire state. The data, alongside interviews with experts in teacher training, painted a picture of where we are now — and where we might be headed.

It shows that teachers with alternative certification are concentrated in Detroit, largely at charter schools, and that they’re disproportionately at a handful of schools.

Scroll down for a list of schools in Michigan that employed at least one teacher with an interim certification last year.

But first — what is alternative certification, again?

In short, it’s an express lane into the teaching profession. Michigan teachers have traditionally attended teacher certification programs that require them to student teach in an actual classroom. By contrast, Michigan’s alternative certification route, which was created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA to start teaching after taking a few courses online and passing a test in the subject they hope to teach. Unlike traditional teacher colleges, these programs don’t require any in-classroom training.

Not every program is the same — some universities that provide alternative certifications require teachers to attend classes in-person and practice teaching in the classroom before they start on the job. 

After three years on the job, teachers with alternative certifications can become fully certified if their principal signs off.

This fast-track arrangement is not unusual — almost every U.S. state offers an accelerated route into teaching. But some are much more widely used than others.

The vast majority of Michigan educators still come from traditional, four- or five-year teacher training programs.

It’s not even close. When the state Legislature allowed for an alternate route to teacher certification nearly a decade ago, the policy was billed as an important tool in the struggle to alleviate a statewide teacher shortage. But the 248 educators with “interim certifications” who were employed in Michigan last year amount to little more than a blip in a statewide teacher corps of about 100,000.

A few controversial for-profit certification programs, which were approved to operate in Michigan for the first time last year, hope to change that. Teachers of Tomorrow, whose graduates have begun finding work in Michigan schools, certifies tens of thousands of teachers in 12 states.  And in a promotional video on its website, #T.E.A.C.H, promises to help would-be educators “start teaching almost immediately.” It allows teachers to complete their online training after they have started working in the classroom.

Teachers who go through an alternative certification program are heavily concentrated in Detroit.

Research shows that poor students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be taught by a teacher with an alternative certification. That holds true in Michigan. Two-thirds of the teachers certified through a non-traditional program in the state teach in the city of Detroit, where most students are poor and black or Latino.

This may be because Detroit schools are more willing to hire them. Less than one-twentieth of Michigan’s more than 3,000 schools don’t employ a single teacher with an interim certification. About one-third of Detroit’s schools do.

To be sure, the statewide teacher shortage is particularly punishing in Detroit, where poverty and large class sizes make working in the classroom more difficult. Alternative certification programs have focused their recruiting efforts in the city in an attempt to help fill the gap.

Across the country, cities “are where it’s hardest to get conventional teachers,” said Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has published studies of alternative certification. “Cities are also often where people from Teach for America and other idealistic programs are likely to want to teach.”

Critics say that lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession won’t address the deeper problems that plague Detroit schools. And they worry that this quick fix comes with unintended consequences.

“It’s really more like a band-aid, as opposed to addressing the larger issue,” said Christopher Crowley, a professor of teacher education at Wayne State University. “These are experiments, and they’re being tested on certain populations and not others.”

Teachers with alternative certifications can be effective.

It is very difficult to determine whether teachers who take this route perform any worse than their peers, partly because the accelerated programs vary widely in the amount of training and support they give new teachers. Armen Hratchian, director of Teach for America in Detroit, says its program allows teachers to be successful with fewer hours of in-classroom training — known as student teaching — that is common at traditional teacher colleges.

“To help meet the highest standard of teaching here in Michigan, TFA teachers spend over 400 pre-service hours training over the summer, continue to receive intensive coaching and development throughout their first two years, and are monitored and credentialed by the University of Michigan,” he said in an email.

But they are far more likely to leave the profession.

There’s little doubt that teachers who use alternative certification are more likely to leave the profession within a few years. Schools that fill vacancies with such teachers can find themselves in a “vicious cycle” of never-ending hiring, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher at the non-partisan Learning Policy Institute, which last month published a list of best practices for combating teacher shortages that does not include alternative certification.

“Most states have been struggling to address teacher shortages for several years, often filling the vacuum with underprepared teachers,” the report reads.

Charter schools hire more teachers with alternative certifications than traditional schools.

Last year, 130 teachers with alternative certification were in charter schools compared with 105 at traditional schools in Michigan. A handful of charter schools have an especially high concentration of these teachers. At the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tiny charter high school on the city’s northern border, nearly half of the 25 teachers at the school last year had not attended a traditional teaching program.

“As the teacher shortage continues to be an ongoing issue, I am always looking to find creative ways to find qualified candidates,” said Wendie Lewis, principal of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in an email. In her experience, teachers who arrive at the school via programs like Teach for America are actually more apt to stay than traditionally certified teachers, perhaps because they promise at the outset to teach for two years.

There are lots of other ways to fight the teacher shortage.

Experts recommend raising salaries, trying to coax retired teachers back onto the job, forgiving student loans for teachers, offering new teachers more mentorship — and the list goes on.

Local governments, philanthropies, and companies have also pitched in, sweetening the deal for teachers by offering discounts on houses and cars for educators in Detroit.

And school leaders in Detroit are already going to extraordinary lengths to fill their classrooms.

Most recently, the city’s main district announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation to, among other things, build a new “cradle to career” school that will feature a beefed-up teacher training program. The idea, in part, is that better-trained, better-supported teachers are more likely to stay in the profession. The district has said it won’t rule out hiring teachers from alternative certification programs, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has made clear that he prefers teachers with more training.

“We have to get out of the days of taking any adult that has some education and some certification and placing them in a school, and go to a model where we actually teach teachers how to teach,” Vitti said as he announced the new school on Thursday.

Here’s a list of schools where teachers with alternative certifications were working in Michigan during the 2017-18 school year:

School # Teachers w/ Alt. Cert. Type of school City
Jalen Rose Leadership Academy 11 Charter Detroit
Central High School 9 Traditional Detroit
Voyageur College Prep 8 Charter Detroit
Denby High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy 7 Charter Detroit
MacDowell Preparatory Academy 7 Charter Detroit
Mumford High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Southwest Detroit Community School 7 Charter Detroit
Detroit Enterprise Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (PSAD) 6 Charter Detroit
Voyageur Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – Elementary 5 Charter Detroit
Burns Elementary-Middle School 4 Traditional Detroit
Law Elementary School 4 Traditional Detroit
Southeastern High School 4 Traditional Detroit
Cass Technical High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Cesar Chavez High School 3 Charter Detroit
Clippert Academy 3 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Innovation Academy 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Elementary 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Middle/High 3 Charter Detroit
Ford High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Pansophia Academy 3 Charter Coldwater
Washington-Parks Academy 3 Charter Redford
Beecher High School 2 Traditional Mount Morris
Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit City West Side Academy for Leadership Development 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Prep 2 Charter Detroit
Frontier International Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Linden Charter Academy 2 Charter Flint
New Paradigm Loving Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Nolan Elementary-Middle School 2 Traditional Detroit
Old Redford Academy – High 2 Charter Detroit
St. Catherine of Siena Academy 2 Private Wixom
Trix Academy 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – High School 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School 2 Charter Detroit
Webberville High School 2 Traditional Webberville
Western International High School 2 Traditional Detroit
Academy for Business and Technology Elementary 1 Charter Dearborn
ACTech High School 1 Traditional Ypsilanti
Advanced Technology Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
All Saints Catholic School 1 Private Canton
Alternative Educational Academy of Iosco County 1 Charter East Tawas
Ann L. Dolsen Elementary School 1 Traditional New Hudson
Arno Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Avondale High School 1 Traditional Auburn Hills
Avondale Middle School 1 Traditional Rochester Hills
Bendle Middle School 1 Traditional Burton
Botsford Elementary School 1 Traditional Livonia
Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Capstone Academy Charter School (SDA) – South Campus 1 Charter Detroit
Cesar Chavez Middle School 1 Charter Detroit
Chandler Park Academy – Middle School 1 Charter Harper Woods
Chelsea High School 1 Traditional Chelsea
Communication and Media Arts HS 1 Traditional Detroit
Conner Creek Academy East – Michigan Collegiate 1 Charter Warren
Crescent Academy Elementary 1 Charter Southfield
Crestwood High School 1 Traditional Dearborn Heights
Croswell-Lexington High School 1 Traditional Croswell
Dansville High School 1 Traditional Dansville
Dearborn High School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Detroit Achievement Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Collegiate High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Merit Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit School of Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Dickinson East Elementary School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
East Arbor Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Eastpointe High School 1 Traditional Eastpointe
Ecorse Community High School 1 Traditional Ecorse
Escuela Avancemos 1 Charter Detroit
Fitzgerald Senior High School 1 Traditional Warren
George Washington Carver Elementary School 1 Charter Highland Park
Grand Ledge High School 1 Traditional Grand Ledge
Hamtramck High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Harrison High School 1 Traditional Farmington Hills
Henry Ford Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
Holy Family Regional School 1 Private Rochester
Hope of Detroit Academy – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
Horizon High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Inkster Preparatory Academy 1 Charter Inkster
International Academy of Flint (K-12) 1 Charter Flint
Jackson Christian School 1 Private Jackson
Jackson ISD Local Based Special Education Programs 1 ISD School Jackson
Kensington Woods Schools 1 Charter Lakeland
Kosciuszko School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Legacy Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Lindemann Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Litchfield High School 1 Traditional Litchfield
Lowrey Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Madison High School 1 Traditional Madison Heights
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Maybury Elementary School 1 Traditional Detroit
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody 1 Traditional Detroit
Michigan Connections Academy 1 Charter Okemos
Multicultural Academy 1 Charter Ann Arbor
Munger Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Murphy Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Noble Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Northeast Elementary School 1 Traditional Jackson
Northridge Academy 1 Charter Flint
Novi High School 1 Traditional Novi
Novi Woods Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
Osborn Academy of Mathematics 1 Traditional Detroit
Owosso High School 1 Traditional Owosso
Oxford Crossroads Day School 1 Traditional Oxford
Pershing High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Reach Charter Academy 1 Charter Roseville
Redford Service Learning Academy Campus 1 Charter Redford
Redford Union High School 1 Traditional Redford
Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Renaissance High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Royal Oak High School 1 Traditional Royal Oak
Salina Intermediate 4 – 8 1 Traditional Dearborn
Saline High School 1 Traditional Saline
South Lake High School 1 Traditional Saint Clair Shores
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Thornton Creek Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) High School 1 Charter Detroit
University Yes Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Washtenaw International High School 1 ISD School Ypsilanti
Woodworth Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College 1 Traditional Ypsilanti

Source: Michigan Department of Education