Detroit Week in Review: The battle over ideology, charter schools and respect

Partisan politics, ideological disputes and years of tension between Detroit and Lansing over how best to run the state’s largest school district turned Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s first appearance before the state legislature yesterday into a heated battle of words.

GOP Lawmakers, who are strong backers of charter schools, slammed Vitti on a number of fronts including his combative stance toward charters, his refusal to sign off on the sale of a building that a charter school is trying to buy, and his failure so far to implement a state-mandated merit pay system for teachers. They even blamed Vitti for the fact that state officials haven’t implemented an A-F grading system for schools, accusing him of “blatantly” flouting the law.

“They don’t respect what goes on in Lansing. Not just Vitti, but their board. Everything has been adversarial.”

— Rep. Tim Kelly, Chair, House Education Reform Committee

Also this week we take a look at an innovative new program that uses technology — a vest that records babies’ speech — to improve the language skills of young children. And, watch our video story booth featuring one woman’s struggle to get her nephews the services they need to thrive.

Hope you are finding time to prepare for the holidays. Have a good week! 

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

OPEN WARFARE: Vitti said he doesn’t take the assault from Lansing personally. “There’s a long history here that’s larger than me and a number of complicated issues,” he told Chalkbeat. “If creating relationships and getting things done in Lansing means sacrificing the best interests of the district, I can’t do that.”

VEST IN CLASS: The vest used to record young children is a high-tech effort to close the language gap between resource-scarce children and their affluent peers.

MUSIC COMEBACK: In individual classrooms and in a restructured district budget, music and the arts are slowly returning to Detroit schools after years when more than half of Detroit schools offered no such programs (See our list of schools without programs last year). Also read our story about an overcrowded classroom without music, art or gym and the story of a teacher who uses music to teach history and other subjects (He left the district this year due to a massive pay cut)

SPECIAL ED UNDERFUNDED: A state study found that special education was underfunded by $700 million this year. The shortfall means districts are cutting general education spending by $459 per student. Watch our video highlighting one woman’s experience navigating special education in Detroit schools.

FEDERAL APPROVAL: After repeated attempts, Michigan education officials finally won approval from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for their plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. An education advocate thinks the plan is a missed opportunity to create statewide improvement programs but state officials defended their program from criticism.

GRASSROOTS: Community outreach by two major Detroit foundations will help their early childhood initiative succeed, one writer believes. One of those funders is looking for an organization to coordinate a leadership program for early childhood educators.

CHARTER PARENTS: Detroit charter school leaders are joining forces with charter school parents to advocate for charters in the city.

VACCINATION UPDATE: Parents who chose to waive vaccines rose slightly last year. Find the top five Michigan counties with the most families who waived the requirement in 2016,

GUNS IN SCHOOLS: The board of Detroit’s main district opposed legislation that would allow concealed weapons in schools, churches and early childhood centers. The bills have been approved by the Senate.

WHAT’S FAIR?  While the state’s teachers took pay cuts and lived through wage freezes, highly paid national union executives were getting raises. One opinion writer believes lawmakers are punishing teachers instead of paying them what they’re worth.

TEACHER ABSENTEEISM: A report about absenteeism among public school teachers left out important details, the director of a research organization wrote in a major newspaper.

INNOVATE: A former Michigan Teacher of the Year has this advice for teachers: Standing in front of a classroom and writing on a board isn’t going to cut it. Educators must adapt new methods to successfully teach poor students, wrote one charter school operator. A suburban superintendent writes that  students also need love and kindness to succeed.

WATER WIN: A teacher wins a case against the main district over lead levels in her school’s water.

LOOKING DEEP: The main district office that tackles waste and fraud has investigated more than 700 cases ranging from theft to ethics violations.

THE BIG PAYBACK: A wealthy businessman convicted in a kickback scheme in Detroit’s main district paid $1.5 million in restitution.

STEM EXPOSURE: Detroit-area students from 60 middle-schools will participate in a program to increase their exposure to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

TECH AND SKILLS TRAINING: Detroit students learned to lay tile and install metal framing while helping a construction company repurpose a former school building.

CREATING CAREERS: School districts now have two new resources from the state to help strengthen and create new career and technical programs in their schools.