Week In Review: Teaching and learning in the ‘worst’ city

Alycia Meriweather

Detroit’s main school district is still struggling to recruit teachers and enroll more students, but leaders say they remain hopeful about the new school year. Their optimism comes against higher-than-ever stakes for this year’s kindergarteners — and after a politically tumultuous spring, recounted this week in Harper’s Magazine, that teachers say affected their students.

"If every time you turn on the news they tell you how you live in the worst city, they tell you your education is no good, what do you have to look forward to?"Kimberly Thompson, Detroit teacher

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, if you missed last night’s MiWeek Roadshow focusing on the state of education in the Detroit area on DPTV, you can watch it online here. We were honored to participate along with Detroit school leaders and advocates.

Making the (third) grade:

Legislation that would force schools, starting in the 2019-20 school year, to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level is on its way to the governor. If he signs it, this year’s kindergarteners will be the first to face the more demanding standards.

Lawmakers passed the bill after reaching a compromise: Students who can’t pass state reading tests or demonstrate literacy in other ways can advance to the fourth grade if they receive remedial instruction and demonstrate proficiency in other subjects. And a new “good cause” provision lets parents appeal for their child to be promoted, even if he has not met the state’s standards.

The legislation would make Michigan at least the 17th state to pass third-grade retention rules, even as some places have moved away from holding students back. And it remains controversial: It passed largely with Republican support, but it did win over some Democrats and liberals who had initially raised concerns that the measure was too punitive and would hurt children whose parents have fewer resources to fight for them.

“We maintain our concerns with mandatory retention,” said the head of a children’s advocacy organization, a former Democratic lawmaker. “But … we are pleased with the number of exemptions, including the ability of a parent to make the request. The bill contains many other positive provisions, such as early and ongoing interventions to help students struggling, and is ultimately a strong step in addressing this issue.”

What the bill doesn’t contain is new money. States with successful mandatory retention laws have also put money up to help kids make the grade, writes a Free Press columnist. Instead, she writes, Michigan’s bill “requires schools to do an awful lot of stuff to improve their reading instruction, but notably absent is money to pay for it.” She’s not the only one complaining.

Want more details? Here’s more about what the bill requires.

Waiting for the courts?

The federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week alleging that Michigan is violating the rights of Detroit children by failing to provide them with a quality education is making waves in legal circles. One legal scholar wrote that the case has “blockbuster potential.” Another said the lawyers behind the case have put forward an “innovative legal claim” that, “although novel … is well grounded in decades of Supreme Court precedent.”

That has local advocates hopeful about the potential for the case — but not waiting for it to work through the courts. The ACLU’s Michigan director called for a statewide ballot referendum to let voters decide if Michigan students should have a fundamental right to an education. And a Free Press columnist urged readers to do something now about the state of Detroit schools.

Fiscal watchdogs, meanwhile, are raising concerns. A Detroit News columnist warns that if the federal courts get involved with state school funding, it “could create a new reality, and one that would hit state budgets hard.”

In Detroit:

  • Two weeks into the school year, the new Detroit school district was about 2,000 students shy of its enrollment target — but hopeful that the number would climb by “count day” next month, when local funding is set. The district was also trying to fill 240 teacher vacancies.
  • A state Republican leader said the contract caused him to lose confidence in transition manager Steven Rhodes, who he said is not “doing a good job for the taxpayers.” (The Detroit News called that a “budding buyer’s remorse” for last spring’s $617 million Detroit schools reform package.) Rhodes defended the $10 million contract expense, saying: “I concluded that simple notions of fairness required to us to do what we could for our teachers.”
  • Mayor Mike Duggan says he’s not done fighting for a Detroit Education Commission that would have authority over both public and charter schools – and next time he’ll cultivate more allies than just the governor.  “I’ve learned my lesson and we’ll come back in a different way,” he said.
  • Duggan sent fire marshals to investigate overcrowding at a westside school after a concerned mom took pictures of kids squeezed together in classrooms. When the fire inspectors arrived, the whistleblower mom said school officials pulled kids out of classes and hurried to move the furniture.
  • A new way of sharing textbooks in Detroit schools has raised eyebrows among parents.
  • Two Detroit school board candidates removed from the ballot on a technicality have been reinstated. The activist who got them tossed, a former Highland Park school board member who was convicted of felony embezzlement, is continuing his campaign — even as a Detroit News editor says he should “leave these candidates alone.”
  • Jews and Muslims came together to help spiff up this eastside school.

Across the state:

  • Detroit Public Television looks at school suspensions, which often lead to dropping out, and highlights the fate of one boy who was suspended so often last year, he missed 60 class days and had to repeat seventh grade.
  • School choice-fueled racial segregation isn’t just a problem in the Detroit area. A Bridge Magazine review found similar patterns in districts across the state. Plus: These are the 10 school districts that have lost the most students to Schools of Choice programs.
  • Teachers in Michigan — not just in Detroit — say they feel demoralized. The survey results from 11,000 teachers should be a “wake-up call for policymakers,” wrote a leader of one of the teachers unions that organized the poll.
  • A western Michigan administrator says the major study that found many Michigan school districts are underfunded was flawed because it used the state’s top districts as the standard. Instead, he said, the study should have looked at the top districts in the nation.
  • Want to know which Michigan school superintendents are paid the most — and which made $76 last year? This database has salary data from around the state.
  • A new report finds that access to qualified instructors is the biggest barrier to success for career programs in Michigan high schools and colleges.
  • As Michigan reviews its school evaluation metrics to comply with new federal laws, a teachers union leader and a business leader joined together to urge the state to find ways to reward schools for improving things like chronic absenteeism that can dramatically affect students. “If we choose chronic absenteeism as our quality indicator,” they write, “principals have the option to invest in after-school programs, extracurricular clubs, one-on-one student support and more.”

In other news:

  • The head of the Skillman Foundation stressed the urgency to create a college-going culture in low-income communities at a national college access conference.
  • If you think Detroit is the only part of the state where educators face possible corruption charges, guess again.
  • Two Detroit schools were on lockdown this week as police searched for a gunman who fired shots in the area.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Terence Crutcher was a KIPP parent and the charter school network urges action.
  • A new study suggests sending little kids to the same schools as teenagers can reduce bullying.


Extra Credit

For seven weeks over the summer, 40 Detroit Public Schools Community District high school students earned a living stipend and a $1,200 scholarship for future education expenses by working on projects that focused on education, food access, energy savings, art activism and renewable power generation in partnership with EcoWorks, Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and AmeriCorps (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).
For seven weeks over the summer, 40 Detroit Public Schools Community District high school students earned a living stipend and a $1,200 scholarship for future education expenses by working on projects that focused on education, food access, energy savings, art activism and renewable power generation in partnership with EcoWorks, Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and AmeriCorps (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.