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).


Two principals out in wake of sex abuse scandal. Two retirees to step up as interims

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools has removed one principal and reassigned another in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that has caused reverberations throughout the district.

After an internal audit of management practices at the school, Simeon Career Academy Principal Dr. Sheldon House was “removed” this afternoon, according to a release from the district. “In particular, the review focused on the school’s response to past events in which volunteers were able to coach athletics without the proper background checks,” said the statement from CPS CEO Janice Jackson. “Unfortunately, the audit found systemic issues in Simeon’s handling of volunteer background checks.”

Simeon, in Chatham, is an athletic powerhouse that has won multiple state titles. Alums of the 1,300-student school include Chicago-raised basketball stars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker and State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, who graduated from Simeon in 1970. Though the Chicago Democrat graduated decades ago, she said she’s just as outraged as if it had happened while she was in school.

“I am devastated by it, but I’m not surprised about it,” said Flowers, who called for state oversight of the school district. “It’s not enough that they let them (principals) go.”

The district also announced it “reassigned” Sarah Goode STEM Academy principal Armando Rodriguez on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation. The decision followed the removal in June of a teacher after a student alleged possible sexual abuse. “CPS and DCFS are currently investigating to determine if abuse occurred, and the district will provide an update to the school community after the investigation is complete,” said the statement.

Located in Ashburn on the city’s Southwest Side, Sarah Goode STEM Academy is one of a handful of Chicago schools where students can earn dual credits in high school and college. The 860-student school is sponsored by IBM.

Both schools are level one schools, the next-to-highest rating in the district. 

CPS has selected David Gilligan, the retired former principal of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, to serve as Goode’s top administrator until the Local School Council selects a new principal.

At Simeon, Patricia Woodson has been brought out of retirement to serve as principal until a new administrator is named. Woodson previously served as the administrator in charge of Harlan, Marshall, and South Shore International schools.

The district’s widespread failing to have a system in place to protect student victims was first reported in early June in the Chicago Tribune. In the weeks since, CEO Jackson has announced several policy changes, including a widespread campaign to redo background checks of teachers, vendors, coaches, and volunteers. The district has also turned over its incident investigations to the office of Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

Reached Monday night, Flowers repeated calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Jackson, and board of education members to step down. She said that state lawmakers were planning another hearing in July.

“I think the parents voices need to be heard, and I’m looking forward to having some hearings in communities and at the schools…We expect (CPS CEO) Jackson to be there.”

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”