Fighting to fix

Detroit school board and superintendent: We can improve the local schools the state wants to close

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

Members of the new Detroit school board vowed Wednesday night to prevent state officials from shutting down low-performing schools — and to find another way to fix those schools.

“The school board is committed to improving our schools, not shutting them down,” board president Iris Taylor said in a prepared statement she read after the board voted unanimously to hire a law firm to battle state-mandated closures.

The state school reform office last month released a list of 38 schools across the state that will be shut down for low-performance unless the office decides that closing the schools would cause a hardship to students. The 38 schools include 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that will return to the main district next summer.

The board hired the Miller Canfield law firm, which produced a memo last summer that is expected to be the basis of the district’s legal fight with the state. The memo argues that because the Detroit Public Schools Community District is officially a new legal entity that replaced the Detroit Public Schools, it should be given a fresh start and not face consequences for decisions made under the old district.

Now, district officials have directed managers to create improvement plans for each of the schools in the next 10 days. “Our leadership teams are working around the clock” to create the plans, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather said in a statement.

Here are the full statements from the school board and Meriweather.

DPSCD Board of Education Statement

For the first time in nearly a decade, the City of Detroit has a true school board, made up of educators, executives, and community leaders, empowered to make decisions that will improve our schools and lead to better educational outcomes for Detroit’s children.

Yet, just days into our term, the State School Reform Office (SRO) has listed 16 low performing DPSCD schools and eight EAA schools on a potential closure list, regardless of whether those children and families have a quality school in their neighborhood.  The SRO advised Detroit parents that if their child’s school is closed, they should consider sending their child to communities as far as Holly and East China to find a quality school.

Since 2009—when the state emergency managers took over Detroit schools—over 150 schools in Detroit have been shuttered.  These closures have imposed serious hardship on Detroit schoolchildren.  Study after study has indicated that when students are forced to switch schools unexpectedly, their academic performance suffers, their absenteeism rates increase, and the risk that they will drop out of high school skyrockets.  Yet the SRO is considering closing still more schools—inflicting new educational injuries on a population of students that has already suffered.

That is simply not right.  The DSCD school board is committed to improving our schools not shutting them down.

To that end, the board has directed DPSCD management to rapidly complete improvement plans for each of these schools.

We have spoken with Governor Snyder’s staff and he has committed that thoughtful analysis will be done before any schools are closed.

Meanwhile, we are authorizing DPSCD to take legal action when timely and appropriate to present why we believe these school closures cannot legally move forward.  We are hopeful that we can work with the state to avoid any action, however, we reserve the right to do so.

We look forward to presenting a plan for improvement to the SRO and the families of Detroit.

Statement from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather

On behalf of myself, our families, teachers and our administrators I want to thank the Board of Education for their leadership. We stand with their decision to work to keep our schools open. We have no doubt that closing schools without providing high-quality options would be devastating to our families. It would mean undue hardships in transportation, safety and access to critically needed wrap around services.

We also understand that it is critically important that each of these 16 schools shows dramatic improvement. As I speak, our leadership teams are working around the clock to create data-driven improvement plans for each school. These plans will be presented within the 10 days. We are confident that each one of these neighborhood schools can be a high-quality option for our students.

Finally, I want to thank the community – Mayor Duggan, our legislators, pastors, residents and friends for your outpouring of support. We sense that you are behind us and that you are locking arms with us to help us create better outcomes for our students. Thank you.

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.