Superintendent search

10 things to know about Derrick Coleman, the suburban superintendent interviewing to run Detroit’s schools

River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, one of two finalists to become the next leader of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, appeared in a 2012 video that called him a "school superhero."

The second of two candidates to interview for schools chief in Detroit offers a stark alternative to the first.

Derrick Coleman, superintendent of Michigan’s River Rouge School District, will face a battery of interviews Monday. Where Nikolai Vitti, the Florida schools chief who interviewed last week, runs a district far larger than Detroit’s, Coleman’s district has fewer students than Cass Technical High School. Vitti has a connection to the Detroit area, but Coleman graduated from and worked in Detroit Public Schools. And Coleman’s district has struggled to boost student performance while Vitti’s has won national acclaim for improving the test scores of some students.

Coleman will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Tuesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes visits to Cody High School and Davison Elementary-Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at Golightly Career and Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Renaissance High School. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

Before all of that begins, here are 10 things to know about Coleman:

  1. Coleman graduated from and earned a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at Gwynedd Mercy University in Pennsylvania, where he says he’ll graduate in August.
  2. He has deep connections with Detroit’s main school district. He attended DPS schools for kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating from Western High School, today known as Western International High School. His first teaching job was at Western, and he  taught in DPS from 1997 to 1999 before moving into administrative positions, including stints in Pontiac (where he was principal of Pontiac Central High, which is now closed) and Ypsilanti (where he was principal of Lincoln High School). “I’m uniquely qualified in that I’m a product of the system,” he told the Detroit Free Press. To the Detroit News, he said, “I … represent the promise that Detroit children can hope to become. I understand the city and the needs of the people.”
  3. Coleman returned to DPS from Ypsilanti in 2008 to become an assistant superintendent overseeing 29 schools. One of them was Durfee Elementary, where the city’s auditor general in 2009 found “control weaknesses related to compliance with District cash management policy.” In a “management response” to the audit, Coleman said the principal of the school retired and the new principal would be briefed on the auditor’s recommendations.
  4. Coleman tried — but did not succeed — to become a big-city superintendent before. In 2009, he was one of seven finalists to lead Ypsilanti Public Schools. But the school board wasn’t impressed. “I thought it was a weak list of individuals — I have serious questions about every single applicant,” one board member told the Ypsilanti Citizen.
  5. Since May 2012, Coleman has been the superintendent of River Rouge School District. Last year the district, which has only four schools, enrolled only 1,750 students. (The Detroit district, on the other hand, has nearly 100 schools and 40,000 students.)
  6. River Rouge is on a short list of districts in Michigan with student performance as low as Detroit’s. Only 4.3 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s standards for proficiency in reading and math last year, compared to 4.1 percent in Detroit’s main district, and all of its schools are in the bottom 10 percent statewide. The average SAT and ACT score in River Rouge is lower than in Detroit and under Coleman’s leadership, River Rouge’s four-year graduation rate declined slightly last year, from 76.5 percent to 75 percent.
  7. River Rouge has gained students under Coleman’s tenure — at Detroit’s expense. According to state data, 43 percent of school-aged students living in River Rouge do not attend district schools. (Many of the students who opt out are white: While River Rouge is nearly 40 percent white according to 2010 Census data, white students make up only 7 percent of enrollment.) Coleman’s contract promised bonuses if he boosted enrollment from 1,147, and he delivered, bringing enrollment to 1,750 last year. On his resume, he explains that he saved the district from insolvency through an “aggressive local and regional marketing and student recruitment campaign that eliminated a $3.4 million dollar deficit 2 years upon arrival and 1 year ahead of schedule.” The campaign, which included ads on Detroit buses, is one reason that a third of River Rouge’s students last year — nearly 600 — actually live in Detroit.

  8. The enrollment boost helped River Rouge stave off closure. But some in the district say Coleman has not sufficiently acknowledged the contributions of others in making the district solvent. In January 2011, over a year before Coleman came on, the district’s teachers agreed to a three-year, 15 percent salary cut and limits on health care coverage. “He did end up strengthening the district. We were teetering on closing,” David Kocbus, who headed the River Rouge Education Association until 2014, told the Free Press. “But who was really responsible? It was the teachers.”.
  9. In the fall of 2015 River Rouge, under Coleman’s leadership, opened a new primary school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, the subjects that together are known as STEM. The new option — the district’s fourth school — for the first time meant that families could exercise school choice while staying in the district. It also aimed to appeal to prospective families.
  10. In November 2015 Coleman added a school-based health center in River Rouge, in a move that prompted the United Way to designate the district as one of its “centers of excellence.” Society places unrealistic expectations on poor students to act “normal” even when they don’t have access to “normal” necessities like breakfast and a good night’s rest, Coleman said in a speech announcing the new center.

Weighing in

As advocates seek to influence New York City’s chancellor search, Angélica Infante-Green gets another nod

The petition calling for Infante-Green to become New York City's next schools chief.

Massachusetts education leaders and New York City parents are waging a tug-of-war over a New York state education official.

Angélica Infante-Green, currently a deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department, is having a big week. On Monday, she presented a proposal to increase culturally responsive education to New York policy makers. On Thursday, she’ll be in Boston to interview to become Massachusetts’ state education chief. And at the same time, New York City advocates are mounting an online campaign to make her their city schools chief.

A Change.org petition launched over the weekend calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to consider Infante-Green as he seeks to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Ms. Infante-Green is a visionary in the field of education and has proven to be a leader capable of generating change and results for the most vulnerable population,” says the petition, which is bilingual in English and Spanish and so far has more than 200 signatures, out of a goal of 500.

Whether Infante-Green is actually getting a close look from the de Blasio administration is unclear. City Hall has been tight-lipped about the process, other than vowing to limit the search to educators — which would rule Infante-Green in.

But Politico reported last week that insiders – people who have spent substantial time working within the local education bureaucracy — are not the administration’s top priority. “That means … no Angelica Infante-Green,” Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reported.

What is clear is that local advocates are seeking to seeking to gain influence in an opaque hiring process.

Matt Gonzales of New York Appleseed, a group that is pushing New York City to diversify its schools, told Chalkbeat in December that advocates want to have a voice in the chancellor search. On Tuesday, groups representing school PTAs and elected parent leaders will hold a press conference outside education department headquarters calling for parent input in the search.

For now, supporters of Infante-Green are busily making their case. Here’s one comment from the petition:

“Best candidate for the job. Personal Knowledge of entire NYC Public School Student population, which includes Special Education students and English Language Learners,” someone identified as Wladimir Pierre wrote about Infante-Green. “Angelica is a Devoted Public Servant of NYC Public School Students and their families. Let us not lose her to Massachusetts.”

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.