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Week in Review: Why we’re talking about moldy books and monster trucks

The students learn to identify shapes and compare and contrast them by size, number of sides and color.
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school in IPS.
Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Schools across Michigan offered everything from carnivals to monster trucks this week to lure students to class on the state’s crucial Count Day. That’s the day when student attendance determines nearly all of a school’s funding for the year.

And if we needed a reminder about how crucial that funding can be, the week’s news included a stunning report about a leaky roof at one Detroit high school that’s left classrooms moldy and library books destroyed. To make matters worse, district officials say they can’t fix it this year unless someone donates money for repairs.

Also this week: Chalkbeat spoke with the nation’s top education official, who warned state school leaders against closing schools without making sure better options exist. U.S. Education Secretary John King described Michigan’s track record for school improvement as “not great” and said that poor oversight has made charter schools an “uneven” alternative.

Does the secretary have a point? Let us know what you think by email, Facebook or Twitter.

Count ’em up:

Some schools used parties. Others invited parents to join their kids for free meals. Most inundated parents with letters and phone calls reminding them to attend classes on Wednesday, the state’s annual count day.

Michigan is one of nine states that tie per-student funding to attendance on two or more school days, often one day in the fall and another in the spring. (In Michigan, fall count day determines 90 percent of per-pupil funding, while the spring day accounts for the other 10 percent.) Another 10 states use a single count day while others use average attendance or other methods.

On the eve of the crucial count — which is perhaps even more crucial for charter schools — Detroit’s main district was nearly 800 students short of the 45,500 projected students that were factored into this year’s budget. With each student worth about $7,500 in state aid, the shortage could cost the district nearly $6 million.

Meanwhile, district leaders said teacher vacancies were down to 165 last week from 240 over the summer and that some of the crowded classrooms caused by unfilled teaching positions have been addressed. But a teachers union leader says problems remain: “There are schools that are overcrowded, and schools that saw a sharp decrease in enrollment,” she said.

Leaks and lawsuits:

After kicking off the school year with a press conference to announce that most buildings in Detroit’s main school district had been repaired, and after showing off some shiny new facilities, district officials now say they don’t have money to repair the roof at Cody High School. They noted that the $617 million the state sent this summer to help create a new school district was $50 million short of what district officials said they needed.

Problems with Detroit school buildings are among allegations included in the federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed last month against Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials.

The Free Press talked to legal experts about the prospects of that suit, which argues that the rights of Detroit children have been violated by their failing schools. Some legal experts say the case — which is being argued by lawyers from across the country — is a longshot given the 1973 Supreme Court decision that found Americans do not have a fundamental right to education. However, that ruling left an exception for cases where children are excluded from school. “If they can prove what they’ve alleged,” one expert said, “they certainly have a case.”

A Detroit News editor, however, urged the state to settle the suit by making sure that all Detroit students can read. He says this can be done without spending more money if schools teach reading — and only reading — until all students are literate.

The U.S. Education Secretary told Chalkbeat that he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but said that it’s clear the needs of Detroit children aren’t being met in district or charter schools. “I don’t think anyone can look at the academic outcomes in Detroit and not be worried about students and the future of the city,” he said.

He made those comments as he prepared to visit the state to mark “manufacturing day” at a suburban tool shop that gives high school apprentices on-the-job training. He was also headed to Flint to discuss school-based health programs and announce a $480,000 grant to help Flint children in the wake of the lead-tainted-water crisis.

The secretary urged state officials to try to improve schools, not just shut them down. His argument echoed comments from two state board of education members who blasted plans to shutter a host of failing schools in Detroit and across the state. “You don’t fix a school by closing it,” one said. “You just perpetuate the problem.”

The state’s charter school association — sensitive to criticism about charter school quality in Michigan — says it supports “closure with purpose.” In a letter to members, the association vowed that in the coming year it “will lead on quality.”
Across the state:

  • Gov. Snyder has signed the third-grade reading bill. That means that, starting with this year’s kindergarteners, students won’t be able to advance to the fourth grade unless they’re reading at grade level. “By helping students read proficiently by the third grade, we can make sure that our children have the necessary skills to do well in school and be successful for the rest of their lives,” Snyder said. School districts and charter schools will introduce new screening programs and interventions starting next year.
  • This Michigan teacher says instead of ramping up pressure on schools to improve third-grade reading skills, the state should “legislate the lack of parental responsibility and dedication” that he says is the reason kids can’t read.
  • The state’s highest court is staying out of the fight over public funds for private schools — at least for now. Snyder’s office says it will go ahead and disburse funds earmarked for private schools in this year’s budget, but that will likely set the stage for a lawsuit.
  • A Detroit News editor who supports the use of public funds in private schools urged the state to have a “broader conversation” about “opening avenues to true school choice.”
  • One commentator says the solution to Michigan’s failing schools is a constitutional amendment giving the Department of Education some real political power. “Otherwise, we’re doomed to failure, otherwise known as more of the same,” he wrote.
  • A Free Press columnist explores flaws in the argument that letting families cross district boundaries for school will make education better and more equitable. It won’t, she says. “Detroit kids go to Rouge River, Rouge River kids go to Wyandotte and Wyandotte kids go to Riverview, taking their per-pupil funding with them … In the main, a policy that’s supposed to improve education becomes a budget fix for struggling districts.”
  • Formerly homeless youth addressed the annual National Dropout Prevention Network’s gathering in Detroit to give educators ideas for how to help homeless students. Among suggestions: Post information about shelters and food pantries in every classroom and offer multiple ways for students to communicate with teachers, including social media.
  • On the eve of the dropout prevention gathering, the head of the nation’s largest online school company says they can play a role, too.
  • The Detroit News says the state superintendent is right to point out flaws in Michigan’s current testing system but says changing the exam now – just two years after adopting the M-STEP – would stunt efforts to measure school success. “It would make it much harder to enforce accountability measures, from teacher evaluations to deciding which schools are on the failing list,” the paper wrote.
  • Michigan’s lieutenant governor described efforts to improve education for children with special needs as the next great step of the civil rights movement in America. He was one of a dozen speakers who rallied for special education reforms Wednesday at the state capitol.
  • Teachers, parents and supporters staged “walk-ins” at schools around the state to demand higher-quality programs and services. In Detroit, the “walk-in” represents a new tactic for a union that drew criticism last year for shutting down schools during “sick-out” protests.
  • Two Michigan foundations are funding a new effort to determine how much money the state’s schools need to improve. The results will be released next year.
  • Michigan teachers say they want pension reform.
  • A schools advocate says this teaching method can save Michigan’s schools.

In Detroit Schools:

  • A Cass Tech physics teacher responds to critics of Detroit schools. Though some of his students arrive with poor math skills, he wrote, “I assure you the positives completely overwhelm the negatives.”
  • The mother of a tenth-grader says her daughter’s high school has no math teacher.
  • Another principal — number 11 — has been sentenced to jail for accepting bribes from a corrupt school supply vendor. Before her sentencing, she admitted that what she did was wrong. “My betrayal of your trust for my personal gain is inexcusable and humiliating,” she wrote in a letter to her students.
  • Among new efforts to boost campus diversity at the University of Michigan is a tutoring and scholarship program that will soon be expanding into Detroit.
  • Boxer Oscar De La Hoya read to third-graders at a Detroit school during a reading party connected to an effort to put 10,000 new books in Detroit schools.
  • A Detroit News editor called on the Mayor Duggan and business leaders to get more involved in the Detroit school board race.

In other news:

  • A Dearborn charter school has agreed to pay $106,000 to seven teachers who were fired after speaking out about conditions in their school.
  • A teacher at a Wayne County school for students with autism says a severe teacher shortage means some classrooms are run by substitutes or poorly trained aides.
  • A substitute teacher in Western Michigan has pleaded guilty to trying to steal violins from a school.
  • Enrollment is up in Grand Rapids for the first time in a decade.
  • A new report shows that a majority of Michigan school buses could be unsafe.
  • A social service organization has kicked off its annual Bib to Backpack initiative, meant to arm Greater Detroit moms, dads, and caregivers with resources for kindergarten success long before they set foot in a classroom.
  • The headmaster of a central Michigan private school explains why his school limits the use of computers and technology in classrooms.

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