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

Alycia Meriweather
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.

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.
  • With signoff from a state financial review commission, Detroit’s contract with its teachers union is now in effect.
  • 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.”
  • A new partnership could mean fewer power outages in Detroit schools.
  • Amazon has flooded a Detroit charter school with money and volunteers.
  • 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.
  • A new study finds that class sizes in Michigan are much higher than they should be.
  • 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.
  • A national foundation leader says Michigan is poised to become a leader in STEM education.
  • This mid-Michigan charter school says it offers students around the state a way to earn both high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees, largely through online courses.
  • 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:

  • This suburban school district is leading the way on accommodating immigrants.
  • Among new bills introduced in Lansing last week is one that would lower the college credit requirements for would-be substitute teachers.
  • 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.
  • When you ask Detroit youth what it’s like to grow up in this town, here’s what you learn.

From Chalkbeat:

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).

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