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Detroit’s Week in Review: High stakes (and a shooting) as ‘radical experiment’ begins

Screengrab from DPSCD First Day of School Newscast
Screengrab from DPSCD First Day of School Newscast

The first week of school for Detroit’s new debt-free school district is off to a smooth start — that is, if you don’t pay much attention to the shooting of a principal’s car, the parade of sentencings for corrupt former administrators, the students threatened by a pack of dogs and the oppressive heat wave that shut down schools on the second day of classes. But there were signs of hope, too, including a new Montessori program and a possible new contract for Detroit teachers.

As classes begin, there’s a lot at stake for Detroit schools. State politicians are squabbling over whether the state is required to shut down low-performing schools in the city. A suburban district is fending off a state takeover. And educators in the Education Achievement Authority have one year to prove themselves before their schools are returned to the main Detroit district.

We spent the first day of school at the Mumford Academy, an EAA school in northwest Detroit where educators are trying to stay hopeful about their prospects even as the EAA’s days are numbered. As we continue to explore our expansion to Detroit, we’re looking for other schools and educators to feature in the coming months, so please send suggestions for schools where educators have important stories to tell. As always, thanks for reading — and please tell friends and colleagues to sign up for this newsletter. Here are the headlines:

Radical experiment

Detroit’s “radical experiment to save its public schools” is being watched closely by other struggling urban school systems, according to Time Magazine. “There are quite a number of districts that are ending up on the brink of bankruptcy,” one expert told the magazine. “There’s a lot of attention on Detroit.”

But the magazine’s description of the city’s chaotic charter school landscape, which an expert described as the “wild west,” prompted a rebuke from a news site that supports charters.

As Detroiters get to know the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, officials are rolling out a host of new programs to try to reverse decades of enrollment declines and low test scores.

Some parents remain skeptical. “We’ve had several new programs [over the years],” said one mother of nine. “But then two months later, they’ll say we don’t have enough money and cut them.”

And serious problems remain including one of the nation’s worst rates of chronic absenteeism. A disturbing new report found that 58 percent of Detroit students are chronically absent, compared to 13 percent nationally.

Closer to closings?

Radical experiment or not, the fate of many public schools in Detroit remains murky as Republicans in the state legislature say they’re considering “all options” to force the state to close low-performing schools in the city.

They say the law they passed last spring that created a new debt-free district requires the state to close all schools in the city that have posted low test scores for three years in a row. But Gov. Rick Snyder announced last week that he doesn’t think the law allows closures until 2019.

The lawmakers are now turning to the Attorney General for an opinion that they could potentially take to the courts.

They could also try to toughen the legislation, but one GOP leader said that’s not a good option due to “Detroit fatigue” in the state house. That prompted an angry retort from the Free Press editorial board, which says Detroiters have “Lansing fatigue.”

“Think how Detroit parents must feel,” the paper wrote. “They’re the ones the legislature left hanging when GOP lawmakers passed an underfunded school reform package, or whiffed on the chance to require accountability from charter schools.”

A Detroit News editor meanwhile called the idea that the state can’t close down DPS schools for three years “ridiculous” and urged Snyder to push back. “Should students stay trapped in failing schools for another three years because of a legal glitch?” she asked. “That’s a long time in the journey of a K-12 student.”

Money, money, money

New campaign finance reports reveal that wealthy members of the DeVos family showered Michigan Republicans with $1.45 million in June and July — an average of $25,000 a day — in the weeks following the contentious vote on legislation that created a new school district in Detroit. The family, whose members are strong charter school supporters, successfully lobbied to kill a proposed oversight commission that would have had some authority over charter schools in the city.

Advocates pushing for more charter oversight included some deep-pocketed business and community leaders, but they were outgunned by the DeVos family, a campaign finance watchdog told WDET. “People from the coalition came to the realization they just could never match the finances the DeVoses have,” he said.

A national teachers union leader said allowing the bill to go forward without restraints on charter growth amounted to a “poison pill” that would destroy DPS so it could be replaced by charter schools. “They poison pilled this bill so much so they could try to say a few years later, ‘See, we told you so,’” the leader said.

New contract?

The contentious battle in Lansing over Detroit’s new school district have gotten so intense, it has spilled over into Detroit teacher contract talks. GOP leaders are questioning the validity of the deal the district announced with its teachers this week.

The district announced that it had inked a six-month deal with the Detroit Federation of Teachers on Labor Day, just hours before the start of the school year.

One GOP leader said district Transition Manager Steven Rhodes didn’t have the authority to make that deal, but a spokesman for the governor says he did — as long as the contract ends when the new school board takes over in January.

Still, the contract must be approved by the 2,900 teachers and paraprofessionals in the union as well as the Financial Review Commission before it can become official.

The deal, which drew a mixed reaction from teachers, calls for top-paid teachers to get a 3 percent bonus while other instructors will get one-time pay increases ranging from $924 to $8,505. The deal also gives elementary school teachers more planning time and restores class size rules so that teachers whose class sizes exceed contractual limits will get extra pay.

In other news:

More from Chalkbeat:

  • How schools “open houses” give connected families in New York an edge in high school admissions.
  • The Indianapolis school board is changing an admission process that has long given affluent kids an edge in magnet school admission.
  • An award-winning teacher uses an app and camera phone to reinforce good math skills.
  • Few Colorado kids have access to STEM experiences.
  • Why urban school districts in Tennessee are suing the state for more money.

Extra Credit

Here’s how some Detroit teachers and school officials spent the first day of school.

DPSCD Newscast for the week of September 6, 2016 from DPS Community District on Vimeo.

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