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Week in Review: Angst, fury as 38 Michigan schools await their fate

It has been an intense week for Detroit families and educators trying to absorb the news that as many as 25 Detroit schools — 38 across the state — could face permanent closure in June. State officials say their goal is to get kids into higher performing schools, but the aggressive closures could disrupt children’s lives without necessarily landing them in better schools. Communities, meanwhile, could suffer the consequences of losing neighborhood anchors.

“My school was like a Mecca of hope in that area, and when it closed it was like Vietnam after the war. It’s just devastating. I don’t even think any children live over there anymore, I think all the children have moved. Vacant houses, vacant lots, dilapidated buildings. It’s just a real sad situation.”

— David Harris, former Detroit Public Schools principal

Read on for more about the threatened closings as well as the rest of the week’s education news. And, in case you missed it, we were thrilled on Monday to announce that Chalkbeat Detroit is no longer a pilot. We’ve added staff and are now fully committed to covering Detroit schools on an ongoing basis (as we try to educate our kids here). Thanks to all of you who sent us insights, notes and suggestions throughout our pilot. We will look forward to many more conversations with readers. Here’s the headlines:

Closing the doors

State officials are planning to close as many as 38 schools in Detroit, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and other cities under a law that gives state officials control over struggling academies.

Parents and school leaders responded angrily to the news, which one top educator slammed as “uninformed.” The fact that the closings are being made “without input” from districts, educators and communities “should make us all question the validity of this action,” she said.

The school rankings used to create the closure list “closely mirrors wealth-to-poverty levels,” one parent leader wrote, arguing that shuttering these schools “punishes poverty.”

The news rattled parents, students and staff, even in a city accustomed to turmoil in schools, while a teachers union leader warned that closings would create “education deserts.”

Detroit has already lost scores of schools to closings that have left behind a painful legacy for families and communities.

This time around, the doomed schools include one that was a top performer just a few years ago. Also on the list is a school that students and teachers acknowledged lacks basic resources and academic rigor.

State officials say they want kids to move to higher-performing schools but our review of Detroit school rankings shows it’s not likely that the 12,000 kids who could be displaced by closures will land in a better school. Most of the schools near the top of the state rankings are many miles away from the schools threatened with closure.

Many parents with children at closing schools have received letters recommending schools in the suburbs — as maps clearly show the doomed schools surrounded largely by other struggling academies. This useful interactive map lets families zoom in to see what other options they have nearby.

An education writer and advocate says Detroit’s situation is “identical to almost every other mass school closure we have witnessed in the last decade.”

Critics have slammed the state for the abrupt way the closings were announced, without giving families much time to prepare. By the time families know for certain which schools will be closed, “many higher performing schools will have completed their first application window and parents from schools will be on waiting lists,” a parent advocate notes.

Even the Detroit News, which has been a stalwart supporter of closing failing schools, opined that the state school reform office is “not explaining how it is ranking schools, why it would close a school and how it would ensure students have a better alternative.”

A top adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged at a business forum this week that closings have serious consequences. “If you start closing schools, what does that do for the neighborhoods in the city? Where do the kids go?” he asked.

As difficult as this year’s closings may be, however, they’re not likely to be the last. Next year, another 35 schools, including 26 in Detroit, are in danger of being shuttered — a threat that could slash the size of the Detroit’s main school district and cost it millions of dollars in lost enrollment.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s main school District is holding a summit along with the Education Achievement Authority to showcase ways districts can improve their schools — rather than just shut them down.

On DeVos

  • The head of the Senate committee reviewing the nomination of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education urged his colleagues to join him in supporting her and denied a request from Democrats for a second hearing. But top Democrats say they plan to vote no.
  • A Detroit mother of eight explains why she thinks the challenges her children have faced in Detroit schools can be blamed on DeVos.
  • A cartoonist says turning the department over to DeVos is like turning a school bus over to a student driver.
  • Comments about Detroit schools by the head of Shinola drew applause for DeVos at a western Michigan event.
  • An education journalist says his colleagues in the media have been unfair to the Michigan schools advocate.

In other news

  • Michigan received $242 million from a federal program to help struggling schools that has gotten mixed results.
  • An advocate remembers a passionate former Detroit school board president.
  • There are more than 21,000 events planned around the country — including 730 in Michigan — to celebrate National School Choice Week.
  • Two state religious schools leaders say they see growing support for alternative school options such as vouchers.
  • A man was shot and killed in front of a Detroit elementary school after dropping off his child.
  • Dozens of Michigan high schoolers are involved in a sexting scandal.

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