Detroit

Week in review: A testing surprise, deja vu and debates

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Surprise! Detroit students are set to take fewer exams this year after an announcement by new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Of all of the changes he’s made since joining the district in May, it’s the one most likely to make a concrete difference in students’ experiences in school.

Others getting unexpected good news this week: teachers at a closing charter school who learned they might get paid after all, and a Detroit educator who got a shout-out from a student who is making it in Hollywood. Read on for the details and have a great weekend.

— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

DOWN WITH TESTING: Educators and parents who have long pushed back against what they say is excessive testing in Detroit schools found an ally in Vitti. On Thursday, he announced that the district would reduce the number of required tests from 186 to 57 — a 70 percent drop.

“We have whittled it down to essentially what is required at the state level … and what is required for teacher evaluations,” Vitti said. The superintendent “listens to teachers,” national union chief Randi Weingarten tweeted. The Free Press expressed cautious optimism. One principal had a less nuanced take: “This is awesome.”

BACK TO SCHOOL: Detroit launched pop-up enrollment centers to help families find schools this week; they’ll be open until Aug. 18. A credit union that planned to take teachers’ requests for donated school supplies until Sept. 9 closed the request line after everything was claimed in two days. A law firm that gives out backpacks to students every year is adding 3,000 “Teacher Totes” this fall. And more districts than ever have gotten permission to start before Labor Day (but not Detroit).

DEJA VU: For Detroit families, finding a good school is a struggle with lots of uncertainty. The same idea, from a year ago. The state’s forthcoming plan to comply with federal education law could help the situation — but will it?

ABOUT THAT PLAN: Michigan education officials checked in with the U.S. Education Department this week in an ongoing process of overhauling the state’s school accountability system. Next, the feds will give formal feedback on the state’s plan, which will detail what information is shared about schools and what happens to low-performing ones.

DEVOS DESCENDS: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was on her home turf of Grand Rapids this week to visit a community college and a private summer program for middle schoolers. Five teachers who met with her said they oppose the Trump administration’s proposed teacher training cuts. Superintendents also weighed in, but Vitti said he couldn’t make it.

MONEY MATTERS: Everyone agrees that Detroit teachers deserve more than the 7 percent raise over three years included in their new contract. On the upside, teachers at a closing charter school who were told they wouldn’t get paid now might.

RACE TO MANOOGIAN: Jeffery Robinson, principal of Detroit’s Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, is a write-in candidate for mayor, one of 13 people hoping (probably quixotically) to unseat Mayor Mike Duggan in Tuesday’s primary. Inside Robinson’s school on Vitti’s first day.

ART COLLECTION: Detroit’s leading museum, symphony, and opera are working together on a plan to bring more arts to city students. What they’re up against.

FRESH LOOK: Fifteen city schools will get spruced up during the annual ARISE Detroit! Neighborhoods Day on Saturday. Another fix-up program, Life Remodeled, launched this week with a base at a school building it controversially leased from the city for $1 a year.

DEBT DEBATE: Two years after the Detroit school district was ordered to pay a contractor $24 million, the two parties are still fighting over the money.

HISTORY CLASS: Fifty years ago, a program called the Neighborhood Educational Center had success educating poor students in Detroit. But when an initial grant ran out, the initiative disappeared.

SMALL AMBITIONS: Meet the man trying to launch a charter “micro-school” with just 35 students per grade in northeast Detroit next year. More about the trend.

DISAPPEARING TEACHERS: Since 2008, the number of Michigan college students preparing to become teachers has fallen by half, in line with national trends. “We can’t identify causation,” a state education official said. “And we don’t know yet if it’s a good thing, or not.”

EXTRA CREDIT: Shawntay Dalon, the east side native who stars in “Detroiters,” shouted out her high school English teacher this week on Instagram. Kristen Marschner LaMagno taught Dalon at Finney High School before it closed; she now works at Western International High School.

Actress Shawntay Dalon, and her high school English teacher Kristen Marschner LaMagno

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The target on the back of the state board of education

State lawmakers this week began a push to eliminate the state board of education and replace it with an appointed superintendent. But before anyone starts writing the board’s obituary, note that the controversial effort would require approval from two-thirds of the legislature and voters in a statewide voter referendum.

Detroit schools, meanwhile, continue to struggle with hiring enough teachers to fill classrooms. The main district has taken the unusual step of putting some counselors and assistant principals in classrooms. Leaders hope the short-term measure won’t interfere with meeting the district’s  ambitious goals.

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s school news. Also, mark your calendar for the city’s first State of the Schools address, which will be held on October 25. Seats are available for people who want to attend in person. For those who can’t make it, we will be carrying it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

In the district

Across the state

  • The proposal to get rid of an elected state school board won praise from one editor but got a mixed response from lawmakers during a hearing this week. Eliminating the board, which one lawmaker called “irrelevant,” would require amending the state Constitution.
  • A senate committee has approved a bill that would allow charter schools to get a cut of tax increases that have traditionally benefitted district schools.
  • Trained college grads who give high school students advice about getting into college are relieving pressure on school counselors.
  • A federal court will now consider the legal case filed by a state teachers union against a right-wing spy. Read the union’s complaint here.
  • One educational leader called on the state to develop a way to recruit and retain 100,000 qualified teachers who could serve low-income children in cities and rural communities.
  • A state commission has ruled that a union cannot force the firing of a public school teacher who resigned from the union and stopped paying dues.
  • Career and technical education is on the rise in Michigan — but many students who enroll in those programs don’t complete them.
  • A new survey shows Michigan voters support their local school districts — but are less sure about the quality of instruction across the state.
  • A suburban mom says her son got 8 years of English as a Second Language instruction even though he’s a native English-speaker.

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!

 

Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.