Shutting down

Dozens of struggling schools in Detroit are set to close — but nearby options for their students aren’t much better

Michigan education officials’ aggressive school closure plan faces a major challenge: It’s unlikely that most students displaced by closures will end up in substantially better schools.

That’s because there are few schools in struggling cities like Detroit that have test scores significantly higher than the schools facing closure.

The 38 schools — including 25 in Detroit — on the dreaded list have all spent at least three years in the bottom 5 percent on a state ranking that measures test scores and graduation rates.

In closing the schools, officials say they hope students will move to higher-performing academies — ideally ones whose ranking is at or above the bottom quarter.

“We want these kids to enroll in a school that’s at least a 25 ranking or higher,” said Natasha Baker, who heads the state school reform office. “Our goal is to make sure that every kid in the state of Michigan has access to a quality education so they have the skills necessary for a high-wage job, a career or college.”

But if a 25 ranking or higher is the goal, most kids in closing schools won’t get there.

In Detroit, where 25 schools serving roughly 12,000 kids are on the chopping block, there are only 19 schools with scores above the bottom quarter, many of which are full to capacity.

Just two of the higher-performing schools are high schools —  and neither is likely to take many new students.

“Honestly, we are always full and we have a full waiting list,” said Adnan Aabed, the principal of Frontier International Academy, a Detroit charter school that last year posted test scores in the 39th percentile.

The other Detroit high school ranked above 25 percent was Renaissance High School, a highly selective district school that ranked in the 48th percentile.

Even Cass Tech, the city’s historic premier high school, didn’t break the 25 percent threshold on last year’s rankings. In 2016, Cass Tech was in the 21st percentile among state schools.

That means that the more than 4,000 students who are now attending the 10 Detroit high schools that are slated for closure are not likely to land in a school whose ranking is much higher than the school they attend now.

Students who live near the city’s borders could attend schools in the nearby suburbs but city bus lines often don’t connect with suburban ones so traveling to a suburban school can often be difficult.

The mismatch raises questions about how many schools the state School Reform Office will actually go through with closing.

Officials have said they would allow low-scoring schools to stay open if students would face “unreasonable hardship” when finding a better school. Baker said her office would make final decisions that will take available alternatives into account by early March..

She acknowledged on Friday that finding high-ranked schools will be a challenge in some communities.

“Some of the schools are in such depressed areas where you wouldn’t find a school at an 80 rating unless you went 50 to 75 miles out,” Baker said. She added that many of the higher-ranked schools “either have closed enrollment processes or it’s just really difficult to get into those schools.”

The state is sending letters to parents of children in closing schools that offer suggestions for nearby charter schools or district schools that are above the 25 percent threshold.

The absence of strong alternatives will be one factor that the state will consider as it makes final decisions about closings over the next month and a half.

If the Reform Office decides not to close a school on the list, it will take steps to try to improve it.

Such steps can be effective. The state announced on Friday that 79 schools that had been on the so-called “priority” list due to years of low performance had improved enough to be removed from the list.

The Frontier International Academy had been on that list a few years ago, Aabed said, noting that he was brought in to turn things around as part of the state’s intervention.

His school, where roughly half of students come from countries like Bangladesh and Yemen and don’t speak English at home, focused on teacher training, using data to understand student needs and other efforts, he said.

“We honestly have so many initiatives going on that we implemented in 2010 and 2011 and that’s why you see the scores even now going higher,” he said.

Detroit school officials say they hope they, too, will get time to show they can improve their schools. After years under state control, Detroit schools were just returned to a locally elected school board this month.

Local school officials announced Monday that they plan to hold a school improvement summit to highlight ways that other urban districts have shown improvement for struggling schools.

Detroit officials have also said they are considering filing suit to block school closings. School board member LaMar Lemmons said the board is planning to meet with lawyers on Tuesday.

“They are holding us to the test results that students received when the state was operating the district,” Lemmons said. “We not only think that’s unfair, we think it should be illegal.”

The  Detroit schools that ranked above the bottom quarter on the 2016 state ranking list were: 

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, K-8, ranking: 87

Detroit Enterprise Academy, K-8, ranking: 51

Detroit Merit Charter Academy, K-8, ranking: 58

Chrysler Elementary School, K-5, ranking: 56

Renaissance High School, ranking: 48

University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School, 6-8, ranking: 45

Cesar Chavez Academy Intermediate, 3-5, ranking: 44

Hope of Detroit Academy, K-8, ranking: 43

Detroit Premier Academy, K-8, ranking: 42

Frontier International Academy, high school, ranking: 39

Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center Academy, K-8, ranking: 38

New Paradigm Glazer Academy, K-8, ranking: 38

Oakland International Academy – Middle, 5-8, ranking: 38

Bates Academy, K-8, ranking: 34

New Paradigm Loving Academy, K-8, ranking: 33

Wright, Charles School, K-4, ranking: 32

Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies, K-8, ranking: 29

Old Redford Academy – Middle, 6-8, ranking: 29

Weston Preparatory Academy, K-8, ranking: 25

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”