Detroit week in review

Week in Review: Nowhere to hide while trying to improve schools

As 2017 careens to a close, Detroit school leaders have been summoned to district headquarters to explain, one by one, what they’re doing about worrisome test scores, vacant teaching positions and other obstacles to improving city schools. Our story this week went behind the scenes of the so-called data chats where Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says principals and administrators must be frank about what’s broken to figure out what works.

“In this room, there’s nowhere to hide … It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room.”

— Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

Also this week, we have a story about a new pilot program that will put scores of books into the hands of babies and toddlers of 100 low-income Detroit families. We took a look at new legislation that supporters hope will prevent school districts from blocking the path of private and charter schools that are trying to buy old school buildings. And, we reported the news that a paperwork snafu has likely cost the (old) Detroit district $6.5 million.

Scroll down for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Like the schools we cover, Chalkbeat will be closed next week so this will be our last newsletter of the year. Please enjoy the holidays — and thanks for making Chalkbeat Detroit’s first official year since our January launch a great success. If you’ve valued our education news roundups this year, we hope you’ll consider taking 60 seconds now to support our journalism with a tax-deductible gift. There only 9 days left in our end of year campaign, so act now before you miss your chance!

Thanks for reading!

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

In the district

  • The goal of the data chat isn’t to shame school leaders over problems they can’t fully control. It’s to figure out what schools need — and find ways for the district to support them. “This is about creating a culture with a focus on performance,” Vitti said.
  • The main Detroit district is now inviting teachers to apply to become master teachers, a hybrid role that involves teaching kids, coaching teachers and a $5,000 stipend.
  • A member of the district’s finance team resigned on Thursday after Vitti said he would discipline officials who failed to submit paperwork for a $6.5 million reimbursement from the state. The error won’t affect kids because the money was owed to the old Detroit Public Schools, which exists only to pay down legacy debt.

On charters

  • The legislation designed to smooth the path for charter and private schools buying old school buildings is headed for the House.
  • One school that hopes to benefit from the legislation is the Detroit Prep charter school, which has been trying to buy a former Detroit Public Schools building. “The legislation is intended to prevent buildings from becoming blight and to prevent neighborhoods from suffering,” the school’s leader said.
  • The fight over reusing former school buildings mirrors similar battles across the country.
  • A prominent education advocate and author called on Mayor Duggan to create a commission to oversee city schools. Even if Lansing won’t sign off on a commission with real power, an advisory commission stocked with respected leaders, he writes, “could shame charter authorizers into cleaning up Detroit’s charter sector by closing failing schools.”
  • The head of a state teachers union urged district and charter school leaders to stop bickering over “who looks a few points better in which study,” and start focusing on why so many Michigan students are lagging so far behind their peers.

The Littlest Detroiters

  • A pilot program that will send backpacks full of books home every week to children who live near Munger Elementary School on the city’s west side is aimed at improving young children’s vocabularies to make it easier for them to learn to read.
  • The program, which will also use volunteers to provide in-school tutoring, could help identify students with disabilities at a younger age.
  • Expect many more programs aimed at helping the city’s youngest children in the coming year as a $50 million push from major local foundations starts to kick into high gear.

Across the state

  • Teachers were cheering the news this week that they’ll finally get the $545 million that the state Supreme Court has now determined was illegally deducted from teachers’ paychecks from 2010-2013.
  • The state plans to return the money to teachers who had 3 percent of their wages docked for three years to pay for retiree health care through their school districts, but some districts are concerned that the process could prove difficult.
  • A former state superintendent called on state leaders to give teachers more respect.
  • Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation designed to make school buses safer.
  • The state education department has a new mediation hotline to help schools resolve disputes with families over special education services.
  • The state house passed a bill that would lower the academic requirements for substitute teachers as a way of relieving a statewide sub shortage.
  • A state children’s advocate explains why Michigan must invest in special education.
  • A teachers union says it has seen an increase in race-related bullying.

In other news

  • The leader of Detroit’s Black Male Educators Alliance explains the work his group is doing to convince young black men to become teachers.