Property probe

Facing aging, crumbling and half-empty buildings, Detroit school board to consider $945,000 review of district properties

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

Detroit’s main school district is considering spending nearly $1 million to assess the quality of the aging buildings that house its 106 schools.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has talked since arriving in Detroit last spring about the need for the district to review the conditions of its buildings as it makes decisions about which buildings need renovations  — and which ones might need to be closed.

Many school buildings are in serious disrepair — a problem that became a national story two years ago when so many teachers called in sick to protest school conditions that most district schools cancelled classes.

Many buildings are also half empty, meaning dollars that could be used to educate children are instead going toward heating empty hallways. But closing schools could exacerbate challenges for families in a city where many children live in neighborhoods without quality school options.

The Detroit school board on Tuesday is expected to vote on a $945,000 contract with a Livonia-based engineering and architecture firm called OHM Advisors to conduct a review of district properties — approximately 12.2 million square feet of real estate across the city, plus surrounding parking lots, playgrounds and sports fields.

According to documents posted by the district ahead of the board’s vote, the firm would start work this month and produce a detailed report by June spelling out repairs needed for each school building, the cost of those repairs and the “probable remaining useful life” of the buildings.

“For nearly a decade, Detroit Public Schools was led by emergency managers. Decisions made during this time were primarily driven by short-term, crisis management, and asset reduction … [that] … lacked creativity and strategic planning,” district staff wrote in documents that recommend the board approve the contract.

This contract, the staffers wrote, would “provide a roadmap for strategic reinvestment in schools and neighborhoods.”

The documents indicate that another company, Plante Moran Cresa, submitted a bid for the job that was approximately $400,000 less than OHM Advisors’ bid. The district staff recommended OHM because its proposal “offered a more independent, modern, and national facility review model to provide a comprehensive yet usable long-term assessment for the district.”

Staff wrote that “simply selecting the firm with the lower cost will not yield the data the district needs in this most important process.”

The school board, which plans to meet Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Osborn High School, also plans to vote on a major insurance contract and on a tool for evaluating principals. Also on the agenda is a new policy for naming schools that could eventually lead to new names for Detroit schools currently named after living people. Among them is the Ben Carson High School for Science and Medicine, which is named for the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

New tools

Eight things to know about Detroit’s big math and reading curriculum shift

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

The countdown is on: In five months, elementary and middle school teachers in the Detroit district will be teaching from all-new curriculum.

District leaders are scrambling to train teachers and prepare families for the switch to new reading and math teaching materials for grades K-5 in reading and K-8 in math. It’s a massive undertaking, and the first time in years Detroit is changing curriculum at this scale.

The move means that students, including many who are years behind grade level, may struggle with materials more difficult than what they are used to. But the district’s leaders are optimistic about the changes, given that the materials will be replacing a curriculum that was exposed as woefully unaligned to state standards. That meant information the state expects students to know was missing.

Parents, students, and teachers likely have questions about what’s coming. Here’s what we know about the new materials and what we’ll be watching for in the months ahead.

1. What are the new curriculums?

In math, students will now use a curriculum called Eureka Mathematics. Eureka is published by the nonprofit Great Minds. It’s also been known as EngageNY, and is a popular choice designed to align with the Common Core standards.    

In reading, students will use a curriculum known as EL Education K-5 Language Arts. That was created by an organization called Open Up Resources.

Both are open-source, which means they are free and available online. That means teachers and parents can check out a lot of the content for themselves, on the Eureka Math website and  the EL website.

2. Are the materials any good?  

Some think so. The reading curriculum received the highest score ever given to a K-5 English Language Arts curriculum by EdReports, a curriculum grading guide. It also got top scores for usability and its alignment to standards for every elementary grade.

An 18-district study by Mathematica Policy Research found that novice teachers using EL Education’s K–5 Language Arts curriculum and receiving specific training were more likely to focus on asking higher-order thinking questions than other novice teachers.

District leaders are banking on the investment to boost reading scores. The stakes are high because, starting in 2020, third-graders won’t be allowed to advance to the fourth grade if they aren’t reading at grade level. If that policy were in place last year, up to 90 percent of city third-graders would have had to repeat the grade.

Eureka Mathematics is currently the highest scoring math curriculum on EdReports that provides material for grades K-8. (EdReports has faced some criticism from groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the past, and made changes in response.)

The curriculum has also faced criticism from parents frustrated with confusing homework and some educators who say it pushes students too fast.

3. How many districts use these materials?

Because both curriculums are open-source — and so don’t require district contracts to use — it’s hard to know the exact number of districts or schools that use them. But the creators of EL Education’s literacy curriculum say it is in use in 44 states and D.C., and Eureka Math claims to be the most widely used math curriculum in the country.

Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, where Vitti served as superintendent until last year, used both, and he credits them with helping to raise the district’s standing on the national exam.

4. How were they chosen?

The curriculums were chosen by a committee of 113 Detroit educators, 88 of them teachers. The educators on the committee spent weeks reviewing and comparing options, then voted on their favorites.

5. What will they cost?

Both the English and math curriculums are open source, which means they are free and available online, but the district opted to pay for books and teacher training. Those will cost $7.1 million in total, with $5.3 million of that devoted to the reading curriculum.

Teachers will be paid for time spent training over the summer.

6. How does the English curriculum work?

For one, it provides a script for teachers to use, with suggestions on what to say during instruction.

“It’s not scripted because it assumes teachers can’t do it without a script,” said Jessica Sliwerski, chief academic engagement officer at Open Up Resources. “Rather, it’s meant to be a thinking teachers curriculum,” with prompts to help teachers get students engaged.

Brandy Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, said she likes the script. “It tells you exactly what to do,” she said. “I can’t wait for the fall to start using the English curriculum, and see how test scores are going to go up.”

Whether other teachers feel the same way may determine the reception to the curriculum in schools across the city.

7. What about the content of the English lessons?

For students in grades K-2, there’s a daily one-hour lesson paired with a one-hour “lab” and a one-hour block of phonics instruction.

For students in upper elementary grades who are reading independently, the new English curriculum focuses on multicultural novels.

“There are all kinds of culturally relevant stories and informational texts as well,” said Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member.

8. What does the math curriculum look like?

The content will vary widely from kindergarten to eighth grade. But in general, the Eureka curriculum is known for diving deep on fewer topics in each grade and for requiring students to show that they can solve problems in different ways.

9. How will these new materials work for students who are learning English or just struggling with the content?

Both curriculums include “scaffolding” support — specific methods teachers can use to adjust their instruction.

Eureka Mathematics incorporates notes in the margins of teacher texts for each lesson explaining how to help specific learners, including English language learners, students with disabilities, students performing above grade level, and students performing below grade level.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear your questions. Fill out this form to ask a question related to the new curriculum and we will do our best to answer it in an upcoming story.

Summer school

Detroit district adding grades K-2 to summer school to help youngest students boost reading scores

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For the first time in years, the Detroit district summer school program will start in kindergarten.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended younger school children, in grades kindergarten to second grade, be included in the summer school program at the academic subcommittee meeting Monday. The move is meant to help prepare young students for a new state law hanging over the district. The law will prevent third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level from advancing to fourth grade starting in 2020.

This is a daunting prospect in a district where last year about 10 percent of Detroit third-graders passed the state’s annual English Language Arts exam. Across the state, only 44 percent of third-graders passed the test.

“There will be a deep focus on literacy at the primary level which is also new, to get as many students ready as possible before the third-grade retention law that’s coming,” Vitti said.

With the law looming, many schools and districts across the state are scrambling to find ways to make sure their youngest students are learning to read. In the main Detroit district, efforts have included changing the curriculum for K-8 students and creating new reading programs.

The summer school announcement is the latest effort to prepare students for the upcoming law. Vitti even considered holding summer school for only K-3, but reconsidered after hearing community feedback.

“Listening to principals and teachers, there was a need to serve as many kids as possible to make sure they… are not falling behind,” Vitti said of the district’s choice to continue offering programs for older grades. For older grades, students are able to make up credit they failed to attain during the school year.

This summer marks the first time in years that middle-schoolers who are in danger of being held back will be able to repeat classes they failed in hopes of advancing to the next grade.

Vitti also recommended bus transportation for K-8 students and bus passes for high school students, a focus on literacy in grades K-5, and a focus on course recovery for grades 6-12. He plans to use assistant principals to run the program.

Using assistant principals has two benefits. It frees up principals to focus on filling teacher vacancies and it helps prepare the assistants to take on more duties to become principals themselves in the future.

“Because now principals are working 12 months and they are focusing on recruiting,” Vitti said, assistant principals will be expected to run the programs.

“It’ll allow them to get used to managing the building and dealing with issues of students and parents” to prepare them for principal positions, Vitti said.

Summer school will start on June 26 and run through July 26. Students will attend for four hours daily, Monday through Thursday.

This proposal will be voted on by the full school board next month.

Read through the proposals to the district’s summer school program below:

  • Strategic focus on K-5 students for skills development in literacy and 6-12 grade students in course recovery.
  • Students will attend their neighborhood assigned school, except for schools having major maintenance or being used for teacher training. Students from these schools will be given an opportunity to attend the next closest school.
  • Transportation will be provided based on corner stops for K-8 grade students. High school students will be provided bus passes.
  • The district and schools will combine Title I money, grants, such as the carryover grant from 21st Century, and private funding from community partners to support the summer program. Recreational centers will also be open.
  • Assistant principals will run summer school as principals recruit staff. Schools will be assigned clerical staff for enrollment, customer service, and payroll.