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 Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.