Battle to buy a school

The ongoing fight between the Detroit district and a charter school now heads to the state House and court

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
An empty room inside the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School.

The dispute between the Detroit school district and a charter school over the use of a former district building is coming to a head this week, with the state House taking up a related issue on Thursday, the two sides headed to court on Friday — and powerful forces like the Wall Street Journal weighing in on the side of the charter.

The charter, Detroit Prep, may get some support for its legal case from the state House, which will hold a hearing on Thursday on legislation affecting such building sales. The House is considering a bill that, if approved, would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

District and charter school lawyers will also face off on Friday at a hearing in the Wayne County Circuit Court that will take up Detroit Prep’s request that the case be halted long enough for the house bill to pass.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer, taking advantage of a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property.

Detroit Prep had wanted to buy and renovate the vacant building in Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood to house its growing student population. The school is currently in a church basement in nearby Indian Village.

The deed restriction meant the district will get a cut of the proceeds of the sale — roughly $75,000 — but the district has objected.

The district’s legal argument is that the deed restrictions put on many school buildings that were sold in recent years are valid and are designed to ensure that when property is sold, there is a long-term benefit to taxpayers.

“The district owns a great deal of real estate in the City of Detroit,” the district argued in a recent court motion. “DPSCD is very sensitive to the instability that a neighborhood can suffer when a school building is closed. To that end, DPSCD carefully selects the entities to which it sells property. Its property belongs to taxpayers. They are assets of the community, not private property. DPSCD is not only concerned with the purchase amount – but seeks to ensure that the potential purchaser is committed to: (i) not speculating (i.e., buying property for the purpose of investigating ways to re-sell at a profit); and (ii) offering a single consistent use for at least 10 years. These two contractual requirements are designed to lessen the impact of instability of a school closing and for the public good.”

Detroit Prep, alternatively, claims the restrictions are an unfair constraint on buildings that were built initially with taxpayers dollars. Legislation signed into law over the summer clarified that putting deed restrictions on former school buildings is illegal.

The school’s supporters also say they are not sure how allowing the building to sit vacant in an otherwise stable neighborhood is a benefit to the community.

The matter is playing out against a backdrop of simmering tensions between pro-charter school proponents and defenders of district schools. The tensions have escalated in Detroit since the arrival last spring of Vitti, who has been a vocal critic of charters, even vowing to put charters out of business by competing successfully for Detroit students.

The Wall Street Journal, a proponent of school choice, criticized the district in an editorial last week, describing the issue as “a case study in how far Detroit will go to punish charter-school students.”

“The farce is that the Detroit school district is spending money to defend the lawsuit even as it claims to lack the resources for basic education,” the editorial said.

To read more about the case, scroll down to court documents filed by  Detroit Prep and Detroit Public Schools Community District in advance of the hearing on Friday.







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.