high stakes

Are Detroit schools making progress towards state benchmarks? Either way, the stakes are rising

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will decide whether dozens of Detroit schools could face closure.

Test results released on Tuesday suggest that 14 Detroit schools are not on track to meet student achievement targets set last year to spare them from closure by the state.

That news came on the same day as the Michigan Legislature’s latest attempt to ratchet up the consequences for schools that fail to meet those targets. The state budget sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk on Tuesday would require the closure or “reconstitution” of schools that don’t fulfill their partnership agreements – spelling potentially dire consequences for dozens of schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Under the “partnership” agreement, the district is required to make progress towards academic goals, measured at 18 months and 36 months. Principals have already begun buckling down.

But a document presented to the school board Tuesday night shows that 14 elementary and middle schools in the district are not on pace to meet those goals.

Midyear test results suggest that most of the schools saw “minimal growth” in math and reading, while only half of the schools saw improvements in third-grade reading, according to the document.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne RESA, a countywide education agency that is helping the district meet state targets. He said a curriculum overhaul announced this year, one of several districtwide changes, won’t begin to pay off until next year.

“That’s what they’ve been about this year, is changing systems,” Liepa said, adding: “They have to implement things before they can see improvement.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti also noted that the test scores cited in Tuesday’s report don’t reflect schools’ ability to meet the benchmarks laid out in their partnership agreements.

Based on the data alone, “it would be inappropriate to signal success or failure of achieving the goals stated in the agreement,” he said in a statement. “We are confident in our partnership plans and believe that we will meet the academic goals set when the deadline arrives.”

The stakes for his district — already high — could rise further.

If Snyder approves the proposed budget, it would mark another twist in the debate over what to do about Michigan’s lowest-performing schools. It would be felt disproportionately by Detroit’s main district, where more than half of schools — 58 in all — are covered by partnership agreements, and thus could face closure within three years.

The agreements were championed by former state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who sought a compromise after a plan to close dozens of troubled schools was aborted in the face of lawsuits and political opposition. Whiston died last month.

The agreements didn’t clearly spell out the consequences of failure, angering Republican lawmakers who pointed to a clause in the state’s $617 million bailout mandating the closure of Detroit schools that ranked among the worst in the state for three years in a row. Now, pressure from those legislators threatens to cut into the time Vitti says he needs for a district turnaround.

Snyder could refuse to sign the budget in its current form. If he signs it, the ill-defined option of  “reconstitution” could still leave some wiggle room for schools that don’t meet the state-imposed benchmarks.

LaMar Lemmons, a Detroit board member, called the targets built into the district’s partnership agreement “subjective,” saying the future of the district’s struggling schools will depend on the Legislature, not on their academic performance.

“It all depends on the politics of Lansing,” Lemmons told Chalkbeat. He recently filed to run for state Senate.

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”