Charter Schools

As the Detroit district weighs taking back some of its leased buildings from charter schools, anxiety grows

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Students at Escuela Avancemos, which made substantial gains on statewide exams this year.

The five officials from the Detroit school district spent more than an hour in late October touring Escuela Avancemos Academy, and as they asked questions about the dimensions of classrooms and the school’s ability to serve older students, alarm bells went off for Principal Sean Townsin.

Townsin concluded, based on the questions, that officials were looking to take back the building the school has leased since the days the district was controlled by emergency managers.

It’s an unsettling reality for some of the charter schools authorized by the district, whose charters or contracts to lease district-owned buildings — or both — are up for renewal at the end of this school year. If the district takes back their buildings, it would displace hundreds of students. At Escuela Avancemos alone, more than 300 students are enrolled.

The buildings are a legacy of state-appointed emergency managers who converted some schools to charters, then leased the buildings; or took old, shuttered buildings and leased them to charters. Both angered some Detroiters, who complained about taxpayer property being handed over to competing schools.

“Now that we have new leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement, and reiterated in a later interview. “This means possibly reusing currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools.”

Townsin’s school still leases a building from the district, but has already found another authorizer, Central Michigan University.

“We have no idea what the district’s intentions are,” said Townsin.

District officials say a thorough review is underway, but no decisions have been made.

The possibility of using the buildings as traditional public schools again may seem odd in a district with plenty of underutilized schools — and more than a dozen vacant buildings. But the district also has a number of schools with massive facility problems and some with crowded classes.

Vitti said the district could use the buildings currently leased by charter schools to replace some of its older buildings that have high repair costs. Or, he said, the district could use the buildings to add a school in an area where a district school is struggling with crowded classes and “another traditional public school does not exist.”

He also noted that if the district doesn’t continue a charter school’s lease, the charter to operate could still be renewed.  But the onus will be on the school to find a new location. That could be tough, given there are few school buildings available that aren’t in disrepair.

Since he took the reins of the district in 2017, Vitti has said he believes the district’s efforts should be focused on students enrolled in the district, not on authorizing charter schools. The district’s board of education has been deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to renew a charter school contract. And some charters have sought new authorizers.

Currently, the district authorizes 10 charter schools.

The head of a state charter association said he has advised charter leaders who might be affected by the district’s shift to have an alternate plan. He also hopes the district makes decisions sooner rather than later.

“Whether it’s a chartering decision or a facility decision, we want to make sure we’re giving people time for transition,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “We all know that not having appropriate time is disruptive and we all are trying to avoid doing things like that.”

Quisenberry said he understands why the district wants to focus on its own schools.

“I’m not in a position to make any judgments. The district is thinking about the students they’re serving. And the charter schools are thinking about the students they’re serving. If we all keep our focus on that, we’ll all end up in the right place, even with tough decisions.”

Vitti said the district’s standards will be high when making decisions about renewing a district’s charter.

“Ultimately, charter schools were initiated to be laboratories of reform … to initiate best practices and to improve achievement,” Vitti said. “It doesn’t make sense to authorize charters that are not outperforming the district average or doing better than our high-performing schools.”

Hamilton Academy is in danger of losing not only its authorizer but also its building. Both contracts are up for renewal in June.

“My hope is that DPSCD does keep it open,” Superintendent Jeff Hamlin said. “The neighborhood really does need a school. I’m not sure where they would go.”

Hamilton was part of the school district until 2011, when an emergency manager converted it and several other low-performing elementary schools into charter schools to cut costs. Hamlin has received no official word that the district isn’t renewing the school’s charter or lease. But “we’re looking for another building and another authorizer.”

Finding both could prove difficult. Hamlin said authorizers are often resistant to approving charters that don’t have a building, and banks are often hesitant to help charters finance buildings if the schools don’t have an authorizer.

Escuela Avancemos leaders, too, are searching for a new building.

“The options we’re looking at are designed to minimize any disruption,” said Townsin, whose school provides door-to-door transportation to a significant number of its students. It was one of the most improved schools academically this year.

He said the academy has reached out to inquire about purchasing its building, but was told the district isn’t selling any real estate right now.

“That is perplexing to me, considering their financial position,” and a $500 million price tag put on repairs needed to existing schools, Townsin said.

Vitti said the district isn’t looking to sell property for the same reasons it might not lease a building, because the district might reuse them.

LaMar Lemmons, a member of the Board of Education whose term expires at the end of the year, said the district should look to get out of leases with charter schools.

“If we’re getting out of the charter business, there is no way we should be sustaining our competition,” Lemmons siad.



Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.


Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.