Murky future

Facing an uncertain future, a principal and his staff have one year to prove their school should survive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar greets students on the first day of school.

It was the first day of school at the Mumford Academy high school and principal Nir Saar was working the hallways, shaking hands, introducing himself to new students.

“There’s the football star!” he said as he greeted a returning 10th-grader. “How you doing, Mr. Varsity?”

He high-fived a girl as she walked by.

“I missed you, Zakiya!” he exclaimed. “How you been?”

“I missed you too,” she answered.

It was a scene similar to ones that played out in schools across Detroit and the nation in the last few weeks as students returned for the start of classes. But for Saar and his students, these routine exchanges came charged with new poignancy: This year could be the school’s last.

The Mumford Academy — a so-called “small learning community” housed within the storied Mumford High School on Detroit’s northwest side — is part of the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that took over 15 struggling schools in 2012. After a tumultuous tenure, the district is expected to dissolve next summer and return its schools to Detroit’s main school district.

The Academy’s fate will be decided by a new Detroit school board that will be elected this fall and by the state School Reform Office, which has threatened to close low-performing schools across the state.

The uncertainty rankles, Saar said.

“I’m so emotionally attached to these kids. And these kids are attached to me and to us,” he said. “The idea that this could be torn apart and that that could affect them negatively and their families negatively is the scariest part of it all.”

Principal Nir Saar hopes the Mumford Academy can prove itself before schools in the Education Achievement Authority revert back to the city district next summer
Principal Nir Saar hopes the Mumford Academy can prove itself before schools in the Education Achievement Authority revert back to the city district next summer

The Education Achievement Authority has drawn criticism since its creation five years ago when the state abruptly seized the schools and put them under new control without much planning or community discussion. Subsequent financial scandals, enrollment declines, questionable policies and disappointing test scores led to the decision this year to pull the plug on the district.

“I have referred to [the EAA] as a public policy train wreck,” said Michigan State University education professor David Arsen, who has studied the district. “It’s rare that you see something so badly designed that it implodes the way the EAA did.”

Limited funds, a confusing legal status, and strong public opposition have all worked against the EAA. But supporters of the current chancellor, Veronica Conforme, say many of the major missteps were made under the district’s first chancellor, John Covington.

They say Conforme has started turning things around, ushering in key reforms like better teacher training and a stronger focus on academics in the two years since she arrived.

The district continues to post some of the lowest test scores in the state, but most EAA schools showed small improvements on last year’s M-STEP exam.

It’s not likely enough to save the district but Conforme and her supporters are focused on trying to shore up their best programs in hopes that whoever is in charge next year will keep them going.

One of those programs is the Mumford Academy.

The academy is a small, self-contained “learning community” within the larger Mumford High School. Though the state officially only recognizes one Mumford, the EAA treats the academy as a separate school with its own principal.

The academy had just 100 9th graders last year and hopes to add about 100 10th graders this year. The school is small enough, Saar said, that teachers can get to know their students and can help address challenges in their lives that may go unnoticed in a larger school.

Saar keeps class sizes low — about 20-24 students per class last year, he said. And he tries to keep the school focused on instruction by extending the school day by 45 minutes and making sure teachers are supported and well trained.

The effort has shown enough promise that the EAA this year created similar programs in nine other schools in the district, separating out one or two grades from the larger school population. The main Mumford High School now has a new 9th grade “community school.” That means that 9th graders who enroll at Mumford are now randomly assigned to either the Mumford Academy or to the Mumford High School freshman academy. The building now has three principals — Saar, plus one school leader overseeing 10-12th graders and another overseeing another group of 9th graders.

“We’re starting new programs because this is what works for kids,” Conforme said when she stopped by the Mumford Academy Tuesday while making her rounds on the first day of school. “My hope is that we get to preserve this work … because this is what’s working. [The Mumford Academy] is a substantially different place than it was two years ago.”

Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Veronica Conforme stopped by the Mumford Academy while making her rounds on the first day of school
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Veronica Conforme stopped by the Mumford Academy while making her rounds on the first day of school

The Academy doesn’t have much of a public record since it only enrolled ninth-graders last year. That means there are no SAT scores or graduation rates to point to. But Saar says his first year produced impressive results on an exam that measures student progress throughout the year.

“Our growth scores in both reading and math … far exceeded any scores I’ve seen from any of the other schools I’ve worked with,” Saar said. “What we were able to accomplish last year and what I hope we accomplish this year, I hope it makes a statement … And I hope that statement is strong enough to say, ‘No, don’t touch what we’ve got going on over here because it’s working really well.’”

Saar, who is 34, grew up in the Detroit suburbs. He started out as a scientist, earning degrees in biopsychology, molecular biology and history from the University of Michigan. But when he grew tired of working with just a handful of people in a lab after graduation, he joined Teach For America and spent seven years teaching students with disabilities in Philadelphia.

He helped start a non-profit organization called Stay True that matched Philadelphia middle schoolers with service projects until returning to the Detroit area a few years ago to be closer to family.

He worked in various roles for a charter school management company until applying for a principal position in the EAA — a job he says he wouldn’t have considered in the early years of the district.

“I knew about the beginning of the EAA,” said Saar, who joined the district last year. “I had lots of friends and people I knew that were involved in it and it was an utter disaster. It was horrible. But since I’ve been here and since Veronica took charge, this is a really high-functioning district. I’m not sure anybody realizes the caliber of talent and the thoughtfulness of the choices they’re making.”

It’s upsetting to think the new school board could decide to change or close the academy, Saar said, but he’s determined to prove to the board — and to critics who will forever view the EAA as a colossal failure — that there’s good teaching going on in the district.

When the first bell rang on the first day of school this week, Saar, exuded enthusiasm. As he and his staff cheerfully tended to the business of printing out student schedules, re-directing students who were in the wrong place and doling out uniforms on the first day of school, teachers and parents expressed hope that the community they’re building will find a way to survive.

“I like that it’s a small setting and everybody gets to learn,” said Lawanda Richardson, whose son, Raymond Johnson, is starting in the school’s ninth grade this year.

She had anxiously read a news report the day before classes began that cast doubt on school’s future but says she has faith that the good work there will continue. “We’re hoping that it will be saved,” she said.

Matthew Guyton, a 32-year-old geometry teacher who joined the staff of the Mumford Academy this year after four years at the main Mumford High School, says there’s something special going on at the school.

“Even going to our professional development last week, it felt different,” he said. “It felt like a team.”

Mumford Academy chemistry teacher Matthew Guyton says the school feels like a family.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy chemistry teacher Matthew Guyton says the school feels like a family.

The small, family-like school reminds him of a teaching job he had in the Upper Peninsula, he said. “This is what normal feels like. The kids are actually polite. They’re eager. That’s the culture that they’ve built here.”

Exactly what will happen to EAA teachers when the schools return to main Detroit school district next year isn’t clear. The teachers, who are not represented by the teachers union, earn salaries that don’t align with those prescribed by Detroit’s contract with its teachers union.

Novice EAA teachers make $45,000, compared to first-year Detroit public school teachers who start as low as $36,000, though Detroit district teachers can eventually earn salaries that exceed top EAA pay.

Saar says his school faces many challenges. Chronic absenteeism is an issue, and many of his students arrive significantly behind grade level.

But, now, he said, his biggest challenge is politics.

“This will be an existential year,” he said. “It’s an existential moment for us …  We’ve got to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt so that anybody that cares about kids will look at what we have going on here and say, you know, this can’t go anywhere. We can’t touch this. “

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: