Week In Review

Week in Review: Angst, fury as 38 Michigan schools await their fate


It has been an intense week for Detroit families and educators trying to absorb the news that as many as 25 Detroit schools — 38 across the state — could face permanent closure in June. State officials say their goal is to get kids into higher performing schools, but the aggressive closures could disrupt children’s lives without necessarily landing them in better schools. Communities, meanwhile, could suffer the consequences of losing neighborhood anchors.

“My school was like a Mecca of hope in that area, and when it closed it was like Vietnam after the war. It’s just devastating. I don’t even think any children live over there anymore, I think all the children have moved. Vacant houses, vacant lots, dilapidated buildings. It’s just a real sad situation.”

— David Harris, former Detroit Public Schools principal

Read on for more about the threatened closings as well as the rest of the week’s education news. And, in case you missed it, we were thrilled on Monday to announce that Chalkbeat Detroit is no longer a pilot. We’ve added staff and are now fully committed to covering Detroit schools on an ongoing basis (as we try to educate our kids here). Thanks to all of you who sent us insights, notes and suggestions throughout our pilot. We will look forward to many more conversations with readers. Here’s the headlines:

Closing the doors

State officials are planning to close as many as 38 schools in Detroit, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and other cities under a law that gives state officials control over struggling academies.

Parents and school leaders responded angrily to the news, which one top educator slammed as “uninformed.” The fact that the closings are being made “without input” from districts, educators and communities “should make us all question the validity of this action,” she said.

The school rankings used to create the closure list “closely mirrors wealth-to-poverty levels,” one parent leader wrote, arguing that shuttering these schools “punishes poverty.”

The news rattled parents, students and staff, even in a city accustomed to turmoil in schools, while a teachers union leader warned that closings would create “education deserts.

Detroit has already lost scores of schools to closings that have left behind a painful legacy for families and communities.

This time around, the doomed schools include one that was a top performer just a few years ago. Also on the list is a school that students and teachers acknowledged lacks basic resources and academic rigor.

State officials say they want kids to move to higher-performing schools but our review of Detroit school rankings shows it’s not likely that the 12,000 kids who could be displaced by closures will land in a better school. Most of the schools near the top of the state rankings are many miles away from the schools threatened with closure.

Many parents with children at closing schools have received letters recommending schools in the suburbs — as maps clearly show the doomed schools surrounded largely by other struggling academies. This useful interactive map lets families zoom in to see what other options they have nearby.

An education writer and advocate says Detroit’s situation is “identical to almost every other mass school closure we have witnessed in the last decade.”

Critics have slammed the state for the abrupt way the closings were announced, without giving families much time to prepare. By the time families know for certain which schools will be closed, “many higher performing schools will have completed their first application window and parents from schools will be on waiting lists,” a parent advocate notes.

Even the Detroit News, which has been a stalwart supporter of closing failing schools, opined that the state school reform office is “not explaining how it is ranking schools, why it would close a school and how it would ensure students have a better alternative.”

A top adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged at a business forum this week that closings have serious consequences. “If you start closing schools, what does that do for the neighborhoods in the city? Where do the kids go?” he asked.

As difficult as this year’s closings may be, however, they’re not likely to be the last. Next year, another 35 schools, including 26 in Detroit, are in danger of being shuttered — a threat that could slash the size of the Detroit’s main school district and cost it millions of dollars in lost enrollment.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s main school District is holding a summit along with the Education Achievement Authority to showcase ways districts can improve their schools — rather than just shut them down.

On DeVos

  • The head of the Senate committee reviewing the nomination of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education urged his colleagues to join him in supporting her and denied a request from Democrats for a second hearing. But top Democrats say they plan to vote no.
  • A Detroit mother of eight explains why she thinks the challenges her children have faced in Detroit schools can be blamed on DeVos.
  • A cartoonist says turning the department over to DeVos is like turning a school bus over to a student driver.
  • Comments about Detroit schools by the head of Shinola drew applause for DeVos at a western Michigan event.
  • An education journalist says his colleagues in the media have been unfair to the Michigan schools advocate.

In other news

  • Michigan received $242 million from a federal program to help struggling schools that has gotten mixed results.
  • An advocate remembers a passionate former Detroit school board president.
  • There are more than 21,000 events planned around the country — including 730 in Michigan — to celebrate National School Choice Week.
  • Two state religious schools leaders say they see growing support for alternative school options such as vouchers.
  • A man was shot and killed in front of a Detroit elementary school after dropping off his child.
  • Dozens of Michigan high schoolers are involved in a sexting scandal.

Week In Review

Week in review: A ‘poor choice of words’ from the state schools boss, Grosse Pointe considers lightening up

The state superintendent was under fire this week after telling a TV interviewer that school choice had taken the state “backwards.” It was a comment he later called a “poor choice of words.”

Scroll down for more on that story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. That includes insight into why Grosse Pointe is reviewing its tough enforcement of its residency rules and the latest on Detroit’s new schools boss, Nikolai Vitti. He was the subject of a major Chalkbeat story this week that looked at his plan to bring order to a district that he says lacked basic financial and academic systems.

Also, if you weren’t able to attend the forum featuring Vitti and the Citizens Research Council this week, you can watch the full video here. If you’re still looking for more, please tune in to American Black Journal on Sunday when I’ll be talking about Detroit schools.

Oh, and we have some exciting news: We’re hiring! If you know any thoughtful reporters who’d be interested in covering one of the most important stories in American education, please tell them to get in touch. Thanks for reading!

The Detroit schools boss

The state schools boss

  • Michigan schools boss Brian Whiston stressed in his clarification about his controversial school choice remarks that he’s a strong supporter of choice but believes giving parents options can’t be the only fix for schools.
  • Whiston’s comments come as advocates lament declining test scores across the state. Among them: a news publisher who blasts Lansing for fiddling while public schools “go to hell” and an advocate who urged Michigan parents to stop telling themselves that their child’s school is probably fine. “In fact,” she writes, “Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003 for all students.”
  • Still, the head of the state board of education says it’s “irresponsible” to suggest that Michigan schools are in crisis.
  • The school choice supporters who were miffed by Whiston’s comments are also still steamed about a New York Times Magazine piece on charter schools last week. One critic said the article failed to tell the whole story about the challenges to education in Highland Park and Detroit. A news site that strongly supports choice scrutinized the way the story characterized the number of for-profit charter schools in Michigan.

In Detroit and across its borders

  • Grosse Pointe schools officials are reviewing their aggressive approach to enforcing residency rules that keep Detroiters and other non-residents out of the district’s schools. In the past three years, the district has spent $74,528 on investigations and legal fees related to out-of-district students and has made all parents jump through burdensome hoops to prove they live in the district.
  • A Detroit teacher (and Chalkbeat reader advisory board member) set out to talk with other educators to “build a more nuanced narrative of Detroit schools.” Among teachers he featured is Janine Scott who the writer discovered when she appeared last spring in a Chalkbeat/Skillman Foundation “Story Booth.” (If you’re a parent, educator or student who wants to be featured in a future Story Booth, please let us know).
  • A principal who moved a Detroit charter school from the 8th percentile on state rankings to the 51st explains how it’s done.
  • Detroit’s main district plans to spend up to $57,000 to establish Parent Teacher Associations in all of its 106 schools.
  • The head of a Detroit high school engineering program explains how it aims to change lives.
  • An organization that places young adults in Detroit schools to provide support got a major gift from Quicken Loans that will help it expand.
  • The construction boom has highlighted the shortcomings of the city school system.
  • Wayne State University’s leaders pushed back against an article last week that highlighted a dramatic decline in African American enrollment — particularly graduates of Detroit schools.

In other news

Week In Review

Week in review: Charter wars ramp up as kids return to school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit's Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

This week not only marked the start of the new school year in Detroit. It also brought an escalation of the city’s ongoing charter school wars.

Charter supporters were fuming over a New York Times Magazine takedown that asserted “children lost” when Michigan “gambled on charter schools.”

And as one charter school leader knocked Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s new superintendent, for refusing to work collaboratively with the city’s privately managed schools, Vitti created a panic among supporters of a new charter that wants to buy a former district building.

Scroll down for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, please mark your calendars for this event Wednesday night where I’ll be joining Vitti and the Citizens Research Council for a salon-style dialogue about Detroit schools.


Charter wars

  • Vitti’s decision to block a charter school from buying the former Joyce Elementary School building could mean it remains vacant while the district loses the $75,000 it stood to make from the sale.
  • One charter leader challenged Vitti with an op/ed calling for an end to the “charter school versus non-charter school rhetoric.”
  • The 7,000-word Times Magazine story explores the financial and academic challenges of a Highland Park charter school and blames the state’s free market charter school laws.
  • The state’s charter school association issued a rebuttal and blasted the author. Leaders of a free-market think tank wrote that the story contains “major errors.”
  • The rebuttal cites a study that finds that Detroit’s charter school students slightly outperform their district counterparts. That study is often cited by both sides of the debate. Read it here.  
  • Or read this story about the role U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos played in shaping the state’s charter school laws and the resulting educational conditions in Detroit.
  • DeVos was the subject this week  of a story on public radio’s This American Life. The piece looked at her volunteer work at a public school in Grand Rapids to provide a window into her views on education. (I’ve done some work on This American Life too. Check it out).
  • A day after blasting the Times story, the state charter school association highlighted its analysis that found that nine of the state’s highest performing schools on the 2017 M-STEP were charters. [Friday, the association sent an update alerting reporters that the initial analysis had been wrong. In fact, just the four highest-performing schools had been charters]. 
  • The number of charter schools in Michigan is down this year for the first time in the 23-year history of the state’s charter school law.

Back to school

  • As Detroit kids returned to class this week, Vitti said he was disappointed that 250 teaching positions in the district remained unfilled. He saw the effects of that shortage as he toured schools Tuesday.
  • Many of the vacancies were left by teachers who worked for the state-run recovery district until its dissolution in June. Teachers reported they weren’t given credit for their years of experience. That meant steep pay cuts.
  • If the 55,000 kids who’ve signed up to attend schools in the main district actually enroll, it would represent the first significant increase in years. Just 36,000 kids were in class Tuesday but Vitti said first-day attendance rates are typically around 70 percent.
  • Among kids who’ve enrolled in district schools: Vitti’s four children.
  • In a back-to-school Q&A that covered a number of issues, Vitti said the district could eventually decide to close some schools but has no plans to do so this year.
  • Absences are not just high on the first day of school. A News columnist notes that 60 percent of district students were chronically absent in a recent year.
  • The chronic absence rate across the state was 30 percent.
  • The Free Press put together a list of ten things to know about the new school year.
  • The state superintendent — who recorded this “welcome back message” for students — says he plans to make Michigan a top ten state by 2026.


State of our schools

  • A top state lawmaker is pushing for an A-F grading system for schools.
  • State lawmakers are reviewing test options as they consider replacing the M-STEP in the 2018-19 school year.
  • Michigan could be holding back nearly half of its third graders by 2020.
  • A website has created a list of the state’s top elementary schools.
  • The Detroit News has tapped a veteran education reformer to curate a series of commentaries about education that will be published throughout the school year.
  • The first piece in the News’ series looks at the state’s education crisis by the numbers.
  • A Free Press columnist expresses alarm at low reading scores across the state and writes that we’re no closer to a solution today “than we were four, eight or 20 years ago.”

In other news

  • Here’s the story of how a California-based nonprofit law firm catapulted seven Detroit schoolchildren into a civil rights suit in federal court.
  • The number of Detroit graduates enrolling at Wayne State University has plummeted over the last decade.
  • A Detroit teacher has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the main district and the city’s mayor saying she was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on tainted water in her school.
  • A former DPS principal is on her way to prison.