Superintendent search

Four reasons why River Rouge’s Derrick Coleman might be Detroit’s next school boss—and four big reasons he won’t, including low scores

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman speaks with reporters following a 12-hour interview to become Detroit's next top school leader.

Derrick Coleman said goodbye to an administrative position with Detroit Public Schools in 2011. Now, the current leader of River Rouge schools said he hopes to come back to fulfill his “calling.”

“You can help a few in River Rouge, but to take the work done in River Rouge and bring that to Detroit and to bring it to scale, you’ll impact much more,” Coleman said Monday as he made his case for why he should be Detroit’s next superintendent.

The second of two finalists for the Detroit district’s top job met with teachers and students, labor and business leaders, parents and community members, and finally the school board over the course of 12 hours on Monday.

A Detroit Public Schools graduate, Coleman responded with brash confidence to questions about the city’s vexing education challenges. He said his track record proves he can make the improvements the city needs, although he did not bring data that he said would support his case, and he raised the possibility of having a personal stake in the district’s future.

“I would hope to” move my children from River Rouge to Detroit schools, Coleman said of daughters who will be in the fifth, 11th, and 12th grades next year. But, he added, “there is also an ex-wife and parenting arrangements so I’m going to do my best to convince her that this is what’s best for them.”

Now that formal interviews have been completed, a group of board members will travel to River Rouge and to Jacksonville, Florida, to see Coleman and Duval County schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who was in Detroit last week, in action.

We rounded up five reasons why Vitti might get the job — and three why he might not. Now, here’s our breakdown of what’s working in Coleman’s favor — and the big issues that could hold him back.

Four reasons why Coleman might get the job:

1. Coleman has experience growing enrollment – the number one thing Detroit needs to do to survive. Since school funding is based on the number of students a district can attract, the district’s declining numbers have devastated its finances. This is a problem River Rouge faced when Coleman came on. During his interviews Monday, he repeatedly cited the fact that he grew enrollment enough to close the $3.4 million deficit he inherited. (Nearly a third of River Rouge’s 1,750 students come over the border from Detroit.) He says he could do the same in his hometown and offered a three-pronged strategy: fixing the issues that cause families to leave, including overcrowding and inadequate teaching; offering busing to all students so they can get to the schools they choose; and “rebranding” the district. “If we don’t change the narrative, the lens through which we are viewed, we are not going to have any credibility with the community,” he said. He said River Rouge had added 24 school buses during his tenure but did not explain how Detroit could pay for additional busing.

2. He has local support, including River Rouge parents so loyal they came out to cheer him on. Renata Williams, a River Rouge resident and parent of two said she had taken her eldest son, a current high school senior, out of River Rouge schools seven years ago, but brought him back three years ago because of the improvements she was seeing with Coleman. “He was community-based, a father, a community leader, and was grounded,” she said of Coleman and her decision to re-enroll her child. “Do I want to see him go?” she asked. “No. But I support him 100 percent, because I know he’d support me.”

3. His approach to safety without metal detectors could appeal to Detroit families wary of prison-like schools. In River Rouge, Coleman said, he was able to lure Detroit families to his district by asking “How can we provide a suburban experience to urban students?” That meant making schools safe without using metal detectors, he said. “We don’t have metal detectors, nor are they needed — and we provide service to the exact same demographic” as Detroit schools, he said. He said he made River Rouge schools safer by addressing students’ social and emotional needs, creating a “trauma-sensitive environment,” and creating alternatives to suspensions for students who violate rules.

4. As a Detroit native and DPS grad, Coleman gets the challenges families in the city face — and that inspires him. “I’ve turned down overtures from other districts to apply,” he said. “I believe I’ve been the candidate of choice in many of those places” but he’s always felt drawn to Detroit. (He was turned down for Ypsilanti’s top spot in 2009.) “You can’t ignore your call,” he said, relating a story about once being offered a job in Pittsburgh and turning it down for one in Detroit. “What I told him was if I were an All-American coming out of college and I had a choice between the Lions and the Steelers, who do you think I’d want to play with? He said, ‘the Steelers,’ and I said ‘No, my job is to resurrect my hometown so I’m going back to Detroit.’”

Four reasons why Coleman might not get the job

1. He has never led a large school district. When Coleman was an assistant superintendent in Detroit from 2008-2011, his position had him in charge of only 29 schools — less than 25 percent of the district’s schools at the time. In his current role, Coleman is in charge of just four schools and around 2,000 students. (In contrast, Vitti runs a district more than three times to the size of DPSCD). Board member Sonya Mays summed up questions about his qualifications: Given that Coleman would be coming from a “district that has a significantly smaller student population that DPSCD does … what in your background gives us the confidence that it should be you?” she asked. Coleman’s answer: “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he said. He said River Rouge’s small size was actually an advantage because he did not have a big team helping him make improvements there. And he said the stakes would be high for him as well as for the district, which could be taken over again by the state if schools don’t improve. “I don’t have a safety net,” he said. Coming to Detroit schools would mean leaving a stable job with a school board that supports him, he said. “This is how I feed my family. If I’m not successful, where do I go from here? What has happened to the superintendents that have left here? I tried to do some research and they disappeared.”

2. Test scores in River Rouge remain low — and Coleman didn’t bring data he said would cast this fact in a kinder light. When one board member asked him about the fact that his district has test scores even lower than Detroit schools, he pointed to the the hundreds of new students who’ve enrolled in his district — likely including Detroit students he’s accused of poaching. “You know I probably should have, but if I brought you data, growth data showing the students that have been in my district for four years or longer … I can show that we’ve had significant growth,” he said. “For a ninth grader who comes into our school and they’re functioning at a third grade level, by the time they take the MSTEP, you know at the 11th grade, they’re not going to be proficient but I can show you great growth. … We’ve enrolled over the last two years over 600 new students and so our assessment data isn’t necessarily indicative of the work that we’ve done. It says ‘This student came to us at this entry point.’”

3. He already left the district once. Coleman faced questions about his characterization of the Detroit district’s culture as “toxic” when he left for River Rouge. What would be different this time? His answer: “I would be in charge,” he said, to cheers and laughter. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m a dreamer. I’m just a firm believer that children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can become incredible beings if they are able to walk into schools that are filled with those that care, that can help them believe that the impossible is possible.” When he worked previously for the district, he said, first under a superintendent, then under an emergency manager, his ideas were ignored. “I’m not going to stay in a relationship where I feel devalued, where I don’t have any influence or input, so it’s a different day because I’m allowed to create those conditions. With the previous administration, the frustration came about as a result of me having ideas that I knew would work that … they chose to ignore.”

4. He worked for controversial emergency managers. Coleman worked for both Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts, two of the state-appointed emergency managers who had tense relationships with teachers and unions. During the interview with labor and business leaders, teachers union interim president Ivy Bailey asked to address the “elephant in the room,” Coleman’s role with the state-appointed regime. “How would you create a culture and climate in the district where people could trust you, and have confidence in you and come to respect you?” she asked. Coleman was quick to point out that he was actually hired by Connie Calloway, the district’s last general superintendent, and attempted to quell any friction by pointing out he made the decision to leave DPS because he didn’t feel like the emergency managers were listening to his ideas. “My philosophy didn’t align with the national turnaround experts,” he said.

And one thing that could cut either way

1. Coleman is not connected to national education advocacy groups. Vitti faced repeated questions about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the state-run Education Achievement Authority and runs a superintendent training program that incorporates leadership strategies from the business world. Unlike Vitti, Coleman did not participate in that training — which means he lacks both the assets and liabilities that a Broad affiliation would bring. This appears to have made the difference for at least one influential Detroiter: At the end of the day, former interim superintendent John Telford threw his support to Coleman, saying he believed the former DPS assistant superintendent had knocked the interview “out the park.” Telford said he thought Vitti had done a good job but he was turned off by the Florida superintendent’s Broad ties.

candidate forum

Here are seven takeaways from Chalkbeat’s forum for Shelby County Schools board candidates

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chalkbeat hosted its first school board candidate forum Thursday, which was split into two panels. The first panel, moderated by reporter Laura Faith Kebede and Central High School graduate Hali Smith, was between candidates from Districts 1 and 8.

With a high-stakes election just two weeks away, Chalkbeat Tennessee hosted its first-ever school board candidate forum on Thursday.

Fifteen candidates are vying for seats from four of Shelby County Schools’ nine districts: 1, 6, 8, and 9. The most contested race is in District 9, where four new candidates are challenging incumbent Mike Kernell. That’s a major difference from two years ago, when four of five open board seats went uncontested.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Audience members were able to locate their district on a map. Seats are open for Districts 1, 6, 8, and 9.

About 250 Memphis students, parents, grandparents and educators, attended the candidate forum. The audience could use a texting software to weigh in on brief, “rapid fire” questions posed to the candidates, as well as write in their own questions for the candidates to answer.

“I’m ready for a change,” said retired police officer and public education advocate Claudette Boyd, who used to patrol the Orange Mound area and noticed a “revolving door” of faculty turnovers at its schools.

“I’m here to hear first-hand information and ask questions,” she added. “Why are we still busing kids out of their neighborhoods? Shouldn’t all schools be the same? Why do we have inferior schools and superior schools?”

The event was split into two panels. The first was between Districts 1 and 8, and the second was between Districts 6 and 9. Here are some takeaways from those discussions.

PANEL 1

Parents were seen as having the biggest impact on a child’s education.

Out of five choices — parents, teachers, district leadership, county government, and state government — 53 percent of the audience chose parents as playing the most important role in a child’s education.

“Our parents should be the most important people regardless of what’s going on in the schools,” Michael Scruggs said, explaining that they spend the most time with their children.

Chris Caldwell said parents are most important because they pay taxes to teachers, who have the expertise to sway state government on funding matters and reform efforts. Michelle Robinson McKissack said she favored more teacher-parent interaction, and Jerry Cunningham said the board should prioritize getting parents more engaged.

Candidates favor student voices on the board.

When asked if students should be able to serve on the school board, all participating candidates noted that students should have some say in the decision-making process. McKissack said she supported students being in an advisory role, but that their “number one job is to be a student.” That means they shouldn’t be expected to serve in an “official capacity.”

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Over 200 were in attendance at the forum Thursday night.

“They’re the ones most affected by what happens in the school buildings,” said Caldwell, who noted that there is already a policy for students to participate on the board. “We wouldn’t have school or school districts if it weren’t for the kids.”

“Our students are our audience,” Scruggs added.

Ninety percent of the voting audience favored student voices on the board, including recent graduates Emily Burkhead and Kira Tucker.

“Closer to our age, we’re becoming more aware of what’s going on,” said Burkhead, a Rhodes College student and White Station High graduate, citing the emergence of more recent movements like Black Lives Matter and Take ‘Em Down 901. (Take ‘Em Down 901 is an effort to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.)

“There just comes a time to say we’re about to get serious about the school system that we need to see in our community,” added Tucker, a junior at Emory University and a graduate of Central High School.

PANEL 2

Candidates backed expanding the community school model.

District 9 is home to Belle Forest Elementary, the system’s only “community school,” or a school that addresses a student’s social and family needs in addition to their educational needs.

Mike Kernell said he’s an advocate for community schools because from what he’s seen, they’ve done the best job of keeping parents involved.

Kori Hamner, Rhonnie Brewer, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman have visited the school and were pleased with what they saw: students and faculty who “love their school” and “love their community,” Hamner said.

“They bought into what was going on there,” Dorse-Coleman said. “That’s what we need in all of our schools.”

School closures have dramatic impacts on neighborhoods.

Many of the school closures in recent years have been in District 6, and some of the school building are still sitting empty. How should a district determine if a school should close, and what should happen with the empty buildings?

PHOTO: Jacob Steimer
More than 200 people attended the forum.

Minnie Hunter acknowledged she didn’t know a lot about why schools close, but felt like many should stay open, so students don’t have to travel across town to go to another school. Percy Hunter, meanwhile, said he was in favor of letting the community decide what happens to their schools, and how they should stop one from closing.

“An empty school building presents a pretty desolate description for our communities,” said Shante Avant, adding that local residents and community organizations like churches should decide how to fill that space.

The board must act to ensure grade-changing stops.

Shelby County Schools has had several investigations into improper grade changing to pass students along to the next grade even if they aren’t ready. Chalkbeat asked the candidates what they would do to make sure this practice stops.

Kernell said he was in favor of new software to monitor grades, and Dorse-Coleman said teachers shouldn’t have to “teach students to the test” anyway. Avant also acknowledged the board’s recent efforts to install a hotline for those who suspect such activities.

“We have to continue to be open and transparent,” she said.

BOTH PANELS

K-2 suspensions should be banned, candidates said.

Some cities, such as New York City, have banned suspensions among its youngest students, and a bill last year

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (left) speaks with a fellow attendee at the forum.

sponsored by State Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis would have stopped the practice in Tennessee unless the student is violent, but it failed. Chalkbeat asked candidates from Districts 6 and 9 about K-2 suspensions, and all favored ending early-childhood suspensions. Seventy-five percent of the audience polled also supported a ban.

“At the age of 5, 6, 7, 8, they’re just finding out who they are,” said Dorse-Coleman. “We need to address the underlying problem instead of waiting until they’re 15, 16, 17 and we want to lock them up.”  

“There is no reason that at that age, suspension is absolutely necessary,” Brewer said.

Scruggs said suspensions do not work at any age. He remembered a time when a student “cursed him out” and Scruggs was tempted to write him up. But then he found out the student was up for adoption.

“He wasn’t cursing me out,” he said. “He was cursing the situation out. … We need to put our money in the right places to help our kids.”

Most candidates were unprepared to have discussions about sexual harassment and protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.

Both panels were asked what they could do to better protect LGBTQ students from discrimination, as well as how they would protect all students from sexual harassment and assault.

Caldwell and Scruggs said the board takes bullying and harassment very seriously, and that there are measures in place to make sure violators are reprimanded. McKissack stumbled on the letters “LGBTQ” before noting that “we can always do things better.”

“There is no abuse that I’ve seen” of LGBTQ students, Cunningham said, comparing today to the 1960s.

Several audience members shouted, “Wrong!”

“Somebody says I’m wrong?” Cunningham said. “Well, I haven’t seen it.”

Percy Hunter said issues of bullying and abuse of LGBTQ students must be addressed on a school-by-school basis and that the school would have to know if the parent was in support of the “student’s decision” before taking action.

A recent high school graduate Celia Kaplan took issue with that response.

“What do you mean by choice?” she shouted.

After the event, Hunter clarified that he meant the student’s choice to come out.

“But what are you going to make schools safer so that students can be out in high school?” she asked him after the event. Hunter said that a decision like that would be up to the entire board.

Minnie Hunter said that LGBTQ students should be put in a separate classes, similar to sex education, to learn about the issues that affect them, to which Avant disagreed.

“I don’t believe that we should isolate or create opportunities for folks to criminalize or harass LGBT students,” Avant said. “We have to embrace diversity.”

Kernell advised students with issues to visit his website and file a complaint, and Dorse-Coleman said that discrimination is a “learned behavior.” Avant, Hamner, and Brewer said it was necessary for the board to do more to ensure schools are safe for students in traditionally marginalized groups.

Maude Bryeans, a counselor and Memphis native who has worked in Shelby County Schools for 20 years, said the candidates generally struggled to answer questions concerning concrete plans, and that they simply “gave opinions” instead.

“As an educator, I want to see a plan, I want to see your vision, and I want to know that you know your stuff,” she said, charging that some of the claims made by the candidates were incorrect, such as McKissack’s comment that uniforms went away after six municipal districts split from the Shelby County Schools district in 2014, and Cunningham’s comment that principals’ salaries were increased when the schools merged.

“I was glad to see someone put all the candidates out there though, and have people be able to listen to them,” she said. “I don’t remember this robust of a dialogue in the past. That is at least showing, it seems like, that people care.”

Event co-sponsors included BRIDGES, a student leadership program; the education advocacy organizations Stand for Children and Campaign for School Equity; and Awesome Without Borders.

Early voting runs through July 28. The election will take place on Aug. 2. Have you done your homework? Read more about the candidates and their stances on education issues here.

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”