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Week in Review: Amid DeVos ‘Wild West’ critiques, a new charter school says strict state laws are standing in the way of diversity

PHOTO: Ali Lapetina
The new Detroit Prep charter school aims to be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school.

Michigan schools have gotten scrutiny from across the country this week after President-elect Donald Trump nominated local philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

Among the wide-ranging critiques that have gotten an airing: that DeVos has backed a lax “Wild West” charter school system that has damaged Detroit schools..

So it’s a little surprising to hear a charter school leader say regulations are standing in her way. But that’s exactly the critique coming from the co-founder of Detroit’s newest charter school, Detroit Prep, who says in our latest story that state rules could stop her from enrolling a diverse student body. Her workaround: enroll students in a way that critics call “exclusive” and “sneaky.”

“I think we’re failing our kids if we allow all kids to sit in rooms with kids that only look like them and that are from the same background so if people think we’re going about it in a bad way, I welcome that feedback because we want to hear all perspectives, good and bad.”

Kyle Smitley, co-founder, Detroit Prep

On DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist vaulted to a national stage:

Right to read?

Detroit school children have no fundamental right to literacy, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s attorneys. While Snyder says courts should recognize the “importance of literacy,” he argues the state isn’t required to give every child a decent education. “Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”

The governor’s arguments came in response to the Detroit schools lawsuit, which claims that deplorable school conditions in the city have violated children’s Constitutional rights. Lawyers for the seven children who brought the suit objected to Snyder’s lawsuit response. “Each day that the state chooses to fight this lawsuit is another day of education lost that may never be recovered,” one lawyer said. “Would the state try to wash its hands of this matter if the students suffering were not children of color from low-income families?”

The Detroit News says the lawsuit put the state “in the awkward position of arguing that students don’t have a right to literacy,” adding “but that doesn’t’ mean Snyder and education officials are indifferent to the quality of students’ education.” The paper called on the state to improve local schools but said, “Trying to force better outcomes through the courts … isn’t the way to do this.” (A local radio host disagrees.)

In Detroit schools:

  • A new charter school is Detroit’s most diverse public school. Here’s why it might not stay that way.
  • The Detroit Promise scholarship program has expanded to include free access to four-year colleges for every Detroit high school grad with good grades and strong test scores. Officials say Detroit is now the largest city in the country to offer scholarships to all of its graduates, with kids who don’t qualify for the four-year scholarships entitled to a free ride at local community colleges.
  • A Detroit teachers union leader got a major raise.
  • A yearlong effort by the Free Press to listen to the challenges facing Detroit children included claims from students that they haven’t been properly prepared for college. “DPS did not prepare me for the ACT,” one recent Cody High School grad said. “It was some stuff on it that I knew, but some of that stuff, I know for sure I was never taught.”
  • The paper is highlighting programs that could benefit Detroit kids, including a curriculum that helps young children learn social-emotional and problem-solving skills.
  • A local foundation is giving Detroit’s main school district a quarter million dollars to help the district grow and harvest vegetables to serve in school meals.
  • Stalled plans to build a large urban agriculture park on the site of the shuttered Kettering High School in Detroit have picked up steam.
  • Wayne County taxpayers will start feeling the pinch from the school tax increase when tax bills go out this week.
  • A network of charter schools in Detroit and Dearborn requires students to complete a career-focused internship and senior project in order to graduate.
  • A local advocate called for expanding after-school programs to help low-income kids in Detroit.
  • Two local philanthropists are funding a program at a Detroit school that helps introduce children to yoga, health, fitness and nutrition.
  • A local non-profit executive says Detroit needs to do two things to fix its schools.
  • The Detroit Public Schools Community District is planning a parade on Monday to toast the high school football teams that won the state’s Division I and Division 2 championships — the first time in state history that both winners are from the same district.

Across the state:

  • An effort to force new teachers out of state pension plans is moving forward in Lansing despite testimony that the move will cost billions of dollars.
  • In a state with low reading scores, this west Michigan effort shows promise.
  • One school choice advocate called on the state to “revamp its school rating system” to better help parents make decisions about where to enroll their children. The state, he wrote, “needs a fairer measuring tool that doesn’t punish schools for enrolling a lot of kids with learning struggles.”
  • A suburban high school teacher is working with students to create a museum to honor his school’s history.

Week In Review

Week in Review: A reprieve — but difficult conversations — for struggling schools

Supporters of 38 struggling schools are breathing a little easier this week now that threatened state school closures are likely on hold until next year but the schools still face potentially difficult conversations as they try to improve.

“Any school that’s been failing for three, four or five years, we can’t allow it to continue … Obviously what we’re doing is not working.” 

— Brian Whiston, Michigan state superintendent

Read on for more on this evolving story — as well as the rest of the week’s headlines. And don’t forget to buy your tickets to the School Days storytelling event Chalkbeat is hosting next Friday — a week from today — in conjunction with the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers at the Charles H. Wright Museum. We’re expecting an epic night of cocktails and storytelling, designed to both celebrate and elevate the voices of Detroit residents. Tickets are $20 in advance (or $25 at the door). Buy them here. Thanks for reading!

Closings averted (for now)

  • Schools have been offered a chance to avoid closure by entering into partnership agreements with state and local organizations (read the letter the districts received here).
  • State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he still expects 4-6 schools to close but those will be local — not state — decisions.
  • In Detroit, one school that’s likely to close is Durfee Elementary-Middle school, where students will move to nearby Central High School while a local organization turns Durfee into a “community innovation center.”
  • What exactly the partnership agreements will look like isn’t clear, but a spokesman for the superintendent says they’re “a hybrid model developed from Superintendent Whiston’s own experience as a local superintendent, similar initiatives from other states that have shown success, and discussions with education stakeholders in Michigan.”
  • To participate, districts will have to put together a team of partners including community groups, union leaders or parents to come up with research-based solutions for school improvement.
  • Keeping the schools open would preserve tens of millions of dollars that taxpayers and community groups have put into Detroit schools in recent years, expecting they would stay open.
  • One GOP leader said the state is “circumventing the law” by backing down on closures. “Everybody is just giving them some leeway to do this because it’s a popular thing,” he said.
  • The state Education Department has essentially taken over the fate of the 38 schools from the state School Reform Office, which announced the closures in January. One reason is what a GOP lawmaker described as a “clunky rollout” including the decision to send families a two-page letter listing “better” schools that students could attend. The letters sent to Detroit families included schools an hour away from the city that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Across the state  

  • A top lobbyist promoting the Michigan education agenda of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned this week after apologizing for making comments about shaking his wife during legislative testimony last week.
  • A local business leader compares DeVos with Eli Broad — another Michigan-born billionaire philanthropist who invests heavily in education. The two have different approaches to improving schools, he writes, but DeVos “has been far more successful.”
  • The commission, which plans to formally release its recommendations today, reached no consensus on controversial issues like charter schools and the state’s schools-of-choice law but is calling for upwards of $2 billion in spending on expanding teacher training and helping at-risk kids.
  • A Michigan education professor called on the state to use the latest research to update standards for what kids need to know in each grade instead of recycling other states’ old standards.

 

In Detroit

  • Members of a Detroit charter school’s champion chess team say the secret to their success is “a lot of heart.”
  • A service organization that provides academic and emotional support to students in seven Detroit schools could lose its federal funding.

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Michigan school closing decisions delayed — but still looming

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Detroiters have to wait a little longer to find out which of 25 targeted city schools will be closed by the state in June. Gov. Rick Snyder announced yesterday that final decisions, which had been expected soon, have now been postponed until May. The state School Reform Office says  those decisions will be largely based on academic concerns but our story this week looks at the tens of millions of dollars that have gone into building and renovating Detroit schools in recent years — money that could be wasted if schools are shuttered.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools. You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? Not only are they going to hurt children but they’re going to hurt all of Detroit.”

— Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO, Life Remodeled

Read on for more on school closings and other education issues. Also, if you haven’t yet purchased your ticket for the March 17 School Days teacher storytelling event hosted by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, get your tickets here. For a preview, watch Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn on stage last week telling the story of how and why Chalkbeat got started in Detroit.

 

On school closings

  • The nation’s top education states typically do not close down schools, preferring to find ways to improve them. But Michigan is plowing ahead with as many as 38 school closings across the state.
  • Those closings will cost money: roughly $100,000 to close buildings and remove equipment plus $50,000 in yearly security costs but state officials haven’t yet decided who will shoulder those expenses.
  • A powerful documentary about school closings highlights the plight of special needs students, including some that are now facing their second school closing in recent years.
  • The state’s Democratic members of Congress urged Gov. Snyder to stop the closings. “We ask that the state not close any schools without consultation and input from the local community,” the members wrote.
  • Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he’s been “encouraged” by conversations between the district and the state. “I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out” he said in his State of the City Address on Tuesday. He’ll fight the state if he has to, he said. “Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”
  • Snyder’s postponement of final decisions until May was cheered by opponents as a sign that the state is rethinking its approach. ”I hope that the delay is a recognition that the way the state was handling school closures was ineffective,” one said.

On Detroit

  • Duggan revealed that, until recently, city high school grads lost jobs because the district took months to produce student transcripts.
  • Nearly 100 teachers in Detroit’s main district got $1,000 bonuses last year for improving student test scores and meeting other criteria.
  • The district is expanding its Montessori program to three more schools including Palmer Park Prep Academy, Vernor Elementary and Chrysler Elementary.
    All 94 district buildings now have safe levels of lead and copper.

Across the state

In other news

  • The troubled website for children with disabilities that became a political symbol during the first weeks since Betsy DeVos became U.S. Education Secretary has been restored.
  • One Detroit high school student says Devos used money and power to create “a lack of resources for Detroit Public Schools, as well as a negative connotation with all Detroit schools.”
  • Another Detroit student is featured in a national magazine tying DeVos to a host of Detroit school problems.
  • DeVos was initially opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students but then defended the changes.
  • Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools.
  • A gun hoax led a suburban school to beef up security.
  • A new report examines how student transportation affects school choice in Detroit and four other cities.
  • Chalkbeat staffers were featured this week on the radio, a global TV network and a local podcast. Check us out!