high stakes

Are Detroit schools making progress towards state benchmarks? Either way, the stakes are rising

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will decide whether dozens of Detroit schools could face closure.

Test results released on Tuesday suggest that 14 Detroit schools are not on track to meet student achievement targets set last year to spare them from closure by the state.

That news came on the same day as the Michigan Legislature’s latest attempt to ratchet up the consequences for schools that fail to meet those targets. The state budget sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk on Tuesday would require the closure or “reconstitution” of schools that don’t fulfill their partnership agreements – spelling potentially dire consequences for dozens of schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Under the “partnership” agreement, the district is required to make progress towards academic goals, measured at 18 months and 36 months. Principals have already begun buckling down.

But a document presented to the school board Tuesday night shows that 14 elementary and middle schools in the district are not on pace to meet those goals.

Midyear test results suggest that most of the schools saw “minimal growth” in math and reading, while only half of the schools saw improvements in third-grade reading, according to the document.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne RESA, a countywide education agency that is helping the district meet state targets. He said a curriculum overhaul announced this year, one of several districtwide changes, won’t begin to pay off until next year.

“That’s what they’ve been about this year, is changing systems,” Liepa said, adding: “They have to implement things before they can see improvement.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti also noted that the test scores cited in Tuesday’s report don’t reflect schools’ ability to meet the benchmarks laid out in their partnership agreements.

Based on the data alone, “it would be inappropriate to signal success or failure of achieving the goals stated in the agreement,” he said in a statement. “We are confident in our partnership plans and believe that we will meet the academic goals set when the deadline arrives.”

The stakes for his district — already high — could rise further.

If Snyder approves the proposed budget, it would mark another twist in the debate over what to do about Michigan’s lowest-performing schools. It would be felt disproportionately by Detroit’s main district, where more than half of schools — 58 in all — are covered by partnership agreements, and thus could face closure within three years.

The agreements were championed by former state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who sought a compromise after a plan to close dozens of troubled schools was aborted in the face of lawsuits and political opposition. Whiston died last month.

The agreements didn’t clearly spell out the consequences of failure, angering Republican lawmakers who pointed to a clause in the state’s $617 million bailout mandating the closure of Detroit schools that ranked among the worst in the state for three years in a row. Now, pressure from those legislators threatens to cut into the time Vitti says he needs for a district turnaround.

Snyder could refuse to sign the budget in its current form. If he signs it, the ill-defined option of  “reconstitution” could still leave some wiggle room for schools that don’t meet the state-imposed benchmarks.

LaMar Lemmons, a Detroit board member, called the targets built into the district’s partnership agreement “subjective,” saying the future of the district’s struggling schools will depend on the Legislature, not on their academic performance.

“It all depends on the politics of Lansing,” Lemmons told Chalkbeat. He recently filed to run for state Senate.

Cut off

Michigan’s third-grade reading law could penalize bilingual programs

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Elementary schoolers in an English class at Academy of the Americas in Southwest Detroit. More than 70 percent of third-graders at the school could be held back starting in 2020.

The grocery store down the street from Academy of Americas blasts Mexican pop music over the radio. A few blocks away, a taco truck takes orders in English and Spanish. On the Academy’s playground, third-graders go about the business of play using whichever language happens to land on their tongues.

Back in the classroom, kindergartners learn to add, subtract, and find the United States on a map using Spanish. Third-graders sit through English class, then walk across the hall for science class with a teacher who addresses them only in Spanish.  The school, like the Southwest Detroit neighborhood that surrounds it, is truly bilingual, and it has the support of parents and experts who argue that “language immersion” at an early age helps English- and Spanish-speakers effectively learn two languages for the price of one.

But dual-language immersion programs like this one are about to run smack into a controversial state law. Beginning in 2020, third-graders at Academy of the Americas won’t be able to move on to the fourth grade until they pass a state reading exam — in English.

Critics have raised a wide range of questions about the 2016 law, which would have caused nearly half of Michigan students to be held back a grade if the law took effect last year.

But perhaps most puzzling is that a law designed to improve literacy in Michigan could penalize the small handful of programs with a track record of teaching students  — especially English learners — to read in not one, but two languages.

When 89 third-graders at the Academy took the test in 2016, only a single student met state standards. If the law had been in effect, almost every one would have repeated the third grade.

While the school is among the most highly sought programs in the district, the low reading scores were not terribly surprising. Kindergarten classes at the academy are conducted in Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. By the third grade, students hear  Spanish for 60 percent of the day. Experts in bilingual education say students in such programs typically fall behind their English-only peers in reading, then catch up around middle school.

But under state law, third-graders in Michigan’s roughly 10 bilingual programs could be held back anyway.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Norma Hernandez, the district’s former director of the Office of Bilingual Education. “Our kids are going to be left behind.”

Academy of the Americas was founded by Hispanic parents determined to help their children hold on to their native language. Learning English, they knew, was both inevitable and necessary in the United States. But why couldn’t a school also help children master the language spoken at the family dinner table?

As it turns out, dual-immersion schools like the Academy are backed by solid research showing that students who learn more than one language from an early age tend to catch up to their monolingual peers in English reading. This holds true even for students who speak Spanish at home, and it also helps them maintain their native language. More than 1,000 similar programs are in place across the country.

“They’re learning to read and write in both languages,” said Cecilia Jungo, a parent at the school, speaking in Spanish. “They’re totally bilingual,” she added.

Earlier this month, folders were propped up on every desk in a third-grade social studies classroom at the Academy, forming a barrier in case students felt tempted to scan their neighbors’ tests. As some began to fidget, the teacher slipped in a vocabulary lesson.

“If you are already finished with the test,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “just put your head on the — what?”

“The table!” the students shouted — also in Spanish.

In the hallway outside, Principal Nicholas Brown said that this minilesson will eventually improve the students’ performance on language tests, in English as well as Spanish.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write,” he said. “When they learn to read in Spanish, they are able to transfer those skills to English, so that when English is introduced they’re able to attack it.”

He admits that this approach won’t pay dividends on English reading tests right away, but says they will catch up by middle school.

But this model of reading is “not the same theory that the lawmakers were adhering to when they developed the law,” said Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State who studies bilingual education. Legislators pointed to a different body of research — studies showing that students who don’t learn to read English well by the third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Both models may hold some truth, Winke said, but the law only makes room for one. The learning patterns of bilingual students, well-established by researchers, were apparently “not considered,” she added.  

Researchers at Michigan State are studying how the law will affect all students in immersion programs, including native English speakers. But they have already concluded that third-graders who speak English as a second language could be held back at disproportionate rates. According to Winke’s analysis of previous years’ test data, some 70 percent could be flunked.

Those projections are forcing dual-language programs to make tough decisions, especially when most of their students arrive in kindergarten speaking a language other than English.

Escuela Avancemos!, a charter school that stands only a few blocks from the Academy, offers some of its students a similar dual-language program. Kindergartners – most of whom speak Spanish at home — hear and speak Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. The proportion of English rises in each subsequent year.

But thanks to the reading law, that could change. “We’ve had to play around with those percentages,” Principal Sean Townsin told Chalkbeat during a school visit last month. “We’ve had to tweak it a little bit, especially in anticipation of the third-grade reading law.”

Townsin acknowledges that an extra hour or two of English instruction per day might not be enough to save his students from repeating the third grade. Last year, 39 of the 47 students tested in reading would have flunked. He also plans to assemble samples of students’ work, taking advantage of a section of the law that allows students to prove their reading ability to the state by submitting a portfolio instead of taking a test.

Brown, principal at the Academy, also plans to send portfolios to the state, but he won’t reduce the amount of Spanish students hear in class. He thinks the bilingual program is largely responsible for the school’s enrollment growth of 50 percent in the last two decades, no small accomplishment in a city where schools compete fiercely for students.

What’s more, he says parents would revolt if  he watered down the immersion program.

“At the end of the day, our parents are very clear” in their support for the program,” he explained. “The school was created as a direct response to a community need.”

The Academy was founded in 1992 by a group of Hispanic parents who wanted a school that wouldn’t alienate the children of Southwest Detroit from the language of their grandparents. They believed that hearing teachers and classmates speak Spanish would help students stay connected to their culture and make them more employable.

Brown, the son of a Venezuelan and a Louisianan, knew first-hand that in traditional schools, English can replace a student’s native language rather than complement it. He says he rejected Spanish as a teenager and refused to speak it for seven years, relenting only after a visit to Venezuela made clear that the language was a link to his family.

These days, when students say “hello” in the halls, he responds in Spanish.

But he knows that these students could soon pay a price for their bilingualism. Flunking a grade can have severe emotional consequences, and there is little evidence that repeating a grade is beneficial to a child’s learning in the long-run.

“If students are retained because they didn’t pass a reading test, that’s going to hinder their education,” said Diane Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in bilingual education. “If those legislators went to another country, and they were given three years to pass an exam in a second language, I’m wondering if they’d be able to pass it.”

Brown, for his part, is waiting for clarification about the law before it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said, adding that he would like to see the law changed: “I hope the program will speak for  itself.”

Barring a change in course from the Legislature, his hopes rest with parents and with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Under the law, parents can request an exemption if their child fails the third-grade reading test, but the request must be approved by the superintendent for the child to move on to the next grade.

deysi martinez
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deysi Martinez, president of the PTA at Academy of the Americas, says the state should test third-graders there in Spanish.

Parents at the Academy, however, argue that the state shouldn’t use its resources to grade student portfolios and process exemptions to the law.

Deysi Martinez, PTA president, noted that some states, like California and Colorado, allow students in immersion programs to prove their reading skills by taking additional reading tests in Spanish.

“In third grade, they’re reading mostly in Spanish,” she said of students at the Academy. “It doesn’t make sense for the test to be in English.”

Coming merger

‘We all became family.’ Students say goodbye to Detroit school after promising three-year run

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar greets students on the first day of school in 2016.

The Mumford Academy’s future has been in doubt almost from its first day of existence.

The small school tucked inside the larger Mumford High School started with about 100 ninth graders in 2015, but soon faced a series of threats despite some early wins.

There was news in 2016 that the state-run recovery district that created the small school would be dissolved, and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the academy. There was the possibility in 2017 that Mumford High School, along with the academy inside it, could be shut down by the state after landing on a closure list because of years of poor test scores at the bigger school.

But ultimately, it was the issue of cost that doomed the school in 2018, with officials deciding it doesn’t make sense for a cash-strapped district like Detroit to pay two principals in a building that needs only one.

Despite a promising three-year run, the little school will close this week, leaving teachers and students to wonder if they’ll be able to hold on to the family-like community and strong academic achievements of the past three years when they merge with their larger sister school.

“In the academy, we all became family. That’s why we don’t get in fights,” said Trevor Bradley, 16, a junior at the school. “We all look at each other as brothers.”

The academy was part of an experiment by the state-run Education Achievement Authority to see what would happen if high school students were placed in a smaller environment that didn’t have the baggage of a school like Mumford, which had struggled for years.

“It’s really hard to turn around a low-performing school,” said Jack Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund but was the EAA’s Chief Schools Officer around the time the academy was founded. “Mumford at the time had 600 or 700 students. If you really want to re-orient the culture of a school to be about success … doing that with 700 students is a lot harder than starting with 100, and building a grade at a time over the years.“

Having a smaller school, Elsey said, “creates the kind of environment where you can really get to know every student, get to know their families and better serve them.”

The main Detroit district tried something similar a few years earlier when it broke Cody and Osborn high schools up into smaller campuses. But Elsey, who briefly oversaw Cody and Osborn as an assistant superintendent in the district, acknowledged that the district, under the control of state-appointed emergency managers, didn’t fund or support those efforts enough.

“When you start doing things like cutting funding and requiring the schools to share teachers and requiring them to share operational budgets, you start to chip away at the foundation of what a small school is,” Elsey said. “In a nutshell, anything that is not funded appropriately is going to fail.”

After all three Osborn schools landed on the state’s closure list last year, the district merged them into a single campus. Cody had one of its three schools on that list but the other two were added to a state watch list later.

The Mumford Academy showed signs of success in its first two years. It had the EAA’s highest attendance rate and the state-run district’s highest percentage of students meeting targets on tests that measure how much students learn from one year to the next.

In its third year, after the EAA dissolved and its schools returned to the main Detroit district, principal Nir Saar said SAT scores were encouraging.

Though state officials have not yet released SAT scores for Michigan schools, Saar said during the school’s end-of-year ceremony this month that he’d collected individual scores from his 11th graders — the first at the school to take the SAT. He learned that the school-wide average for the junior class was 822.

If this year’s SAT scores come in similar to those from the 2016-17 school year, an average score of 822 would put the Mumford Academy ahead of most Detroit high schools that don’t use selective admissions, such as Cass Tech and Renaissance.

If you take Cass and Renaissance out of the equation, the average SAT score for high schools that are now in the district was around 805 last year.

“This is how [Mumford Academy students] stack up” Saar told the parents and students assembled in the school auditorium for a celebration on June 8.

He flashed a bar chart on a screen that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar flashed a bar chart on a screen at a school celebration that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools. “The message for me is really clear,” he said. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve.”

“The message for me is really clear,” he said as he pointed to that slide. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve just about anything and achieve on par with schools that are selecting their students, that are in nicer neighborhoods and have better resources.”

What happens next for the academy’s students and teachers isn’t entirely clear.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board before it voted on the mergers of Mumford and Cody last month that students from the different schools would be kept together even after their schools merge.

“They will take classes with each other and stay together, but under one school,” Vitti said.

Mumford High School’s principal, Angela Prince, said in a statement that since she took over the larger school in the 2016-17 school year, she has “been focused on student achievement and turning around what others had counted as a lost cause.”

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, she said, test scores showed Mumford students were moving in the right direction, and the school was named most-improved school in the EAA district.   

When the two schools merge, she said, academy students will stay with their same teachers but will have access to more electives than they did when they were at a small school. Entering 9th-graders will be separated into a dedicated 9th grade community that will provide extra support, she said.

“We pride ourselves at Mumford on developing a small family atmosphere and letting students know they are loved,” Prince said. “Our students will continue to excel and be successful, and show that it can happen in a comprehensive high school setting.”

Vitti said he’s not against the small school concept, which has been used extensively in cities like New York.

“There certainly was some positive impact regarding those smaller schools,” he told the board last month. “From a student attendance point of view, from a behavioral point of view and just an overall safety point of view. But one concern that was expressed by individual board members and myself was the large administrative costs linked to having multiple schools, with multiple administrators.”

Merging the schools, he said, would both reduce costs, saving $1.1 million a year at Cody, and between $735,000 and $825,000 a year at Mumford, and “create a clearer vision under one leader.”

Vitti said Saar and two of the Cody principals will be moved to other district schools and will remain principals.

What’s not clear for now is what will become of a leadership training program that had been taking place at the Mumford Academy.

Saar and his top advisors at the academy had been participating in something called the Team Fellows program, a $900,000 effort, funded by the Detroit Children’s Fund, to bring school management coaches from around the country to work closely with the leaders of three Detroit schools.

The idea is to help school leaders — including those who, because of Detroit’s challenges, have never worked in a high-performing school — better understand what has worked in other cities.

Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund, said Saar and his team were selected from among the leaders of 25 district and charters schools who applied to participate. The program started last winter and was supposed to extend through the 2018-19 school year.

Now, Elsey said, he’s not sure what will happen next. One option is to involve the leaders of the larger Mumford, but coaches could move on to a different school instead.

“We put schools through a pretty competitive application process,” Elsey said. “We need to know if that’s the right match.”

Parents and students at the academy say they’re worried about what next year will bring.

“I am upset and really sad about us losing a strong, three-year family because this academy is a strong academy,” said Jerreon Smith, a Mumford Academy junior. “I’m going to miss the environment. It’s most likely going to get lost.”

Jerreon’s mother,  Yolanda Johnson, said her son thrived at the small school.

“They get to know you. Your child is not just a number,” she said. “[Students] want to do well when they come into a classroom where they know that the teacher actually knows them, that the teacher will get on the phone and talk to their mother … not just when they’re not doing the right thing, but when they’re doing good.”

Still, Johnson said, she is hoping for the best.

“Hopefully,” she said, “the skills they’ve given them in the academy will be strong enough.”