New Year New board

Detroit’s first empowered school board in years is gearing up for opening day — and a long to-do list

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration next month as it takes control of city schools that have been under the thumb of appointed managers for nearly two decades.

But the party isn’t likely to last for long. The new board faces a daunting to-do list including possibly going to court to stop school closures. The board faces crucial decisions about who should lead the district, and what to do with long-struggling schools that will rejoin the district this summer. Board members must also quickly absorb reams of information about a complicated district that now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” said Misha Stallworth, a community activist who is the youngest member of the new board at 27. “It’s a lot of information but, for me, the priority is really starting with a strong foundation … We have to have a really clear understanding of what’s going on and also be prepared to write policy that has a positive impact today, has a positive impact in a year and has a positive impact in five years.”

The seven board members who were chosen by Detroit voters in November have spent the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools.

As the first elected Detroiters to have any real power over city schools in years, they’ve gotten workshops on curriculum, facilities, and finances from district officials. They’ve met with Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials currently making decisions on whether to shutter as many as two dozen city schools. They’ve talked with the state financial review board, which must sign off on many of the new board’s decisions.

And now the district is planning an official ceremony on Jan. 11 at Cass Technical High School, where students, teachers and principals will be on hand to welcome the new board.

“The return to local control should be celebrated, and hopefully that meeting will be extra special,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has been working with the new board to plan the celebration.

“We want the principals to be there. We want teachers to be there. We want community members to be there,” she said. “Board meetings should be a place where we celebrate what’s good in the district … and work on policies to fix things that are not.”

The Jan. 11 meeting will focus on passing bylaws and choosing officers, board members say. But they’ll soon need to turn to pressing issues facing the district. Here’s what board members say they plan to tackle first:



Gearing up for a school closure fight

Shortly after taking office, board members might find themselves in a battle to save some city schools.

Snyder is currently weighing dueling legal opinions about a new law that requires the state to close every school in the city that’s been in the bottom 5 percent on state test score rankings for three years in a row — potentially affecting dozens of district schools.

Snyder initially accepted a legal opinion that asserted that the new law did not apply to schools in the main Detroit district because the schools are now officially in a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District that won’t have three years of test scores until 2019 or 2020.  (State officials created the new district to give Detroit schools a chance to spend their state education dollars in classrooms instead of paying off years of accumulated debt). But State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a legal opinion in September disputing Snyder’s assessment and asserting that the state must close schools that have years of low scores.

New board members who met with Snyder last month declined to detail his comments about the fate of Detroit schools. But one member said the board is gearing up for a fight.

“Let me say this: If we don’t get a reprieve in writing, then we will challenge that position,” said LaMar Lemmons, who is the only member of the old Detroit school board to be elected to serve on the new board. “The board will either challenge or support a challenge of school closings by the [state School Reform Office].”

Lemmons noted that the board had met with state officials and added, “Based on those discussions, if we cannot come to a meeting of the minds, you can look forward to the prospect of litigation.”

Board member Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization called Develop Detroit, said she wouldn’t speculate on whether Detroit schools would be shuttered or on whether the board would file suit to stop the potential closings. But she noted that school closings can wreak havoc on communities.

“I’m a community developer,” she said. “I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community. It creates negative property values. It frays at the fabric of our communities … I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

Looking far and wide for a new superintendent

The law that created the new school board requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office.

“The law says we have to do a search and we’ll have a process and we’ll go from there,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school consultant who has worked as a Detroit school principal and once served as the superintendent of a small district.

Meriweather has expressed interest in staying on as the district’s top educator and several board members interviewed by Chalkbeat said she is a strong contender for the position — but they are also considering looking farther afield.

“We would like to do a national search,” Lemmons said. A national search would likely require more time and money than the board has. But Lemmons said he hopes board members can get the deadline to pick a permanent schools chief extended — and support to defray the cost.

“We’re looking at getting a search firm and we’re looking for a way to pay for that without taking money out [of the district’s budget] — through grants or nonprofits,” he said.

Mays said a thorough search would be a top priority.

“Obviously the number one objective should be to find the best person for this district for this moment to fight for our children,” she said.


Reabsorbing struggling schools and other priorities

Figuring out how to bring the Education Achievement Authority schools back into the district will be at the top of board members’ priority lists.

Schools that have been part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority since Snyder removed them from the district in 2012 are scheduled to return to district control this summer. But the non-union teachers and administrators in those schools currently make salaries that don’t align with what district employees make. New EAA teachers make more than new unionized teachers in the main district, while senior teachers in the main district make more than top-salaried EAA teachers.

“We’re beginning to think through the process of what that might look like,” Hunter-Harvill said.

Lemmons said he thought the salaries were that not different in practice because EAA schools have a longer school year.  “All of those things will be negotiated,” he said.

Once the board gets going, Mays said one of her top priorities will be career and technical education.

“I’m seeing what appears to be signs of an early construction boom,” she said. “We’re going to make sure that anyone who’s interested in that career path — not just construction but entrepreneurs —  is going to be prepared for those opportunities.”

Hunter-Harvill said her priorities are seeing that the district recruit top teachers, keep its finances in order and that some stability is restored to Detroit schools.

“I want to hug those kids in the district and let them know we’re going to be there for the kids,” she said. “We have to be.”

Correction (Jan. 3, 2017): An earlier version this story incorrectly characterized the amount of time that state-appointed emergency managers have run Detroit schools. While Detroit schools have only been run by an elected board for three of the last 20 years, the first emergency manager was appointed in 2009. The district was earlier run by an appointed board. 

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.