September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Back to school

Michigan students and schools wired for e-learning

No waiting until high school: First-graders are in an honors program at Memorial Elementary in Garden City. Students are facing academic changes, new technology and other challenges this year. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

It’s the first day of school for most of Michigan’s 1.56 million public school students, who are returning to classrooms where many will face academic changes, new technology and other challenges.

This fall, e-books are replacing traditional textbooks for students in Southfield Public Schools, where the district spent $3.5 million in e-books, instructional materials and technology upgrades.

E-books are expected to provide students with online access to curriculum and support materials such as videos, discussion threads, interactive mapping modules for social studies, and a proofreading program designed to improve writing by providing multiple revisions of assignments, district officials said.

Superintendent Lynda Wood said students are wired for technology, having grown up with it at home and all around them.

The district spent $1.7 million on e-books and instructional materials and another $1.8 million for technology upgrades across the district, including iPads, Apple TVs and ceiling-mounted projectors in each classroom. The money came from the general budget — no loans or bonds were used, district officials said.

“Students will have multiple ways to access the content. They can read materials online or download them, view videos, or participate in forums,” district curriculum director George Chapp said. “The curriculum will be continuously updated, so you won’t have the issue of outdated materials that you have in traditional texts.”

All middle and high students will have an e-account in the four core areas of English language arts, science, mathematics and social studies. Elementary students will have new instructional materials and online activities.

For students who don’t have access to a smartphone or computer, the district will provide a set of traditional books in the classroom that can be checked out.

The district will also enhance its network bandwidth from 1 gigabyte to 10 gigabytes, supplying enough power to ensure thousands of students can be online simultaneously without the network crashing.

New programs in Detroit

Change is the order of the day as well for students in Detroit’s two state-run school districts.

Detroit Public Schools, led by a state-appointed emergency manager since 2009, is opening a new high school, starting with ninth-graders this year. It’s aimed at students who speak both Spanish and English. The Escuela Preparatoria Academia de las Americas will serve southwest Detroit’s growing Hispanic population.

The district also is starting an International Baccalaureate program at Cass Tech High School. IB programs, such as the prestigious International Academy, with campuses in Bloomfield Hills, White Lake Township and Troy, emphasize critical thinking, a global outlook and independent learning.

Students at 15 former DPS schools will begin their third year under the Education Achievement Authority, set up to operate Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.

The state-run recovery district has a new interim chancellor, Veronica Conforme, a former New York City educator who became the EAA’s leader when John Covington resigned in June.

Her challenges include stemming enrollment and revenue declines in the district, which faces a murky future. Gov. Rick Snyder wants to expand it to more schools, while Democrats and some Republicans in the Legislature oppose the idea, with some even calling for the EAA to be dismantled.

New initiatives in EAA classrooms this year focus on improving science, technology, engineering and math learning. When students return to classes Tuesday, they will see new STEM SmartLabs in six high schools and one K-8 school.

They also will take part in ECOTEK, a discovery-based science laboratory environment that allows students to study scientific problems in such areas as alternative energy, environmental conservation, food security and health care.

Denby High School parent Debra Bulock said she looks forward to new challenges at the EAA for her two children, 10th-grader Jala Bulock, 14, and 11th-grader Jayvon Bulock, 15. Both attend Denby.

“My son already is on the robotics and debate team and he’s a member of the National Honor Society,” she said. “I’d like to see my daughter’s grades improve, and I want them both to become involved in STEM classes.”

Schools on allergy alert

In other developments, every public school in Michigan is required to have epinephrine injectors to treat allergic reactions. Schools will have to have two epinephrine devices starting next academic year and ensure at least two staff members are trained to use them.

It’s estimated that one of every 13 children has food allergies.

EpiPens immediately deliver epinephrine into the victim’s system, slowing the allergic reaction to give emergency personnel time to provide further treatment.

Graduation rules eased

Gov. Rick Snyder changed Michigan’s high school graduation rules to allow students to meet some math and foreign language requirements through materials woven into certain technical and arts classes.

One provision gives students the flexibility to meet the algebra II credit by taking welding or another career tech class with the mathematics content embedded in it.

Michigan also currently requires students to complete two years of a foreign language. But under the provision signed by Snyder, students for the next six years will be able to fulfill half of the requirement in a career tech or art class.

Charters face scrutiny

Charter schools have grown steadily over the past two decades in Michigan, and this year is no exception.

According to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, 18 new charters are opening in the state this fall. Even with 11 others closing, the state’s number of charter schools is growing to more than 300. Last year, about 141,000 students attended charter schools — 9.3 percent of the state’s school-age population.

Last month, state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan warned 11 of Michigan’s 40 charter school authorizers they could lose their ability to charter additional schools.

The authorizers named as being “at risk of suspension” include DPS, EAA and Eastern Michigan University. Flanagan said the authorizers fall short in providing effective oversight of their charter schools, which rank in the bottom 10 percent academically.

Those at risk of suspension have until Oct. 22 to remediate their deficiencies, and Flanagan will decide in November whether to suspend them.
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Birney K-8 School teachers Jessica Thomas, left, and Stephanie Georges ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Veronica Conforme, center, interim chancellor of the Education Achievement ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Angel Jorolan enjoys a hamburger at Holden Elementary in Sterling Heights, ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)