Future cloudy for troubled EAA

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Myreun Masters’ Mumford High School art class was without an art teacher for nine weeks while the teacher was on medical leave.

Other teachers or substitutes took over, but they didn’t teach art. Masters, 16, a 10th-grader, played computer games or listened to music. He did not turn in one art project, but received an A in the class.

His mom said she was livid.

“My son is always sketching and drawing and he loves animation,” A’lelle Masters said. “He is excellent in art, and received an A the previous card marking, but I don’t believe he deserved an A for showing up and doing nothing. I was extremely disappointed.”

Her concerns are echoed by parents, students and teachers who are questioning what will happen to the state-run Education Achievement Authority once the district loses Eastern Michigan University as its authorizing partner on June 30, 2017. Mumford is one of 15 schools in the EAA, created by Gov. Rick Snyder with the intent of turning around the worst-performing schools in the state.

EMU decided to end its relationship with the EAA in February. The university was supposed to provide educational services and expertise to the EAA, but some professors say that did not happen. Faculty said they were excluded and that the EAA engaged in questionable educational practices.

At the same time, Detroit Public Schools’ financial troubles have pushed EAA into the background. DPS is struggling with dwindling enrollment, teacher unrest and a looming financial meltdown that has state legislators weighing a multimillion-dollar bailout package.

Snyder is seeking a $715 million, 10-year plan to relieve DPS of debt and create a new debt-free school district; last week, the state House approved $48.7 million to keep the doors open through June.

All of this has EAA parents and others asking: What about us?

“We have the same problems as DPS with teacher shortages, financial problems and failing grades,” A’lelle Masters said. “My son is an honor student, but I worry about all the students in the schools.”

There’s even talk of the EAA schools returning to DPS, which they belonged to before the reform district was created in August 2012. It includes 12 schools and three charters.

“All conversations are on the table,” EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme said. “But we’re not going to wait until June of 2017. We need a resolution now, so we’ve been talking to the School Reform Office and various partners about finding a permanent solution. Conversations are ongoing, and we hope to have a resolution much earlier than that.”

EAA enrollment down

Snyder told The Detroit News in December that he was “open” to disbanding his EAA if it is part of a deal with the Legislature to overhaul public education governance in Detroit.

Declining enrollment — the district had fewer than 6,000 students at last count — and the recent indictment of a former EAA principal on charges of taking bribery kickbacks from a contractor have not helped the district’s image. As recently as Wednesday, a scuffle outside Central High School drew DPS police officers to the scene.

Conforme said the district makes the safety of its students a priority and acknowledged that teacher shortages have led to complaints like those raised by Masters, the Mumford mom.

“In Detroit, we have a teacher shortage crisis,” Conforme said. “All schools, charter and DPS alike, are competing for the same group of teachers. When we have an unexpected illness of a teacher and don’t have a chance to plan for that class, it may take some time to find a replacement. We are working with our districtwide teachers council to create an attractive environment for teachers to come and work with us.”

But experts are less optimistic.

“Stability is key, especially for parents who have enough instability outside the schools,” said Craig Thiel, senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council Center. “Wondering where their kid will go to school is adding another big concern because that affects the trajectory of the kid’s future, and not having answers is not good.”

Thiel said he believes that if the EAA continues, it will not be operated as the EAA. It could be a stand-alone entity operated by the state School Reform Office, which has authority to operate schools, he said.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

Kenneth Wong, chairman of education policy at Brown University, also questions the EAA’s future.

“The EAA problems show the challenge of implementing reform at scale,” he said. “While the design features may seem coherent, EAA has difficulty in gaining credibility due to mismanagement and mixed results in ensuring schooling quality.”

Wong said there appears to be three options. The governor can look for another university partner to maintain the EAA, pursue direct state control over DPS or shift control of DPS to the Detroit mayor’s office, he said.

“An advantage of this option of local control is to ease the state-city tension so that stakeholders can focus on fixing the education problems for all children in Detroit,” Wong said.

Denby ‘a good school’

Not all EAA parents are concerned. Debra Bulock, who has a 16-year-old daughter, Jayla, and a 17-year-old son, Jayvon, at Denby High School, said she is not looking to move them.

“I don’t think they’re going to close Denby or any other school,” she said. “This is a good school and I want my kids to stay here. And I hope they keep Ms. Conforme on because she’s genuine and hands-on, and cares about the students.”

Myles Morgan, dean of culture at the new Mumford ninth-grade academy known as Mumford Blue Academy, which opened in September, said he is optimistic things will work out.

“Detroit schools overall are in a bad, bad situation, but my orientation is very faith-based, so no matter what happens, everything is going to be in order,” he said. “But I do hope we can find a way to replicate what we’re doing here because we’re getting awesome results in the few months we’ve been in operation.”

Asked if parents should be investigating other school districts, Conforme said no.

“This is an example where our students and families need stability, and they need their teachers and administrators with them moving forward,” she said. “Our goal is to ensure that happens and that we don’t disrupt the learning and gains they made.”

Myreun Masters described Mumford as “not really good and not really bad, but all right.” He said he especially enjoys Spanish, history and biology, and would like to become a lawyer, or create computer animation, or pursue mortuary science.

But he is unsure about the district’s future. “Everything just seems really jumpy, like they can’t stick to just one thing.”


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