Michigan puts new twist on school turnaround efforts

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Ten character traits are pinned to a board inside every classroom at Eastpointe Middle School.

Words such as “reflective,” “open-minded,” “thinkers,” “balanced” and “risk-takers” appear in large black print to remind students it’s not business as usual at this Macomb County public school, which faced the threat of closure after years of chronically low student achievement.

Bianca Clark, 12, with Eastpointe Superintendent Ryan McLeod, who said the state takeover approach to reform has often fallen short.

This fall, the school rebranded itself as an International Baccalaureate Programme, which focuses on teaching children to think critically and challenge assumptions in local and global contexts.

The dramatic change is part of the district’s approach to turning around its lowest-performing school and is the impetus for reaching new academic growth goals it set in a three-year Partnership Agreement with the state to avoid closure in the future. The district is in the process of accreditation for the program, which also takes three years.

Eastpointe is one of nine Michigan school districts in Partnership Agreements with the state Department of Education. It is Michigan’s latest approach to turning around its bottom 5 percent of schools.

Each partnership plan contains specific growth and achievement goals and outlines partners the district will work with to achieve goals. The plans have minimal state intervention and include a state liaison for each district to cut through red tape in Lansing.

It’s an education reform model new to Michigan, which has a history of sending its state School Reform Office into a district to lead change, enforcing a consent agreement with a district or installing an emergency financial manager to take control from a superintendent and elected school board.

Eastpointe Schools Superintendent Ryan McLeod welcomes the new approach after battling the reform office in 2016 when it hired a CEO to oversee Eastpointe’s middle school and three other schools, which had been ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

There was tremendous pushback in the school community, including a legal challenge by McLeod.

“Their plan was coming in and taking over. We felt the idea of state takeover had already been tried and failed in several situations, and we weren’t going to let that happen again in this district,” McLeod said.

The district has a lot of work to do. MSTEP scores from 2017 show only 6.1 percent of seventh-graders were proficient in math, compared to 34.2 percent of seventh-graders statewide. Proficiency rates for the two years prior in that grade and subject were less than 5 percent.

In the agreement, Eastpointe set targets such as increasing proficiency on the state assessment by 4 percent by the 2019-20 school year. They believe the baccalaureate curriculum, which focuses on character-building, will get their students there in three years.

Partnership agreements are also in place for the School District of the City of Pontiac, the Detroit Public School Community District, Benton Harbor Area Schools, River Rouge School District, the Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District, and Kalamazoo Public Schools. The Saginaw City School District has two separate agreements in place: one for a high school and one for an elementary school.

They involve 37 of the lowest-performing schools in Michigan. Each agreement includes 18-month and 36-month timelines when districts will be evaluated on the progress toward their goals. The progress of each school will be monitored and given assistance when and where it’s needed, state Superintendent Brian Whiston said.

Principal Stephanie Fleming assists kids at Eastpointe Middle School, now an International Baccalaureate Programme as part of the district’s bid to reach new academic goals in an agreement with the state to avoid closure in the future.

On average, most districts set goals to improve student growth by 2-3 percent a year, compared to the prior year, using local assessment results in reading and math, Whiston said. The partnership agreements are setting 4-6 percent gains for improvement goals, he said.

“They are rigorous. We hope they grow even more than that. But they are pretty far behind where they are supposed to be,” he said. “The important part of this agreement, it does allow the local district to own the problem.”

There are no surprises at the end of 18 months if the goals are not met, Whiston said. The county intermediate school district will take more control, or the district has to repurpose the building.

“This is my legacy,” he said. “This either works or I need to be thrown out.”

The plans require districts to engage with multiple partners — the intermediate school district, education organizations, business, community members, parents, higher education organizations and foundations — to work to improve student outcomes. Partners include international corporations such as General Motors Co. and Whirpool Corp.

The state’s role in the agreement is to assist through its agencies, such as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, to address the child in areas of food, shelter and other needs. Districts can get help via the liaison on a host of issues, such as teacher hiring or training.

“The liaison is supposed to be someone who comes into the district and raises tough questions about the status of the plan,” Whiston said.

The agreements are part of the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan for making Michigan a top 10 state for education.

In Detroit, the district has 22 separate plans for each of its schools in the agreement because each school is at a different starting point in the reform process.

Eight of the 22 schools are former Education Achievement Authority schools, which were taken from the district by the state in 2011 in an attempt to create a turnaround district. The EAA was dismantled in June after observers said it failed. Emergency financial managers ran DPS from 2009 to 2016. The district now has a superintendent and elected school board.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the difference between the partnership agreements and previous reform attempts is a “hyper-focus” on human capital, specifically the deep training of teachers on staff with a focus on Common Core educational initiative and building a teacher pipeline for future leaders in the district.

To build that pipeline, DPSCD will work with its four university partners — University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University — to put student teacher and resident programs for teachers at the partnership schools.

“We can’t do this work alone,” Vitti said of the partners. “Under the program, you get paired with a master teacher. You shadow them. You’re not in the university classroom.”

Vitti is also working on increasing teacher pay at the partnership agreement schools. He is in talks with the teacher’s union to arrange for bonuses during a one- to two-year period at the 22 schools.

In the Pontiac School District, Superintendent Kelley Williams welcomes the partnership agreement to complete what the state’s 2013 consent agreement could not address.

The consent agreement put the district on the right track financially — it still is trying to erase a $22 million deficit — but lacked specific academic goals to tackle serious educational issues.

The partnership agreement, which focuses on the district’s only high school and one elementary school, aims to provide wraparound services to the district’s English language learner population, which is 29 percent, the second highest in Oakland County, Williams said.

That will mean ensuring that every building has a food pantry, a social worker and contact with state agencies that provide health and human services for at-risk students.

Another goal is to have 46 percent of high school students be at or above grade level in subject areas after one full year of interventions under the partnership agreement.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, said turning around a low-performing school requires four ingredients: leadership autonomy, great teachers who personalize instruction, content that raises academic achievement and parent choice.

“You have to change everything from how students are taught in a classroom to who is working with them, exposing them to content. You have to do that with people who are highly experienced or have such great tools,” Allen said.

If a district does not, Allen said, “it’s a Band-aid around a broken model of education.”