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1st day of school in Pontiac brings day of many firsts

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Pontiac – — When students at Pontiac High School arrive Monday for the first day of school, chances are it'll be the first day in the district for the teachers standing in front of them, too.

That's because 50 percent of the teaching staff at the high school was replaced last month as part of the district's sweeping turnaround plan, a 163-page blueprint created by Pontiac education leaders this summer to improve student learning, raise tests scores and dramatically change the way education is delivered.

The turnaround model, still waiting approval by the Michigan Department of Education, is part of the district's consent agreement with the state that is designed to get Pontiac Schools out of a $51.6 million deficit and improve student achievement in the district, where 90 percent of K-12 students are performing below grade level.

In addition to removing 30 of the 60 teachers at the high school, other big changes this fall include a pre-Labor Day start — part of the district's new extended-year calendar — and Chromebooks in the hands of all middle and high school students, who will be focused on project-based learning programs.

Rosalyn Whitehead, Pontiac Schools assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said educators know students are tech-savvy and want to use technology to engage them.

"We believe when you engage students, build relationships with students, when you offer skills and information that is relevant to them, they do a better job. When you can pinpoint their interests and allow them to collaborate, this can help improve the academic climate," she said.

Under the extended-year calendar, students attend school for eight to 10 weeks and then have five to nine days of an "intervention intersession" when low-performing students get time with a reading specialist or certified teacher to complete missing assignments, build reading and math skills and get extra work.

The goal, education leaders say, is to raise student achievement in the 5,000-student district by maximizing learning time and reducing learning loss from long breaks from classes. This cycle would repeat three times during the year.

'Not an easy decision'

Pontiac Schools is the first Michigan school district to operate under a state consent agreement. Per the agreement, the district had to choose a reform model for its high school that included closing the school, turning it over to a charter school or the Education Achievement Authority, or the turnaround model, Superintendent Kelley Williams said in a newsletter to parents.

"This was not an easy decision to make, but after thorough review, we decided to go with the turnaround model at the high school. A condition of this model required us to replace 50 percent of the underachieving high school staff — no exceptions," she said.

"This is also the state's first Consent Agreement, and the good news is that, despite challenges, it is working. We are getting better," Williams wrote.

The district has been under the eye of the Michigan Department of Education since 2009, when it began running an operating deficit.

After Gov. Rick Snyder declared the district had a financial emergency in August 2013, its board chose to resolve the crisis under a consent agreement with the state. As it fights a financial deficit, education leaders are also trying to reverse a decade-long drop in enrollment and test scores in the bottom 30 percent.

Among the challenges the district faces is educating children in one of Metro Detroit's poorest cities. According to census data, a third of Pontiac's nearly 60,000 residents live below poverty level, compared with about 16 percent statewide.

Median household income is less than $30,000, trailing the statewide average by roughly $20,000. As of April, the city's jobless rate was 17 percent, compared with 7.4 percent statewide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

District officials say this school year will not look like any other because they are working toward changing the climate and culture to focus on project-based learning that will shift instruction to more online content.

Help from Oakland Schools

Teachers will focus on improving students' writing skills and note-taking to better organize what they are learning.

Oakland Schools, the county intermediate school district that provides specialized services to local districts, is playing a pivotal role in the Pontiac system's turnaround efforts. Under the consent agreement, Oakland Schools has taken over the district's human resources and business office.

It also sent educational staff, including math coaches and technology education consultants, to the district. They visit classrooms to train teachers and help students with a new blended learning program that combines online and classroom instruction.

Whitehead said the new teachers have been on board and trained by Oakland Schools in how to use blended learning and use of the Chromebooks.

"The biggest thing is, yes, students will see a number of new faces, and our expectation is staff will hit the ground running and begin identifying students and deliver instruction," Whitehead said.

Aimee McKeever, president of the Pontiac Education Association, said the turnaround plan was not written by teachers but by lawmakers "who think they know what's best for education."

"It has some good ideas in there. We need to make sure we implement the ideas that fit this urban community," McKeever said.

Her concerns centered on the additional paperwork required from high school teachers, each of whom will be required to meet with 26 students twice a week to build relationships, take individual attendance, monitor grades and other factors and document every item.

"The extra amount of work required by teachers, teaching assistants, para pros and secretaries — are we going to burn them out so quickly that we end up failing?" she said.

McKeever said the new crop of teachers at the high school is a mix of veterans and newcomers.

"I always look forward to the beginning of the new year. The fresh start, new faces," she said. "We start off fired up and ready to go."

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