EAA at beginning of end with new school year

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit – — Tuesday will be the last first day of school for students in the Education Achievement Authority.

The state-run district will be shuttered after the end of its fifth school year in June, when the EAA’s interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University expires. Its 15 schools will become part of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, though whether they will remain open is unclear.

But for the next nine months, the district — which has been racked by financial scandal, poor academic performance and even worse public perception — will try to conduct business as usual in a lame-duck situation that some argue hinders parents, students and teachers.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” said A’lelle Masters, whose son, Myreun, is an 11th-grader at Mumford High School. “It stinks. I’m frustrated, but my son and I will ride it out.”

Despite the ticking clock, chancellor Veronica Conforme still is recruiting students and making her pitch to parents about the district’s offerings.

“In my two years alone, I have seen our work produce real results,” said Conforme, who has headed the district since June 2014. “I am aggressively advocating for that work to continue because I refuse to stand by and watch the schools slide backwards.”

Conforme points to the district’s scores on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), released last week, as proof the EAA’s approach is working.

“Our latest M-STEP scores show we are headed in the right direction,” she said. “Seven out of nine EAA K-8 schools showed growth in the percent of students proficient in (English); eight out of nine EAA K-8 schools showed growth in the percent of students proficient in math.”

Even so, in grades three through eight, the EAA as a whole achieved a proficiency rate above 10 percent in just one grade-level subject, eighth-grade English, according to data from the Michigan Department of Education.

Parent Debra Bulock fends off the naysayers. She applauds the district and dreads its end.

“That district did great things for my kids,” said Bulock, whose daughters are in the ninth and 12th grades at Denby High School. “I don’t have anything negative to say about it. I just hope they’ll be able to keep all the teachers and central office workers on staff. They all work so hard.”

Masters said she’s not yet looking for a new district for her son to attend when he becomes a senior next fall because she would like him to continue at Mumford High with his classmates. Still, she is concerned.

“It is difficult for me to be optimistic,” she said. “I go to all the board meetings, and at the meeting in August, I asked if there will still be a Mumford High School when the district ends, and I did not get an answer during public comment.”

Critics call the EAA a failed experiment, doomed before it was out of the gate. Others praise Gov. Rick Snyder for trying to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools by establishing the EAA, which began operating in the fall of 2012 with 15 former DPS schools.

Snyder had hoped to expand the state-run district beyond Detroit, but he faced resistance from legislators, teachers’ unions and faculty at Eastern Michigan University. The Ypsilanti school’s Board of Regents voted in February this year to end its interlocal agreement with the EAA, effective June 30, 2017.

“Eastern Michigan University’s focus has been and will continue to be trying to help the children of Detroit receive the best education possible,” EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom told The Detroit News last week. “The university will continue to look for opportunities to contribute to the new (Detroit) school district, both in terms of expertise and our teaching graduates.”

The political backlash against the EAA was accompanied by falling enrollment. Since opening four years ago, the district has lost one-third of its students, with enrollment dropping from 8,682 in 2012-13 to 5,748 last year, according to state figures.

In its fiscal year 2017 budget, the EAA projected it would have 5,180 students this fall in 11 direct-run schools. The district also operates charter schools.

Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen said the EAA has been “politically charged and embattled from the beginning.”

“Despite much effort, good intent and money spent, the schools have not shown significant evidence of academic improvement, especially at the high school level,” said Allen, who also co-chairs the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which offered its own plan to save DPS before the Legislature approved a $617 million rescue package to establish a new, debt-free Detroit school district.

“Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned from this effort that could help DPSCD succeed,” she said. “We have to make sure we focus on what works for kids, and remember that regardless of who runs these schools, children are still being underserved. This must change.”

Conforme acknowledges the EAA faced an uphill fight.

“The EAA had many issues from its inception, including a lack of preparation ahead of its first year, a tenuous governance model and loose financial controls,” she said. “The district was also a new idea that challenged the status quo in Detroit education — so, naturally, there were opponents from the outset.”

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter school group that wanted forced closures to be part of the DPS rescue legislation, said starting the EAA was better than doing nothing.

“We applaud the Snyder administration for making an honest attempt to address the lowest-performing schools in Detroit by creating the EAA, which was more than what has been done in the past,” Naeyaert said. “It’s unfortunate the academic results haven’t been better, as these schools continue to be among the lowest-performing schools in the city.”

Robert Floden, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, said the district was costly to create and wasn’t clearly thought out.

“The experiment was expensive, with substantial investments from philanthropic organizations, in addition to the public dollars that followed the students,” Floden said. “I wish more had been learned from the experiment, but it’s not clear what change in teaching and learning was being tested.”

Allen wants to see more scrutiny of the state-run district.

“There needs to be a full financial and academic audit conducted on the EAA schools as soon as possible so that the new (Detroit) school board can consider this during the integration,” she said.

Allen also said the new, locally run DPS needs to be given a chance to turn around the EAA schools, without having to carry any debt belonging to the soon-to-be defunct district. The two districts wrangled publicly last month over $12 million in lease payments the EAA owes DPS for the past two years.

“Since the state has managed these schools, it should give the district a fair opportunity to run them and implement a plan to improve academics. The clock ought to restart,” Allen said.

Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan, said returning to one Detroit school district should benefit students.

“With divided attention between EAA and DPS, it is quite likely that neither entity received the focus that each deserved,” he said.

“It may be that by returning the EAA students to DPS, the problem of focus and perhaps resources might be more effectively resolved. However, regardless of where the students are located, it will be absolutely necessary to provide effective curriculum and programs to meet the needs of both groups of students.”