East Detroit begins school year with leadership battle
Eastpointe — Both of Jennifer Ward’s daughters have attended East Detroit Public Schools.
The oldest graduated in 2015 with honors and went on to Macomb Community College. Her youngest, a sophomore at East Detroit High, qualifies to take early college courses, Ward said.
So when Ward learned the state had appointed a CEO to oversee operations at four low-performing district schools starting with Tuesday’s new school year, she was baffled.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Ward said. “I don’t understand it because we have been improving, and (the district) has been working hard to improve everything.”
But according to educational testing data, East Detroit faces a seismic uphill battle despite its most recent efforts.
According to the district’s dashboard at michigan.gov, the number of students in third through eighth grades who were proficient in math and reading was only 5.1 percent last school year. That’s down from 9.2 percent in 2013-14.
High school students proficient on the state Michigan Merit Exam in all subjects improved slightly to 2.9 percent in 2013-14 from 2.1 percent the prior year. It was 4.3 percent in 2011-12.
Ward isn’t the only one concerned about the state intervention in this 3,200-student district.
Superintendent Ryan McLeod maintains the CEO job isn’t necessary and the appointment has put teachers on edge about how their jobs may be affected.
The state School Reform Office announced in June it had hired Gary Jensen, former principal at Lakeview High School in Montcalm County, to be CEO and oversee the target schools — Bellview and Pleasantview elementaries, Kelly Middle and East Detroit High — which have been ranked in the lowest-performing 5 percent of all Michigan schools.
State officials say the schools have suffered years of chronically low student achievement.
In the latest Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) results, 20 percent of 11th-grade students tested proficient in science, down from 26.7 percent the year before. But there were also some gains. In fourth-grade reading at Bellview, 56.8 percent were proficient in 2015-16, up from 37.2 percent in 2014-15 on the M-STEP.
District leaders attribute their academic decline to a highly transient population and Schools of Choice students who transfer to East Detroit and perform at a lower level in math, reading and other subjects.
About one-third of the incoming freshmen at East Detroit come from public schools or charters in Detroit, officials say. Detroit’s public schools have spent nearly a decade under an emergency manager and consistently score among the lowest in national student tests.
Jensen said it’s going to take a collaborative effort from administrators, teachers, parents and students to turn the tide in East Detroit schools.
After leading Lakeview from the state’s Priority School list to Reward School status, Jensen said he wanted to make a difference somewhere else.
“I looked at it as another opportunity to impact another group of kids,” he said. “If you start to change the climate and culture of how things are done and what’s expected of kids ... I believe things will start moving upward.”
The state’s decision to hire a CEO has been unpopular in the school community, gaining mostly skepticism from parents, teachers and government officials.
The community came together in late June and took a unified stand against the move during a press conference at East Detroit High School.
The district, McLeod said, was making strides in turning around those schools without a CEO in place.
It has implemented intervention programs to boost math and reading proficiency. Teachers also made concessions — 24.5 percent pay cuts in the past six years — to keep the district afloat.
The district projects a $1.85 million general fund balance after a nearly $1.3 million deficit in 2013-14 and a $5 million deficit in 2012-13, according to the East Detroit Public Schools dashboard.
McLeod sought to prove his point by challenging the state’s decision in court. Last month, attorneys for the district and Jensen reached an agreement that Jensen would have limited power over the school district.
Under the agreement, he cannot unilaterally control state money or terminate or modify the contracts of teachers and administrators.
McLeod said Jensen is essentially a consultant for the superintendent.
The agreement also states if Jensen and McLeod are deadlocked on any matters, the two can try to settle it in court.
It’s a stark contrast from the state’s law that gives the CEO complete authority over operations at the schools and charges him or her with turning around academic performance.
The role is similar to an emergency manager in that both are powerful figures placed in school districts, but an emergency manager focuses on finances while the CEO focuses on academics.
“He doesn’t have any decision-making power at all under the current agreement,” McLeod said. “He basically just advises me on what he thinks we should do related to our four priority schools.”
State officials say the agreement is temporary as litigation continues.
Last week, four Macomb County school districts — Warren Consolidated Schools, Van Dyke Public Schools, Mount Clemens Community Schools and Roseville Community Schools — joined East Detroit’s lawsuit against the state School Reform Office, which is empowered to takeover or close low-performing local schools.
State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said she doesn’t believe the limits will hinder Jensen from improving the schools.
“We have great confidence that both Dr. McLeod and Gary Jensen have the ability to work collaboratively to do what’s in the best interest of children,” she said.
According to McLeod, that relationship hasn’t gotten off to a good start.
McLeod said it’s unclear what Jensen’s plan is for boosting academic performance at the target schools. The superintendent said he recently called a meeting and asked Jensen to bring the documents he submitted to the state before his appointment regarding academic and financial plans.
During the meeting, Jensen was unable to produce those documents, McLeod said.
“It’s hard for me to know how to use him as a consultant when I don’t really know what he is bringing to the table,” McLeod said. “What I am trying to determine is how does he fit with the team that we have right here?”
Jensen said he can’t create a turnaround plan until he’s had a chance to visit the schools and meet with teachers.
“For me to come in and say we are going to institute plan A, B and C for the four schools would be foolish without getting a chance to talk to the people that are working with the kids on a day-to-day basis,” Jensen said.
Kyle Hamlin, the superintendent of Lakeview Community Schools, lauded Jensen for his work as a principal at Lakeland (2010-15).
Jensen worked to implement academic centers for students who struggled in certain areas, hired a math coach for teachers and brought in an Evidence Based Literacy Instruction program.
“Gary’s got the right mind and he’s got the right attitude,” Hamlin said. “He’s very personable and he knows a lot of people and he’s going to do whatever needs to be done.”
Baker said Jensen will work in the East Detroit district “as many days as it’s necessary to do the work well.” He has a three-year state contract at a $160,000 annual salary. McLeod’s 2014-15 salary was $138,000, according to the East Detroit Public Schools dashboard.
Lincoln Stocks, president of the East Detroit Federation of Teachers, said many teachers feel the state intervention threatens job stability. That fear intensified earlier this month when Baker announced plans to close failing schools in Michigan, he said.
About a dozen staff members have resigned since Baker announced she would hire a CEO, according to the district.
“We have teachers that aren’t willing to put the risk of their family on employment in East Detroit because they don’t know what will happen with the CEO,” Stocks said. “People are going other places where they don’t have to put up with that.”
Katrina Schultz, a teacher at Kelly Middle School, said the staff has spent the summer developing curriculum that meets their students’ needs.
The schools have been faced with meeting the high standards of Common Core, she said. Schultz said she believes the district is capable of success without the CEO.
“There’s only so much progress that we can make throughout the year,” Schultz said.
Larry Burton, an Eastpointe resident and former East Detroit school board member, said he believes the state’s decision to oversee the district is “premature.”
Burton said the school district has the help of the Macomb Intermediate School District through a partnership and doesn’t need a state-appointed CEO.
“They are pretty much trying to tell the ISD that they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Burton, whose two children attended East Detroit schools. “The fact that they (the state) decided to put in someone of their own ... I think they want to take the credit for the turnaround.”
Today is the first day of school for many elementary and high school students in Metro Detroit and around Michigan.
Most districts, by law, begin classes after Labor Day, but some can get a waiver from the state and start their school year before that.
While many districts have implemented academic changes this year, the biggest difference for students around the state is having days lengthened or vacations shortened to meet the state’s new requirement of 180 days of instruction.