More than a third of state’s failing schools are in DPS

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
The list of 124 schools in the bottom 5 percent for academic achievement includes 47 in DPS, the state’s largest school district. Among the list of schools are eight that have closed.

More than a third of the lowest performing schools in Michigan are in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to a list released Thursday by the state School Reform Office. The list of 124 schools in the bottom 5 percent for academic achievement includes 47 in DPS, the state’s largest school district.

The statewide list of schools includes eight buildings that have closed.

The School Reform Office also announced seven schools that improved student achievement enough to be removed from the list of failing schools: Decatur High, Decatur; Edsel Ford High, Dearborn; Eisenhower Elementary, Flint; Frontier International Academy (charter), Detroit; Lincoln Senior High School, Ypsilanti; Madison High School, Madison Heights; and Vestaburg Community High School, Vestaburg.

The seven schools demonstrated measurable, sustained improvement, including two cycles ranked above the 15th percentile in the state’s Top-to-Bottom list, according to a release.

“These seven schools provide a great example of how some tough and thoughtful decisions by local leaders can lead to rapid turnaround in academic performance,” state School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said in a news release. “It is our goal to assist school leaders in their turnaround efforts and reward them when rapid and sustained improvement is achieved. Our research has shown that schools who sustain two years above the 15th percentile are not likely to return to the bottom 5 percent.”

The release of the highly anticipated priority schools list comes less than two weeks after the School Reform Office said low-performing schools across the state could be in jeopardy of closing.

Baker said then that the office would have “data formatted by the end of the calendar year that will determine which schools are facing a next level of accountability.”

Despite the large number of DPS schools on the list, a top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday that the administration believes the state’s $617 million rescue of the district will prevent any DPS schools from being closed in the next three years.

State law allows the School Reform Office to close schools that fall into the lowest 5 percent academically for three straight years.

John Walsh, Snyder’s director of strategic policy, cited an Aug. 2 memo from the Miller Canfield law firm to DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that suggested the three-year countdown to close struggling schools was reset when those buildings were moved to a new, debt-free Detroit district in July.

In an email Thursday addressing the DPS issue, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton noted that no schools have been closed by the state since the priority schools list was established in 2010.

“We are following the law as written,” Heaton said. “Because Detroit is a new district, schools that were failing under the old district can’t be closed by the School Reform Office. Please note that they could still be closed by the district.”

In a statement, interim DPS superintendent Alycia Meriweather said putting school closures on hold gives the new Detroit district time to improve student performance.

“The students of Detroit have a fresh start for a new educational opportunity as a result of this decision,” Meriweather said. I’d like to thank the Governor’s Office, State Legislators and the SSRO for recognizing DPSCD as a new district as it relates to data, in the same way we are recognized as a new district legally and financially.”

The Snyder administration’s stance on the DPS schools drew opposition from Republican legislative leaders and charter school advocates, who argue that a three-year reset gives the Detroit district an unfair advantage.

“As a simple matter of common sense, it cannot be said with a straight face that the Legislature intended for the worst-of-the-worst schools in Detroit to remain open,” House Speaker Kevin Cotter said in a statement. “This mistaken interpretation would also require failing charter public schools to be closed while failing traditional public schools are allowed to persist and drag down class after class of Detroit students, which is an absurd conclusion.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he was disappointed by the governor’s decision “to use the opinion of one law firm as a reason to eliminate a tool intended to help students in the Detroit Public School Community District. ”

He said the schools in question are persistently failing schools that are not educating Detroit children.

“The Senate passed multiple bills that included mechanisms to close failing schools,” Meekhof said in a statement. “Part of delivering a better education to the students of Detroit includes the ability to right-size the district to meet the needs of the community.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association, also criticized the idea that failing DPS schools could be shielded from closure until July 2019.

“We find it unacceptable to allow any student in Michigan to languish in a school that has been chronically failing for years,” Quisenberry said.

Last month, Baker said a “starting point” could be closing schools that fell in the bottom 5 percent in 2014 on the state’s former Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, and in 2015 and 2016 on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, a more challenging exam.

Results from this year’s M-STEP, released this week, show less than half of the state’s students in grades 3-8 were proficient in core subjects, except for fifth-grade English.

Baker said last month that state officials will use 2016 M-STEP data as well as data from preceding consecutive years to determine next levels of accountability for chronically failing schools.

The planned use of M-STEP results comes after the Michigan Department of Education said last year that results from the new standardized exam given that spring would not be used to assess districts’ performance.

Since then, however, Gov. Rick Snyder has moved the School Reform Office out of the department’s jurisdiction and placed it under the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

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