24 Detroit schools risk summer shutdown

Michael Gerstein and Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Lansing — More than a third of Detroit’s public schools could be shuttered within the next two years, according to state rankings released Friday that mark consistently failing schools for closure.

As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer, with another 25 in 2018 if they remain among the state’s lowest performers for another year.

On Friday, state education officials released school rankings that put 38 Michigan schools in jeopardy of closing this summer — including the 24 Detroit schools — while releasing 79 improved schools from being under extra scrutiny.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has switched its stance on how soon Detroit’s poorest performing schools can be closed. His administration previously said a massive $617 million Detroit Public Schools bailout legislation prevented officials from closing any of the city’s worst schools prior to 2019 because of certain stipulations in the school rescue package.

But state officials said Friday that after a 30-45 day review period, 38 schools in the state — including the 24 in Detroit, the state’s largest school district — could be closed as early as June 30.

The School Reform Office has to go through that review period to make sure a better-performing school is close enough geographically for students to be able to attend.

“We wanted parents to make the decision,” said Natasha Baker, a school reform officer with the School Reform Office, of what schools student would attend.

Detroiter Leyonne Harrell, 29, said he recently moved into a house near Thirkell Elementary-Middle School because the school sits nearby. Now he has to consider the possibility of sending his son Andre, 8, to another school, with Thirkell being among the bottom 5 percent for the past three years.

“It’s bad because this is the local school for my son,” Harrell said. “This is like walking distance. Hopefully, we’ll find another school and hope that one won’t be another one on the list.”

The lowest-achieving 5 percent of the state’s schools are scrutinized as “priority schools” under state law, which are measured with such benchmarks as standardized test scores and graduation rates. Those schools have to work with the School Reform Office to raise their performance level or face potential closure after three years of being at the bottom of the rankings.

Parents of children in the schools that could be slated for closure “have been made aware” of other schools their kids could attend, according to Baker. Those schools could be a charter or traditional public school, depending on what schools happen to be close to their previous school if the review process determines that closing them does not pose an “unreasonable hardship” for students.

“Detroit Public Schools Community District is acutely aware of the academic performance of our progressing schools,” district interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather said. “The district’s administrators, teachers and staff continue to analyze performance data in order to identify and implement tools, metrics and resources that support academic growth.”

Detroit teachers Steven Conn and Nicole Conaway indicated intentions to fight against any closures, asking in a statement that “the people of Detroit to join us in building mass civil rights resistance in order to keep open every one of our precious Detroit public schools by any means necessary.”

The state-run Education Achievement Authority, which will return its city schools to DPSCD in the next school year, has more than half of its schools on the list.

“Quite frankly, it is disconcerting to see eight of our 14 EAA schools on the (School Reform Office’s) list despite the fact that seven out of nine of our K-8 schools achieved growth in reading and eight and out of nine grew in math,” EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme said. “In fact, on average, our schools outpaced the statewide average for growth.”

She also said the School Reform Office’s is making “uninformed decisions without consistent data on growth and achievement.”

According to Baker, Snyder changed positions on whether to close Detroit schools because the understanding of the law was clear after Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion.

Schuette said the state could shut down Detroit schools that meet the state requirements for closure by the end of 2016, contradicting the Snyder administration’s third-party legal analysis.

“I know that the state will be following the law,” Baker said. “So we have clarity on that now and we’re moving forward.”

Michigan law gives the School Reform Office authority to shutter schools that perform in the lowest 5 percent for three consecutive years.

‘Unreasonable hardship’

The first notice of potential school closure was sent to the 38 schools on Friday, the same day the scores were released.

Now, the state will begin the 30- to 45-day review process to determine whether any “unreasonable hardship” is posed by closing the schools. At the end of that review, a “comprehensive report” will be released following conversations with teachers, parents and others showing what was keeping students’ test scores down, Baker said.

Under state law, if “unreasonable hardship” is shown by any of the schools, the state School Reform Office will rescind its closure notice and the school will stay open. That office also has the authority to close schools.

The latest data shows that 136 schools in the state scored in the bottom 5 percent, but only 38 of those have kept those same low scores for three straight years. Another 35 have had the same score for the past two consecutive years and could be subject to closure after another year of the same, according to the new data.

Aside from the 24 Detroit schools that could close, so could three in Benton Harbor, two in Pontiac and two in Kalamazoo, among others.

The report identified a total of 136 schools as “priority schools” that now have four years to work with the district, state and local government to improve test scores or other state exit criteria such as graduation rates. If they meet that criteria, they could be released from the state list early, Baker said.

The case against closures

Some in the education community balk at the idea of school closures.

“First, closing schools without finding out why those schools are struggling isn’t a viable long-term strategy,” said Steven Cook, Michigan Education Association’s president. “Why have these schools been struggling for so long? What’s the cause? For many years, MEA has advocated for rigorous educational audits of struggling schools to get to the bottom of why they aren’t succeeding.

“Simply closing schools and up-ending the lives of students won’t fix any problems if the root causes aren’t adequately addressed.”

The Michigan Department of Education has closed two charter schools under State Superintendent Mike Flanagan’s tenure. The State School Reform Office has not closed any schools before.

The “accountability system” in place for the rankings was used for the last time as the state’s Department of Education develops a ranking system to comply with a new federal law.

Meanwhile on Friday, 79 schools were removed from the list of poorly performing schools list. They were taken from the list once students who scored in the bottom 30 percent in math and English improved their test scores above the average.

“These schools have shown tremendous results in raising the academic achievement and improvement of their most struggling students,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

Staff writer Candice Williams contributed.

Schools targeted for closure in 2017

The following schools have been in the bottom 5 percent for 2014, 2015 and 2016:

Benton Harbor Area Schools

Dream Academy

International Academy at Hull

STEAM Academy at MLK

Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District

Martin G. Atkins Elementary School

Detroit Public Schools Community District

Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School

Bow Elementary-Middle School

J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy

Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern

Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody

Durfee Elementary-Middle School

Fisher Magnet Upper Academy

Gompers Elementary-Middle School

Henderson Academy

Marquette Elementary-Middle School

Mason Elementary School

Osborn Academy of Mathematics

Osborn College Preparatory Academy

Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy

Sampson Academy

Thirkell Elementary School

East Detroit Public Schools

Kelly Middle School

Education Achievement Authority

Burns Elementary-Middle School

Denby High School

Ford High School

Law Elementary School

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School

Mumford High School

Pershing High School

Southeastern High School

Kalamazoo Public Schools

Washington Writers’ Academy

Woodward School for Technology and Research

Michigan Technical Academy

Michigan Technical Academy Elementary

Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System

Muskegon Heights Academy

Pontiac City School District

Pontiac High School

Whitman Elementary School

City of River Rouge School District

Ann Visger K-5 Preparatory Academy

City of Saginaw School District

Jessie Loomis School

Saginaw High School

Schools in jeopardy of closure in 2018

The following schools have been in the bottom 5 percent for 2015 and 2016:

Benton Harbor Area Schools

Benton Harbor High School

Conner Creek Academy East

Conner Creek Academy East: Michigan Collegiate Middle

Detroit Public Schools Community District

Academy of The Americas

Bagley Elementary School

Blackwell Institute

Brewer Elementary-Middle School

Cody Academy of Public Leadership

Detroit International Academy for Young Women

Dixon Elementary School

Dossin Elementary-Middle School

Edison Elementary School

Ellington Conservatory of Music & Art at Beckham Academy

Emerson Elementary-Middle School

Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School

King High School

John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy

Mann Elementary School

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School

Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody

Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy

Noble Elementary-Middle School

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy

Pulaski Elementary-Middle School

Schulze Elementary-Middle School

Spain Elementary-Middle School

Education Achievement Authority

Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts

Central High School

City of Flint School District

Northwestern High School

Potter School

Grand Rapids Public Schools

Burton Middle School

Michigan Technical Academy

Michigan Technical Academy Middle School

City of Oak Park School District

Oak Park Preparatory Academy

Port Huron Area School District

Cleveland Elementary School

City of Saginaw School District

Thompson Middle School

Westwood Heights Schools

Hamady Middle School