Parents: Closure notices causing ‘chaos’

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — When Leslie Boyd opened her mail a week and a half ago, the Detroit mom was shocked to find a state closure warning for the school she credits with helping her son make big improvements in reading and math.

Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit is one of 38 schools targeted for potential closure by the Michigan School Reform Office after ranking in the state’s bottom five percent for academic performance since 2013. More than half of the schools are in Detroit.

“My son came home crying, because he loves his teachers, he loves his schools,” Boyd said Tuesday in testimony before the state Senate Education Committee.

While parents have been warned the academy and 37 other schools could close by June, the School Reform Office could still rescind closure notices if it determines that shuttering the buildings would result in an “unreasonable hardship” for students because no better local options are available.

The state is expected to complete the review by late February or early March, leaving parents and educators in limbo until that time.

“It’s just not fair,” Boyd told The Detroit News, noting her 9-year-old son Tyler has made gains since his school’s charter authorizer replaced the board and principal less than two years ago. The state said Michigan Technical Academy met its proficiency improvement target in 2015-16.

“My son has been there from when the school was not its best to where it’s at now, and it’s been a big change. Give us a little more time, but don’t close our school,” she said.

The letter Boyd received came with a list of other schools she might consider for Tyler. The nearest elementary school is two miles away and does not offer busing. Other recommended options included schools as far away as Ann Arbor.

Critics — who turned out in force for Tuesday’s committee hearing – say the state’s long-gestating closure process has been marred by mixed messages from the School Reform Office, sporadic warnings, onerous reporting requirements, moving goal posts and a refusal to recognize recent progress.

“This has just caused chaos,” said Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, where one school is slated to close. “The state Reform Office has caused even more distrust in our education system. It causes us to look like we’re disjointed.”

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, a St. Clair Republican who chairs the education committee, agreed that the process has “created a mass amount of confusion statewide and disrupted not only school personnel, but the student population at the same time.”

Pavlov has introduced legislation to repeal Michigan’s so-called “failing schools” law, which was implemented in 2010 but has not been aggressively used by the state until now. He wants to replace it with something more consistent and “predictable,” but it’s not yet clear what that might look like.

“Let me be very clear, I’m not going to apologize for failure in any school district,” said Pavlov, who has stopped short of calling for a halt in planned closures.

Current law gives the School Reform Office multiple options for intervening in schools that consistently rank among the state’s worst, including closure or appointment of a building-level chief executive.

East Detroit Public Schools has the “dubious” distinction of being the first and only school district with a state-appointed CEO, said Superintendent Ryan McLeod. CEO Gary Jensen was appointed in June, a decision the district has fought in court.

“The SRO and CEO have distracted our teachers and principals from the real work of improving teaching and learning,” McLeod said. “They’ve eroded the confidence of our community who have a vested interest in the success of our schools.”

The Eastpointe school district also got conflicting messages from the state two weeks ago. Three East Detroit school were removed from a priority list for struggling schools, which McLeod argued was a sign of district-wide progress. But a fourth school – Kelly Middle — made the closure list despite also meeting its proficiency improvement target last year.

John Severson, Muskegon Area Intermediate School District superintendent, argued the threat of school closures – and resulting job layoffs — will continue to drive talented teachers out of the districts that need them the most.

“When you can’t have talent in front of some of the toughest kids who need our love and our greatest support, they are doomed,” he said.

Severson and others who testified Tuesday said intermediate school districts could be in a better position to help turn around academically struggling schools than the state School Reform Office. In many cases, partnerships already exist, they said.

Kathy Stewart, superintendent of the Saginaw Intermediate School District, said those partnerships could be a model for new statewide approach to failing schools, suggesting the state should agree not to intervene for four years if an ISD and local school district agree to their own turnaround plan.

Pavlov said Tuesday he wants to repeal the current law and craft a replacement plan by summer, giving schools some clarity going into the next school year. He hopes to work with the Sndyer administration and Michigan Department of Education on the plan.

“I think what you heard today is that the solutions are most likely to come closest to the classroom, and I think there was an overall lack of confidence in the state running it from Lansing,” Pavlov said.

The state should consider an early warning system for academics – as it has done for school finances – and a statewide A-F letter grade system to rate performance, said Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project, which has pushed to close failing schools.

Bashing the School Reform Office over the current process “is a deflection from the reality that kids are being under served,” he said. “We wish there was as much consternation about the fact that less than 50 percent of our kids are proficient in any subject in any grade in the state.”