Amid School-Closure Worries, Michigan Lists Low Performers

State's reassurances may face skepticism

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Attention remains focused on the fate of low-performing schools in Michigan, where Gov. Rick Snyder's office last week released the latest list of those among the state's bottom 5 percent.

The 124-school list issued Sept. 1 includes 116 that are still open—among them 58 schools in Detroit. Those Detroit schools would not be subject to potential closure until at least 2019 under the state laws that set up a $617 million financial bailout of Detroit's school district in June.

But the prospect of closures around the state had raised anxieties among district officials in advance of the list's release last week.

The governor's administration has in the past warned that schools at the bottom 5 percent statewide for three straight years could be subject to closure. Snyder, however, apparently aiming to quell worries, denied plans to shut down schools in the immediate future.

"It is not a school closing list," he said in a video posted to his Twitter page earlier last week. "That's just flat-out wrong." The list of low-performing schools was mandated by state law to be published by Sept. 1, the governor said.

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the state's School Reform Office, reinforced that view.

"To be clear, there have been no decisions made about school closures in the state," he said last week. "The list being released is a statutory requirement" and is based on 2015 data, with 2016 data to be available later this year. The School Reform Office "continues to review all available information to determine the appropriate steps to hold schools accountable that chronically fail to educate children and prepare them for the next level," Buhs said.

Districts Wary

Districts became wary of the governor's intentions when, last year, Snyder by executive order removed the Office of School Reform from the Michigan education department and made it report directly to him. The office is charged with holding low-performing schools accountable for improvement.

According to Raymond Telman, the executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, a coalition of 30 urban school districts, where 60 percent of the districts include schools in the bottom 5 percent, the Office of School Reform said last year that it wasn't in the business of closing schools. Rather, the office said its aim was to come up with better ways of measuring school effectiveness, so that schools could get a clearer picture of how they are performing.

But the reform office changed its tune in recent meetings with school leaders, according to Telman. "Their agenda clearly imparted the notion of closure," he said.

The emotions surrounding school closure—for whatever reason—are evident in communities that have recently experienced a shutdown.

In Detroit, high school seniors and their parents at University Yes Academy, a charter school, were told at an Aug. 22 meeting by school officials that it would close because a search for a new building to house the growing student body had failed.

The school was on the state's February 2016 priority list of low-performing schools but not on the most recent list.

The closure left about 250 students and their parents scrambling to find new schools. Some of those students had just transferred to University Yes Academy this year.

Wytrice Harris, a parent organizer in northeast Detroit, says the Osborn community where she works is worried about continual talk of school shutdowns. There aren't many good options nearby.

"Students may have to travel far from their homes, and that's a huge burden on our families," she said.

Debating the Strategy

Closures have to be an option, especially since school turnaround efforts haven't been terribly successful, according to Marguerite Roza, professor of education finance at Georgetown University.

"What we're seeing is schools can't quite turn themselves around academically and culturally, and they're just riddled with problems at many different levels," she says. "That is an intractable problem."

She stressed that school closures have to be done right. She points to former Denver superintendent of schools Michael Bennet—currently one of the state's U.S. Senators—who as head of the Denver system had to take on the tough task of closing schools due to declining enrollments. His main priority, according to Roza, was to make sure no student ended up at a lower-performing school than the one that closed.

Related Blog

But Steven Norton, co-founder of Michigan Parents for Schools and the parent of two children in the Ann Arbor school system, argues that when you look at the entire picture, the idea that schools are failing students doesn't hold water. It's the state that's failing kids by underfunding education and creating damaging policies.

"Schools have to deal with whatever comes at them, and there are a lot of children coming in with bigger weights on their shoulders than others," Norton said. "It's the job of schools to take those weights off, but that requires extra effort, extra skills, extra manpower, and we're simply not providing that to our local schools."

Donald Peurach, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, has studied school turnarounds and closings nationwide. He questions the wisdom of a get-tough policy on schools in the face of what research shows about the best way to help low-performing schools do better for students.

"Simply turning up the heat on struggling schools and expecting that heat to generate deep knowledge of school improvement is a ridiculous proposition," he said.

Vol. 36, Issue 03, Page 16

Published in Print: September 7, 2016, as Amid School-Closure Worries, Mich. Lists Low-Performers
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