News

Snyder: Detroit could be ‘template’ for education reform

Publication date: Jan 23, 2015

By Ann Zaniewski and Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press

Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday that the education reforms expected to unfold in Detroit could serve as a template for other communities across Michigan.

First, those reforms have to take shape.

His comments to the Free Press editorial board came the same day that a coalition working to fix Detroit’s education problems held its first parent meetings.

The group, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, plans to recommend school reform ideas to the governor by the end of March.

One of its top priorities: How to bring more order to a fragmented education systems that includes Detroit Public Schools, dozens of charter schools and a 15-school state reform district.

“Could this apply to other places in the state? There are likely other communities that might want actually to embrace this model on their own.”

Snyder briefly mentioned two reforms the group is considering — city-wide common enrollment and transportation systems that could affect kids both at traditional public schools and charter schools.

Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, an education policy organization, said that while Detroit is unique in many ways, no one should ignore what comes out of the coalition.

Schools in the city overall underperform compared to the rest of the state, but there are districts in the state that perform worse.

In particular, she said, conversations surrounding the need for greater accountability and transparency for charter schools and their authorizers “is a big issue and also an opportunity for Detroit to really be a leader.”

Nationwide, Detroit has one of the largest percentages of children attending charter schools.

About a dozen authorizers — the agencies that allow charters and hold them accountable — have schools in the city.

Tom Pedroni, an associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University, isn’t convinced that the coalition’s model can be replicated across the state. Other communities in the nation — including New Orleans and Newark, N.J. — have used common enrollment systems but the research has been mixed on whether it’s worked.

The coalition, he said, will need to explain the research behind whatever recommendations it makes.

“If anything, I think Detroit should be looking to successful models in other parts of Michigan,” Pedroni said.

Earlier Thursday, about 75 parents attended the school coalition’s parent meeting at All Saints Neighborhood Center. It was one of three sessions scheduled for the day.

Parents aired concerns about issues ranging from school safety to overcrowded classes.

And organizers had a message for them: The ability of charter schools to open anywhere in the city has created chaos.

“Even though our population was shrinking, (charter school authorizers) were still opening up lots of schools, creating chaos and lots of (school) closures that you all have experienced, and that’s because they don’t coordinate with each other at all,” community organizer Jamila Martin said.

Parent feedback will play an important role in shaping the coalition’s work, said coalition member SharlondaBuckman.

“Even though this was (organized with) short notice, I think the turnout today is indicative of the passion people have around the issues of education,” she said. “It’s important that parents have a voice.”

Over a breakfast of pancakes and tortillas, parents watched a presentation translated into both Spanish and Arabic. They later broke into small groups to brainstorm.

“There used to be a lot of after-school programs. They should bring those back,” Bobbie Dickerson, 35, of Detroit said. Another parent scribbled the suggestion on a large piece of paper.

Organizers told parents that charter schools being allowed to open anywhere has drained students from Detroit Public Schools. Schools are now distributed unevenly across the city, they said.

Martin, who is with the community group 482 Forward, said downtown Detroit has 11 high schools and about 2,000 students ages 15 to 17.

Northwest and northeast Detroit each have far fewer high schools but at least double the number of high school-age students, she said.

Snyder said in his State of the State address this week that he plans to introduce legislation by midyear to address the “uncoordinated educational environment” in Detroit.

Some reformers have suggested that along with common transportation and enrollment, Detroit should have one office that oversees all school openings and closings.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren formed in December. It has a steering committee of 36 business, education and civic leaders. Many more people sit on six subcommittees.

Until Thursday, the coalition’s work had been closed to the public.

The parent sessions were set up in just a few days. Buckman, who also heads up the Detroit Parent Network, said another series will be held in February.

During the session, Detroiters Liliana Narvaez, 33, and Judith Perez, 32, said parents should be able to pick representatives for the coalition.

“You need regular people involved,” Narvaez said, “who can speak up for the community.”

Perez pointed to an meeting agenda that had the coalition’s logo.

“Who does it involve?” she said. “I don’t even know.”

Contact staff writer Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or azaniewski@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnZaniewski.

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