Does the state's plan to close failing schools solve the bigger problem?

Posted at 7:19 PM, Aug 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-18 19:19:18-04

The leaders of more than 100 schools ranked in the bottom 5% when it comes to performance are on edge.

They are waiting to meet with representatives from the School Reform Office to find out how they will be assessed and if they will be closed.

They are hearing the School Reform Office plans to move ahead with a plan to force schools to close if they don’t rapidly turn things around. 

There is surprise and concern because the state launched a new standardized test last year. It replaced the MEAP with the M-Step. 

The Michigan Department of Education told schools they were not going to hold the results of this new test against schools as they determined their future. Then Governor Rick Snyder took power of the School Reform Office from the Department of Education. As a result the plan changed. That test counts.

Parents of kids in low-performing schools are concerned. 

Christopher Ronk says he doesn't agree with how schools are assessed in large part by performance on the state's proficiency test.  Last year, when his daughters Chari and Christine Ronk enrolled at Holmes Elementary School in Ypsilanti, they were below grade level.

“You saw leaps and bounds throughout the whole year," said Ronk.

Now Ronk says his daughters are caught up. He says he fears many schools are held responsible for the fact that they have a transient population and kids come to them behind.

"It isn't all about test scores," said Ronk. " Look at where they start. Look at where they end. That is what matters."

Now that schools around the state are learning the 2015 M-Step results will be used as the School Reform Office ranks them, parents like Ronk are worried that it could bring their schools closer to closure.

School leaders are voicing concerns that it will hurt kids in their district.

“I just don’t see how closing the building solves the problem," said Judge Steven Rhodes, Transition Manager at Detroit Public Schools. 

Rhodes says he is waiting to learn more from the School Reform Office.  Detroit Public Schools was just turned into a new district when legislators passed funding addressing debt.

Rhodes says he hopes the district gets a chance to turn around failing schools over the course of the coming years.

Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather says she is concerned about the impact closing schools could have on communities.  She said it sends a message about the community's value when schools close.

"Obviously that school isn’t failing anymore because it doesn’t exist, but the question is where will the children go?” asked Meriweather.

"I definitely understand the governor’s perspective on lives lost in a school that's potentially failed, but I also believe if we invest properly kids will perform," said Seth Petty, Principal of Holmes Elementary in Ypsilanti.

Petty says he used to work at a top ranked school in Ann Arbor.  He noticed one big difference when he moved to Ypsilanti schools to lead a struggling school: per pupil funding.

"You go from a district making $10,000 a year (per student) to $7,000 a year and you are expected to get the same results," said Petty.

I spoke on the phone with School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.  She said the goal is to force improvement.  

"No determinations have been made about closures," said Baker.

She said a plan would be released in September, and while a list of schools slated to close is not yet available, closures are on the table for chronically failing schools.

7 Action News asked what would be considered in addition to test scores.  Baker said there were multiple data points, but refused when asked to explain what those data points are.

A group of lawmakers and school leaders plan to hold a press conference on Friday to complain about how the School Reform Office is dealing with struggling schools.

School leaders say there isn't enough transparency in how they are judged.  Some say they have tried to bring lawyers to meetings with the School Reform Office to protect their district's interests. They were told there would be no meetings if school lawyers were present.