Michigan Superintendent Brian Whiston said today that the state this school year won't force the closure of any of the chronically failing schools that have been identified for being shut down if their districts enter into agreements with the state.
But that doesn't mean all of the schools will remain open.
Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), which Whiston oversees, said Whiston noted that schools won't close "unless the district decides to close a school on its own."
And that could be the result of discussions the state will begin having with school districts where the 38 chronically failing schools are located. Last week, Whiston sent letters to those districts, and to the authorizer of the sole charter school on the list, telling them they could avoid closure if they entered into a "partnership" agreement with the state and enlist the aid of other partners to help improve the schools.
That news followed the January identification of the 38 schools for potential closure by the state School Reform Office. The reform office had planned to make final decisions about closure in May but ultimately agreed to allow Whiston's partnership plan a chance to succeed.
DiSessa said that already, "districts have shown interest and contacted the state superintendent," about working on a partnership agreement. A formal announcement on which districts will pursue an agreement will likely be made later this week, DiSessa said.
Districts were given 60 days to reach a deal with MDE. The agreement would be with the MDE, but districts are expected to include partner agencies. Those agencies must include the local school board and the intermediate school district for traditional public schools, or the charter school authorizer for charter schools. The districts are also encouraged to work with other partners. The agreements will outline improvement targets that will be evaluated after 18 months and then after three years to gauge success.
Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the partnership model "is an exciting opportunity." She said the district has agreed to meet with the MDE.
Any ultimate decision on entering into an agreement would have to be made by the district's board of education, Meriweather said.
The Detroit district has 16 schools on the list. One school, Durfee Elementary-Middle School, had been slated for closure by the district before the state identified it. The Free Press reported earlier this year that Durfee's nearly 600 students will be moved into a wing of nearby Central Collegiate Academy.
"We did respond affirmatively that we would like to have the meeting to get questions answered about it," Meriweather said. "We will decide after that first meeting how we're going to proceed."
She said the partnership model is intriguing because it requires a number of partners to help the district, "and it really makes clear this is not something the district can do by themselves. It's a collaborative process, not something being done to us."
But it also holds the school districts accountable to meeting improvement goals. That, she said, is a key part of the plan.
"I appreciate how passionate people are about fighting for Detroit Public Schools Community District. I want to see that passion continue to fight for excellence," Meriweather said.
The partnership plan also was discussed today during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee, which is working on legislation that would repeal the state's failing-schools law and replace it with something lawmakers said will more effectively help turn around poor-performing schools.
Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, during a question-and-answer session with Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice, asked about the effectiveness of the partnership model.
"Do we know that it works," Pavlov asked. "It seems like this lifeline has been thrown to the 38 schools on the list that if you jump on board here, real quick, you’re not facing closure."
"It does beg the question of what’s behind door number two," responded Rice, whose Kalamazoo Public Schools has two schools on the potential closure list. "We’re not sure. We want to have the meeting. We want to have the discussions. We believe there’s good intent coming from the department."
Rice said that while it's clear from conversations that the plan "involves local oversight and local control," what's less clear are the details of the plan.
The partnership model, DiSessa said, "is a hybrid model developed from Superintendent Whiston’s own experience as a local superintendent, similar initiatives from other states that have shown success, and discussions with education stakeholders in Michigan."
An early version of it is being used in Saginaw Public Schools, which has two schools on the list. But DiSessa said it's not the "full model" being proposed statewide for the districts with struggling schools.
Meanwhile, the future of the lone charter school on the potential closure list, Michigan Technical Academy elementary in Detroit, is unclear. The school's authorizer, Central Michigan University, has issued a notice to revoke the school's charter contract with CMU.
Brad Wever, the director of public policy and external relations for the CMU Center for Charter Schools, said this afternoon that the school now must submit a plan of correction that the charter office would review and determine whether to accept.
Wever said the CMU charter office reconstituted the school in 2015, replacing the board of education and bringing in a new management company to run the school.
"We also set some pretty specific targets within the charter contract. One of those was that they no longer be in the bottom 5%. Since they were identified in the bottom 5%, that constitutes a material breach of the contract."
Schools were identified for potential closure after falling in that bottom 5% academically for three straight years.
Wever said the plan of correction is due well within the 60-day deadline for districts (charter schools are treated as districts) to enter into a partnership agreement, if CMU opts to go in that direction.
"As the authorizer, we’re unsure about the partnership model," Wever said. "We’re in the process of looking at that and what would be involved in that."