Vacant schools in Detroit

As the Detroit district focuses on improving its building stock, it’s still unclear why one sale is being denied

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

Abandoned schools sit empty, gathering dust or becoming magnets for crime across the Detroit district, but schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the school board meeting Tuesday that he has plans to change all that.

“Next month, our board will receive a recommendation for a partner to review our facilities which will allow us to understand the cost of bringing each of our school buildings up to code,” he said. “This will allow us to understand how to best utilize our resources, engage the community about consolidation and building new buildings and ensuring … we have schools in every neighborhood.

“It’s been interesting in taking this position, the number of people who think because this is a government entity, we should be selling our property at the lowest price,” he added.

Though Vitti has recently set his sights on selling unneeded facilities at higher prices, one building sale is still causing a local educator major problems.

Kyle Smitley, the co-founder of Detroit Prep and the Detroit Achievement Academy, signed a purchase agreement on July 18 for the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School, which closed in 2009.

The building’s current owner is a company run by Dennis Kefallinos, a major Detroit landlord. He bought the vacant Joyce school from the district for $600,000 in June 2014. This summer, Smitley agreed to pay him $750,000 for the building.

But because of a quirk in the initial deed, the agreement has to go through the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has the right to reject some sales. Vitti halted the Detroit Prep deal, telling Smitley in an email that the district would cease making any property sales while his team assesses the district’s holdings and needs.

Although the district doesn’t own the building, the district would still profit from the sale, since an anti-flip clause would force Smitley to pay $75,000 to the district, which she already agreed to do.

Despite the promise of a profit for the district, it’s still an ongoing issue – Smitley spoke at the school board meeting about the trouble she continues to face trying to close the deal.

“We currently have 80 students and we’re looking for a larger space to accommodate our growth,” she said.

“We cannot obtain the title without extensive, costly litigation,” she added. “If DPSCD did choose to sell the building, they would obtain at least $75,000 and we have offered a further financial offer to settle the issue.”

Also in the meeting, Vitti spoke about raising wages beyond one-time bonuses for teachers and administrators as part of a plan to lure new teachers and better retain the ones they currently have.

One factor working against hiring teachers is their new contract, signed this summer, which offers educators who come in from outside the district just two years of salary credit regardless of their experience. Vitti would like to see that provision of the contract relaxed.

He also proposed creating a focus group to look into the salaries of principals and administrators.

“We are creating a focus group for principals with a focus on the size of the school, what type of school it is … and looking into creating salaries for administrators that will retain them moving forward,” he said.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.