Town hall meeting discusses potential closures of Detroit schools

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published February 16, 2017

 District 3 City Councilman Scott Benson speaks at the town hall meeting.

District 3 City Councilman Scott Benson speaks at the town hall meeting.

Photo by Sean Work

DETROIT — Community members gathered at Pershing High School in Detroit Feb. 9 to discuss the possible closure of 24 schools in Detroit.

The Detroit schools in question are included on a list of 38 schools from across the state that were identified by the Michigan School Reform/Redesign Office as low-performing schools. The regulations set forth by the reform office state that if a school was seen as not improving within four years, it would be shut down.

The town hall meeting was organized by 482 Forward, a citywide education organizing network in Detroit. One of the major points of contention is that these potential closures are coming mere weeks after the new Detroit Public Schools Board of Education was sworn in — the first board to be elected in Detroit since state emergency management of the district began in 2009.

“We’re fighting by rallying behind our elected school board and believe they should be given a fair shot,” said Wytrice Harris, 482 Forward’s organizer. “We are rallying behind the injunction they are filing to fight these shutdowns and trying to organize parents so we can fight this any way we can.”

Detroit schools that are on the closure list include J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Fisher Magnet Upper Academy,  Marquette Elementary and Middle School, the Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy, the Osborn Evergreen Preparatory Academy and the Osborn Evergreen Academy of Mathematics.

“Closure is an option for these underperforming schools, but there are several other options,” said Chris DeWitt, of the School Reform Office. “The schools on the priority list are added or removed based on test scores over a number of years. A top-to-bottom list is created based on school performance throughout the state, and those in the bottom 5 percent for more than four years can be shut down.”

Harris said the impression in Detroit schools was that once a new school board was sworn in, the “clock would reset” and the four-year time period in which to reform the struggling schools would start over. She also said the recent switch in standardized tests from the Michigan Educational Assessment Program to the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress has not provided enough reliable data to give those assessing the schools’ progress an accurate evaluation. State Attorney General Bill Schuette ruled differently on this matter.

Those pushing for the schools to remain open are not arguing that there is inadequate achievement by these schools; they maintain that closing these schools will not accomplish anything that will improve student performance. 

“Four thousand seven hundred thirty-eight kids on Detroit’s east side would be displaced, including 2,010 high school students,” Harris said while addressing the meeting attendees. “Neighboring schools do not have enough seats to house these displaced kids, and some of the schools they would be moved to are in danger of being shut down under the same regulations next year.” 

Those who spoke at the meeting, including several Detroit school board members, Detroit City Council members and a number of school district staff members, said that closing down the schools would do nothing to help students in need. The answer, they claimed, was more support for the district, including increased funding.

“A big part is funding,” said Harris. “We need to fund schools properly, and by doing this, ensure there are smaller class sizes, better equipment such as textbooks, and salaries that can attract qualified teachers.”

There are approximately 18,000 kids currently attending the schools that would close throughout Michigan. Those opposing the closings at the town hall meeting said that 16,000 of those students are African-American and 3,000 are students who require special education resources.

“There were 79 schools that were removed from the list, and that shows some schools have been able to make positive changes to remove themselves from this situation,” said DeWitt.

The 38 schools that have been on the list for more than four years are going through hardship review, which will look to see if there are mitigating factors affecting the schools, according to DeWitt.

“No determinations have been made yet regarding any closures,” DeWitt said.

“Closing these schools is a nonstarter,” said Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson, who represents District 3. “Educating our kids is the goal, and that can’t happen if we close more schools.”

The School Reform/Redesign Office believes that leaving the schools open will do more harm than good and believes that charter schools and other schools of choice will be enough to offset any displaced students. Neighborhoods where transportation will be too much of a burden to the residents will be taken into account during the hardship review process. 

“By the end of March, the hardship reviews will be completed and the decisions will be made as to how to address those 38 schools. The main concern is the students and making sure they get a quality education,” said DeWitt. “What’s been happening in these schools has not been working. There was a list of schools provided to parents when this list came out, some in the district and some without — schools of choice — that could be used as alternative schools. The distance of schools that could be closed will be taken into consideration during the hardship review.”

The meeting organizers invited those in attendance to make calls to government officials and sign petitions in support of the schools. At press time, 482 Forward was organizing a gathering in Lansing on Wednesday, Feb. 22, to talk to legislators, and it will be hosting a rally at the state capital on Saturday, March 4.

“This is pegged by many people as a Detroit problem, but it’s really an everyone problem,” said Harris. “An educated youth is important to everyone. We need to work together to ensure all of our kids get the education they need. If closures like this can happen here, they can happen anywhere, so that is our goal: to stop it here and keep it from happening anywhere else.”