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A Bridge Q-and-A with Detroit’s Big 3 education chiefs

Bridge writer Chastity Pratt Dawsey has covered Detroit’s public schools for more than a decade. Recently, she sat down with the three high-profile leaders of the city’s schools. What follows is a condensed version of those conversations, beginning with a joint interview of retired bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes and interim Supt. Alycia Meriweather, and followed by a Q-and-A with Veronica Conforme, head of the EAA.

Steven Rhodes and Alycia Meriweather

Both are short-timers put in a position to affect the long-term educational landscape in Detroit.

Steven Rhodes, the retired federal bankruptcy judge who shepherded the city through bankruptcy in 2014 and who was appointed earlier this month to be the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, said he took the job to help smooth the city’s transition to an elected school board.

Alycia Meriweather, the interim superintendent also appointed this month, wants to spend the next four months or so boosting morale and hammering out an academic plan that can stand the test of time.

The new leadership for the city’s school system sat down with Bridge to talk about what they hope to accomplish and why they think they can – within a short period of time – create long-term change.

Bridge: Why should anyone choose to send their child to DPS?

Rhodes: We have an extremely dedicated and expert teacher corps in DPS. They have demonstrated their commitment and their dedication over the past several years by continuing to work here in the face of pay freezes, even pay cuts. Our graduation rate is improving, some high schools have a graduation rate in excess of 90 percent. Perhaps most importantly, what we offer is a public education. And by that I mean an education that’s publicly run as of the (upcoming) fall. We’re going to have an elected school board. We’re going to have a school board that’s directly and publicly accountable to parents.

Bridge: The legislation to make that happen hasn’t passed yet. Are you sure?

Rhodes: 100 percent sure of that. It’s going to happen. It will be local control of public education in Detroit and the best way the people of the city of Detroit can show their commitment to the kids and to local control over education is to participate in DPS by electing the best candidates for school board that they can and by sending their kids to DPS.

Bridge: What tool do you need to make academic progress?

Meriweather: If you have a nail, you don’t come at it with a screw driver. I think a lot of people have approached education in lots of different ways that makes as much sense as trying to use a screwdriver to drive in a nail. A tool I am working on is (collecting) community input. Another tool we need is wrap-around (social) services.

Rhodes: The only tool I would add to that is the tool we asked the legislature to provide to us ($715 million in debt relief). We need as much resources as possible to go into the classroom and not into debt. DPS spends about $1,100 per student to pay debt that substantially impacts our ability to educate our kids.

Bridge: DPS has an elected school board, but under the (state-appointed) emergency manager that board is powerless. What makes you think the legislature will pass a bill that will allow Detroiters to vote and have a new, more empowered board in place by fall?

Rhodes: Now is not the time to allow longstanding political differences to obstruct the goal of educating our kids as best we can. I think there is a consensus that it is time to return to local control in principle. The issues are really around the conditions and contingencies. Now is the time for our leadership in Lansing to compromise.

Our Michigan Constitution, which we need to pay a little more attention to, has an explicit affirmative obligation in it. The legislature shall provide for a free public education. The way we in our democracy ask the legislature to carry out that obligation is through local school boards. There is a consensus that now is the time to return control over Detroit education to local control. It’s a goal I support. It’s why I am here.

Bridge: There’s so much changing in Detroit – why do this now?

Rhodes: If not now, when? The governor has proposed a return to local control for at least a year now. I would hope the legislators recognize the goal of returning to local control and the goal of giving the community control over public education in Detroit is much more important than their disagreements over this condition or that condition.

Meriweather: As a voting Detroiter, I think local control is absolutely necessary.

Bridge: What do you think about the debate among legislators about creating a Detroit Education Commission, an appointed board that would decide, perhaps most importantly, when and where schools will open and close? Charter schools do not approve because it would add a layer of bureaucracy that they say would favor traditional public schools.

Rhodes: I strongly support a DEC. What has developed in the competition between privates, charters and public schools is an unorganized mish-mash of public education offerings and certainly not one you would design if you were starting from scratch to create an efficient and an effective way to educate kids in a city. I said when I confirmed the city’s (plan to exit bankruptcy) a year and half ago now that Detroit will only succeed when the schools in Detroit succeed. It’s a matter of success for the city itself that all the schools in Detroit can compete and be attractive for families to move back into the city. That’s the goal, that’s the goal. It isn’t for DPS to beat out charters. It’s for DPS and charters to be rationally organized so we can attract families into the city of Detroit. That’s the goal.

Meriweather: I think a DEC could be beneficial for creating a sustainable educational eco-system. That being said, I think it’s very important that if the DEC proceeds, that the members are residents of the city. That’s something I feel pretty strongly about.

Bridge: How long are you here to shepherd the transition? What do you think you can accomplish in your short, allotted time?

Rhodes: I’m here through June 1 only if the legislature doesn’t pass the reform legislation. If they do, I’m here until a school board is elected and takes office which we now project to be August. Here are the three or four things I hope to accomplish:

Help the governor persuade legislators to pass the reform. Number two, is we have collective bargaining because most of the union collective bargaining agreements expire June 30. I will supervise that process. There is somewhat significant legal and policy work to effectuate the transition from one school system to a new one (if the reform bills become law). And there’s the necessity of a balanced budget for next year. I want to do what I can to get the best possible candidates to agree to run for school board.

And, finally, to the extent I can in the short time I want to bring in the best people I can to move DPS forward here in the central office. The central office here has been reduced by previous emergency managers very dramatically. We want to be sure the talent we have is the talent we need in each of the departments.

Meriweather: I am interim superintendent until an elected school board takes office. In a normal situation that’s who makes the decision about a superintendent. My contract also stipulates when my position is finished I have the option to return to my previous position (executive director for curriculum). For however long this is, I want to make progress around two big issues: culture and climate in our district – more open communication with staff and the community. We’re at a place right now where morale across the district is in a pretty tough spot.

(And) my goal is to have an academic plan so that when the elected school board comes it will be such a great plan they have no choice but to continue to follow it. Too often, new leaders bring new plans, new direction new people. All of that inconsistency really trickles down into the fabric of the whole district and you have uncertainty, instability, lack of trust. A system change takes eight to 10 years. I would argue we haven’t be able to do anything consistently for eight years. And so I would hope this plan will be something people can follow with fidelity.

Bridge: The discussion around DPS is highly political and racially-charged. Some Detroiters look at you and see that you are not African American and say they prefer Detroit residents who are African Americans to be in leadership positions because a majority of DPS is African American. What are your thoughts on this?

Meriweather: When you start talking to people, what you really find out is what people want is someone who will lead with integrity and high standards and who will make sure they treat our children correctly. I would argue that somebody of whatever race, if they’re going to steal from our kids or lack integrity or do things that are corrupt, I don’t care what race you are, that’s not what we want. I am always struck by Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about the importance of the content of someone’s character as opposed to the color of their skin. It’s not often used in conversations like this, but I think it applies. I really believe what Detroit wants is somebody who is going to take care of the city and our kids in a way we can feel good about. As a lifelong Detroiter, I feel a debt to this city and it’s my honor to serve.

Rhodes: I have nothing to add to that

Veronica Conforme

It’s time to write the epitaph for the experiment known as the educational reform district that Gov. Rick Snyder created in Detroit in 2011.

The Education Achievement Authority, which runs 15 schools in Detroit, is scheduled to expire June 30, 2017. After that, the schools could be returned to the city’s public school district. The state’s school reform officer could also be placed in charge of them. A bill in the legislature that seeks to pay off more than half a billion in Detroit Public Schools’ debt and restructure educational power structure in the city could allow the EAA’s staff to remain in place until 2018 during a transitional year.

The bottom line is the EAA, as we know it, soon will be gone. The EAA was formed in 2011, with support from Gov. Rick Snyder, using an interlocal agreement between Eastern Michigan University and Detroit Public Schools (the governor appoints the leaders of both). It was supposed to be a statewide reform district responsible for taking over and improving schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent of schools in Michigan. In 2012, the EAA took over 15 schools in Detroit. It ended up being a political headache beset with financial, enrollment and academic struggles that never did spread to other districts in Michigan.

Veronica Conforme, the former chief operating officer for New York’s school system who was appointed EAA chancellor in 2014, said the EAA has made lots of changes. Classes with no letter grades and no grade levels? Gone. A software-based, individualized curriculum? Gone. A heavy presence of Teach for America instructors who recently graduated college? Cut in half. Regardless of what happens with the EAA schools, Detroit will still need an entity that will focus on turning around the worst-performing schools Conforme said. And more.

Bridge: Eastern Michigan University’s regents voted to pull out of the interlocal agreement that makes the EAA possible. What’s going to happen to the EAA?

Conforme: I called for the end of the interlocal agreement. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that facing an annual renewal is not the structure for stability, or the type of stability you need to do this work. We need to find a permanent solution and right now the entity called EAA will go away in July 2017.

We’re likely to be called something else and our governance is probably going to change. The current senate bill provides two years of stability. The language says the staff structure of the schools will remain in place - this is really important because our salaries are different from DPS, we’re not part of the retirement system, all of it is different – so that none of that goes away until 2018. Whether the structure becomes part of DPS or the SRO (school reform office) is to be determined. For me, the most important thing is continuity at the school level. (The three EAA charter schools will remain chartered through the end of those contracts.)

Bridge: What do you want to see happen?

Conforme: I think the best solution is to continue this work, to have continuity of our teachers and leaders, continuity of the instructional model and continuity of the supports and wrap-around services for four to five years and then you will see the results we need and outcomes we need for all students. … I don’t have a strong preference, the schools could be in DPS (Detroit Public Schools) or in DPS with the (state) School Reform Officer in partnership. As long as there’s continuity and we’re not changing everything in these kids’ lives.

Bridge: Did EAA scandals – from the credit card scandal and bribery scandal at Mumford High - affect the EAA district’s ability to get goals accomplished, maintain enrollment, create a positive image?

Conforme: Yes, deeply. I had been told that EAA has a toxic name. I don’t disagree with that. A lot of it has to do with the way it was started. It was put together too hastily (in 2011). I think if you look across the state lines to Tennessee that started (a reform district) at the same time the EAA started, they took on five or six schools, not 15. They had over a year of planning time. They had infrastructure around finance before they started. The EAA has a toxic name, but our students are not toxic. With the amount of time needed to turn around you will see it.

Bridge: What do EAA schools need?

Conforme: We need more services, more health clinics to diagnose everything from vision impairment to students who have not been to a dentist in three years. That’s a whole body of work we have yet to develop. We’re starting down that path now. We’re not in need of space, we can bring in these services and house them in schools.

Bridge: Legislators and local leaders are debating the need for a Detroit Education Commission, or a mayor-appointed board that would decide – among other things – which schools should open and close in the city. Charter schools do not approve. EAA has three charter schools. What are your thoughts on a DEC?

Conforme: I don’t know enough about how the DEC is shaping up. To me, there has to be an entity that has authority to close and open schools and have a citywide planning outlook. We have at least 40,000 underutilized seats in schools across the city. Many, many schools in city are underutilized. It’s not financially sustainable. It doesn’t allow anyone to succeed with kids when you’re spreading your resources across too many places that don’t have population. There’s too much supply and not enough demand at this point.

There has to be an entity looking at the city and needs, growth, rates. That is what normal cities and school districts do. That’s a really important function. You’re paying for heating, sometimes cooling and custodial services in buildings that maybe get up to 50 percent utilization. Those resources – if you concentrated them – would be better used in the classroom.

Bridge: You have a clear-eyed view of the educational landscape here because you did not work or live in Michigan prior to working at the EAA. What has been the biggest barrier to improving schools in Detroit?

Conforme: First, let’s not say it’s Detroit that’s not improving schools. Look at Michigan as a whole. Michigan has lost ground every year to other states in achievement. When you look at the data we see all children in Michigan struggling – students in urban environments, students of color, white students.

Bridge: Detroit is highly political, same as most big cities – what does it take for a leader to be successful in this environment that is constantly changing governance and leadership?

Conforme: I think you need a long-term plan. You need debt elimination, governance structure, a path forward. Those are only preconditions. They don’t even start the real work of reform. What you need is a solid 10-year plan with a board and leader and community that commits to doing the very hard work. You don’t get to change the plan every year and think you’re going to be successful.

Bridge: EAA is headed to be returned to DPS. Should Detroit have an elected school board?

Conforme: I think the community supports an elected school board. I think that’s what needs to happen for everyone to have confidence in the system. You’ve got to listen to community voices. I hope we have some great people who run for school board who know education, who understand policy and finance and the issues of supply and demand and that (they) are going to have a very hard job.

Bridge: At this important juncture for the city’s schools, what is it that the public needs to know?

Conforme: Turn-around work takes four to five years and it’s very intense work. There are still too priority schools in the city that need the type of intense focus that often don’t get it not only in the city but in the state. I am a big advocate for children and families that often don’t have any other choice but to go to those schools. It is our obligation to provide a high-quality education for them. Let’s not forget our students.

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