F is for frustrated – disorganization at Detroit EAA schools leaves students scrambling to graduate

Juan Torres plans to leave behind Detroit’s Pershing High and nasty Michigan winters to study to become a nurse at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.

The 18-year-old senior paid the registration deposit and said the college is ready to award him financial aid. There’s just one hold up: For weeks Juan has not been able to find out when his Pershing transcript will be sent to the college. Records at the school have been a mess – students were given third quarter report cards just last week, nine days before Graduation Day.

“They are so unorganized,” Torres said of Pershing staff. The school, located on Detroit’s east side, is operated by the state reform school district, the Education Achievement Authority.

Torres is among an unknown number of graduating seniors who complained of unavailable or inaccurate transcripts from state-run, EAA high schools, with some telling Bridge they were told only days before commencement that they lack the necessary class credits to graduate. EAA leaders acknowledge the delays, blaming much of it on working out the kinks of a new district data information system.

Torres said he went to Pershing last week to inquire again about his transcript and meet with staff to ensure he was graduating. He said that’s when he was told he was missing credit for two required classes, English and Geometry, which he said he had taken and failed – English in 9th grade at Hamtramck High, and Geometry in 10th grade, when Pershing was still part of the Detroit Public Schools.

As Torres recounts it, he was then taken to a room and given two exams – English and Geometry. It was an unconventional way to prove he met standards for the classes, but it beat not graduating.

He said the tests were graded on the spot. Torres said he got an A on each test and was told he was a Pershing grad.

History of problems

Pershing is one of 15 schools – nine elementary and six high schools – stripped from the Detroit Public Schools district in 2012 and turned over to the EAA, the state reform district for schools considered among the state’s lowest performing.

Pershing was in the news in recent weeks after an overwhelmed teacher broke up a student fight with a broom.

With his graduation set for Friday, Torres returned again to the school this past Monday as instructed to finally get a transcript. He was met there by a Bridge reporter. He exited about 20 minutes later empty-handed.

“Am I missing out on financial aid the longer they take to give me my grades? I don’t know. If I don’t get the financial aid, I think my chances of going to the school I want to go to is slim to none.” – Pershing High student Juan Torres

“They said it would be ready shortly,” Torres said with a sigh.

Would it be printed in an hour? Emailed to the college in a week? Surely by the Florida school’s Aug. 1 deadline to claim his financial aid?

“I don’t know. They just said ‘shortly,'” he said. After months of frustration at Pershing, he said he doesn’t trust the school to report his grades in time.

“Am I missing out on financial aid the longer they take to give me my grades? I don’t know,” Torres said. “If I don’t get the financial aid, I think my chances of going to the school I want to go to is slim to none.”

When the school year began, the EAA reported 773 students in 12th grade in its six high schools – Torres was among 109 at Pershing, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.

It is unclear how many other EAA seniors have had trouble getting their academic records – EAA officials told Bridge on Wednesday they don’t know themselves. EAA staff confirmed a new record-keeping system, counselor shuffling and school-level disorganization caused problems for seniors, most noticeably at Pershing and another school, Henry Ford High.

The students’ complaints are the latest example of internal problems since the EAA began operating troubled Detroit schools in fall 2012.

This week, the EAA’s chancellor, John Covington, resigned as district officials presented a budget that projects a 10 percent decline in student enrollment in the fall and fewer private donations.

The state-run reform district has run into problems almost from the moment it was created in 2011, including low state test scores, high teacher turnover, declining enrollment and controversies over discipline, transparency and profligate travel spending by administrators and teachers.

And through it all, EAA’s future has become less certain – a bill that would codify the EAA’s financial structure and expansion has been stalled in Lansing for more than a year. In February, the state school superintendent announced he was rescinding the EAA’s status as the only entity that can take over and reform Michigan’s failing schools.

Slow times at EAA High

On Wednesday, Mary Esselman, the EAA deputy superintendent, said problems with student records this year are rooted in the implementation of a new student records system as well as ongoing problems with obtaining records for transfer students.

“I wouldn’t say there haven’t been challenges,” she said. “In terms of students knowing what they had to pass to graduate, is there room for better communication? Yes. But I think most students who conferenced with teachers and were teetering on the edge were aware.”

Because of problems with the new information system, school counselors have had to manually input and update student records, Esselman confirmed.

Early this spring, for instance, Henry Ford and Pershing had problems printing report cards with third-quarter grades. Staff at Ford had to create a custom grade report and manually add grades. Pershing’s third quarter report cards had wrong data. Each of the schools reprinted the third-quarter report cards in the days leading up to graduation, the EAA confirmed.

“We should’ve had those a long time ago,” said Shakia Curley, 17, a Pershing senior who plans to go to cosmetology school. “I could’ve been failing and not known what to work on.”

Delays at Henry Ford

Jada Earle, 18, had bigger problems.

She went to the Henry Ford High graduation rehearsal on Monday. She got her cap and gown. Later that evening, she received a robo-call telling her to report to school the next day to discuss her grades. She did, and was told she is not graduating until August because she has to take World History and 11th-grade English, classes she said she passed last year.

“My mother is in a wheelchair. She came up here multiple times to talk about my grades and why they keep making me take the same classes over that I already passed,” Earle said. “They kept saying, ‘We’ll get back to you.’”

She said she spent two days this week pleading with teachers to write letters to confirm she passed the classes and begging school staff to update the system to show the grades she says are on a year-old version of her transcript.

“I wouldn’t say there haven’t been challenges. In terms of students knowing what they had to pass to graduate, is there room for better communication? Yes.” – Mary Esselman, the EAA deputy superintendent

On Wednesday, a day before Henry Ford’s graduation ceremony today, Earle said she was told she can walk across the stage after all. She, too, plans to attend cosmetology school.

“The whole experience was a whole bunch of confusion and unorganized things,” Earle said. “The computer is not up to date, it’s missing grades.”

Other Ford seniors who were told they were graduating - then not graduating - this week are scrambling to complete assignments and online classes, school and EAA officials acknowledge. Those who miss the mark may be able to graduate in August.

In all, 62 Henry Ford seniors are supposed to graduate at the ceremonies today.

EAA officials said problems with senior student records are not widespread, but they could not provide specific numbers on Wednesday. They said poor communication between the district and students and their families may have contributed to some students not graduating on time.

Officials said EAA staff reviewed seniors’ grades in the spring to identify students who needed to take online credit recovery classes to graduate on-time. Another audit was conducted last week.

“The Office of Accountability notified principals during the first week in April and directed them to communicate the findings to the parents and students involved,” Mario Morrow, spokesman for the EAA, said in a statement. “While the letters were sent out, the level of follow-up in some cases left parents uninformed about the final disposition of their childrens’ status.”

Morrow’s statement said new Interim Chancellor Veronica Conforme “learned about this issue Wednesday and immediately dispatched a group of senior leadership officials to the schools involved to resolve the matter.” Conforme also made clear, the statement to Bridge continued, that her assessment “will include an examination of what took place.”

Officials have until June 30 to unravel the issues with seniors’ transcripts. The graduates must be reported to the state to determine the EAA’s official graduation rate. Last year, the EAA graduation rate was 61 percent compared to a state average of 77 percent.

Not the norm

Patrick O’Connor, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it is typical for schools to audit seniors’ grades in the third and fourth quarters, especially for students who have previously failed courses. But accurate records are needed to avoid last-minute shock and disappointment leading up to graduation.

“The audit process is one that should be repeated several times - assuming you have comprehensive records,” said O’Connor, assistant dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills.

Shawn Bultsma, past president of the Michigan School Counselor Association based in Grand Rapids, said students and their schools should start an education development plan as soon as the seventh grade. Counselors ideally should check seniors’ progress in the middle of each quarter, but there is no standard way to track them.

“I think we need to make sure we’re communicating with home,” he said. “Students certainly need to be warned.”

In cases like Juan Torres’, where a student needs a transcript, final grades are often not available until right up until graduation, Bultsma said.

EAA graduates should be able to get their official transcript the day of or day after graduation, district officials said this week. Torres said he is waiting.

Bridge staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:17am
Why are we allowing this EAA failure to continue. END IT NOW - PERIOD - FULL STOP.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:21am
The children are doing they are supposed to and the system keeps letting them down. EAA should be abolished and folks should stop experimenting with our children's lives and future.
Martha Toth
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:26am
Unconscionable ineptitude. And then, we are supposed to believe that a student who had failed geometry years earlier and was given a test for credit with no warning earned a valid A on it? I cannot come up with words to adequately describe my disbelief and disgust while remaining civil.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:55am
Every week we seem to read a report that documents the utter failure of this EAA. Last week we learned about excessive expenditures for out of state travel for conferences. Now we learn that students either don't know whether or not they've graduated or can't get the transcripts they need to go to college or to apply for financial aid. Yesterday there was an article in a Michigan newspaper which mentioned a total budget or over $80,000,000 for about 7,200 students which is well over $11,000 per student. I'm quite sure that Michigan is not getting its money's worth for the EAA. That this program was nearly expanded in a previous legislative session and still being considered for expansion is beyond belief.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 11:26am
Seems to be more of the fruits of the idea that your zip code should determine your school.
Perry Sylvester
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 11:52am
Gotta love the EAA! I am interested in the "new district data information system." Was this a new software system recently implemented? Who was the vendor, and what did it cost to screw up like this? (I mean what was the cost to the taxpayers--the personal cost inflicted on the students is essentially not measurable). The Freep reported in March of 2013 that the EAA received a $10 million dollar grant from the Broad Foundation to fund tech support and teacher development--two months after the EAA requested a $2 million dollar advance on their regular state funding to address, well, tech support and teacher development. Of course, they are building their instructional foundation on a tech-centered approach using a never-before tested program called BUZZ (what could go wrong?) and are looking to source their instructional staffing on the cheap, contracting with Teach for America (apparently 27% of the staff for the 2012-13 school year was drawn from Teach for America). On a humorous note, I read in the article of an "Office of Accountability" that is somehow in the EAA mix. Are they serious? It little sounds like something out of the old Soviet Union. I can't wait until some monster-sized charter school takes over the remains of the EAA--they will add an "Office of Morale" and "Department of Efficiency" along with new software (gotta have new software!)
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 1:03pm
Comparing the EAA graduation rate to the state-wide average is only half the storyy. Detroit Public Schools graduation rate in for 2012-13 was 64.7% overall, having increased by 5% from 2011-12. At the specific schools transferred to the EAA at the end of the 2011-12 school year, the graduation rate was below 40%. That means the EAA improved the graduation rate at the schools they now operate by 20-21% in a single year. That's an impressive accomplishment in only 2 years, especially considering that the founding of the EAA was the same year as the more rigorous graduation requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum took effect. The EAA is far from perfect, but it does seem to be a significant improvement over what was in place when those buildings were operated by the Detroit Public School bureaucracy. If you terminate the EAA, it should be replaced with something better than the DPS, which was in buildings and for these students an even more egregious failure.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 5:30pm
Want to replace the EAA with something better? DPS. DPS is slow with records, but not that low. DPS doesn't beat kids. DPS doesn't fire teachers who break up fights. DPS is top-heavy with incompetent administration, but not Jon-Covington-incompetent. Graduate everyone whether they've learned anything or not, and you can brag about a 100% graduation rate. That certainly seems to be what the EAA is going for, and it's why graduation rates are a useless way to compare schools. Practices at the EAA are educational malpractice, and the kids' test scores have gone down.
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 1:38pm
Well actually all of the schools turned over to the EAA were not of the lowest performi g schools. Mumford should not have been turned over to the EAA because the previous two years they made significant gai es that took them off of that list. Also if you look at the majority of the schools commandered by the EAA were either brand new schools or had exrltensive renovations done. Another thing, the pro lems that these students are having this year are the same problems that graduating seniors had last year as well, but they were overlooked and swept under the rug to make it appear that the EAA was graduting more students. Lazt year ghe EAA were counting students in their enrollment that had transferred back to DPS and other schools. Lastly, the graduation requirements for the State of Michigan did not change when they increased the "cut scores" for the MEAP and MME. Graduation requirements and MME test scores have notbing to do with each other. In addition when hou have fewer students your graduation percentage tends to go up. And as another point, DPS' graduation rate does not account for those students who may have transferred to another school district or state.
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 3:32pm
EAA and DPS are still faring badly in terms of state exams, just as Michigan is earning poor national exam scores.
Sun, 06/29/2014 - 11:45am
The state-wide tests have nothing to do with graduation rates. My daughter graduated with a 3.5 average having taken honors courses and AP courses. Yet, she has such test anxiety that passing a test with high scores is a challenge. She has never done "well" on the state mandated tests, no fault of the teachers or her education. When she took the MME she came home and said "who cares how I did? I only need to take it to graduate, my actual scores don't count at all." And she's right, the only people affected by her scores are the teachers. So please don't evaluate a school on its scores. Do evaluate the difficulty of the classes taken by the student and their performance within the classes. Colleges do look at what high school a student went to, what classes they took, and the difficulty of those classes. And they do expect transcripts as soon as a student graduates. All high schools know this, that's what counselors and school secretaries are for. Sounds like the EAA is woefully unprepared.
Dedra Downs
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 11:55am
Anna, your conclusion was wrong and makes no . The EAA graduation rate is not calculated in the DPS graduation rate. You need to find out the exact graduation rate of EAA schools. Seeing how hard it is for EAA students to get their records and graduate I bet the EAA graduation rate is very low. Also the DPS cohort graduation rate has been in the 60 percents for years. If you trace the graduation rate at one school you may get, and don't track students who now move all around, because of closed schools, the housing crisis etc. You may get a 40% graduation rate. However if you track the student from school to school until they graduate you get a graduation rate in the 60%s.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 3:40pm
The peeling away of the layers of incompetecy and fraud in the EAA should terify tax payers of Michigan.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 3:42pm
Sorry - terrify.
Earl Newman
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 4:38pm
The EAA experience is a cautionary tale for our society. EAA is a reform engineered by people who do not have respect for the educational establishment. They view teachers and administrators in the traditional system as screw-ups. They believe that if a small number of gifted reformers like themselves could just have a chance to select the teachers and administrators and tell them what to do they could straighten out the mess in public education. Governor Snyder's EAA is an example of this kind of thinking. Ideas like these are based on opinions, not data. In fact there are not a group of geniuses at large who have the answers to the problems of public education. Public education will improve when we make adequate resources available to the people in the schools. They are the ones who are equipped to analyze and address the problems of education. We see now that the new head of the EAA is a person who has never taught but who has spent thousands of hours in classrooms as an observer.
Donna Givens
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 6:44pm
Anna states that EAA high schools graduated approximately 40% of their students prior to the EAA formation and that growth to 60% represented significant progress. What is the source of this inaccurate data? I looked at the Michigan School Info website and every EAA school posted graduation rates of 60 - 70% in 2011-12 except for one. The suggestion of significant growth in this area is not accurate based on these data.
Ann G
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 10:13am
I am a HS teacher in suburban Flint. We would never let this happen! We've had several technology changes, but the checks and balances were always there. The story of the student testing out with an A is completely fishy. When the EAA fails...how is this better than DPS?
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 3:35pm
Good question. Another: what happens, by law, if EAA fails to turn around a school? What then?
Sun, 06/29/2014 - 11:48am
what does it mean to turn around a school? is this all based on unreliable test scores?
Dedra Downs
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 12:56pm
When the State takes over your school district, this is what you get. Detroit citizens have protested, screamed and hollered and done everything they can to no avail. The State has had control of DPS for 18 of the past 20 years, since the reform Board came into being. Every year since the initial takeover under Engler the schools have declined. The big secret is that the State Legislature has strived to break up unions, reduce employee pay, and ship the profits to the outsourced companies of their choosing. They don't mean to make the schools better. They just want to plunder them and take all the spoils.
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 1:15pm
This is untenable and unacceptable! Why has there been no news of LAWSUITS FILED against all parties involved w imposition of EAA schools - I DONT GET IT
Mz Patty
Mon, 06/23/2014 - 4:52am
Only in Detroit Only in Detroit would the sign in the window state incompetent people needed for the school system. In rides the financial manager, off with their heads! The top layer is removed because they are the stress on the school system. The financial manager replaces them with even more personnel, not even natives of Detroit; stresses the financial system, deepens the debt and rides out of a town with all the extra personnel in tow. The system is deeper in debt and no one notices and a silent scream is heard throughout the district. The lower level employees are to blame and the children are part of the silent scream. The lower level waits for the next attractive separation package. The saga continues, next comes the dismantling phase. Remove schools from the larger package and create a new system that only attaches Detroit. Only in Detroit is the dismantling phase worse than the big picture. Only is the person hired to lead the new system, leaving another system in disarray and unaccredited, but attractive for the students in Detroit. The silence of the students is louder and their voice is stifled by confusion. “Let’s try something new,” is the response. “The big picture is worse, so this has got to be better. We must not forget that it is convenient as well. We have lived in this area and it would be easier to attend the neighborhood school. We really don’t have the money to go elsewhere.” Only in Detroit, does the leader ride out of town again. Where is the outrage? Is it standing in the unemployment line, waiting on the bus to take them to a job outside of the city that pays less than the bus ride, or confused and dazed and really don’t know what to do. Meanwhile the lower level waits for the next severance packet. Only in Detroit is the problem increasing the achievement gap rather than becoming a solution. The scream is louder and the sound is deafening. Can you hear the words coming out my mouth?” The commercial with the baby states, “am I the only one concerned about the MIME talking?” Mz Patty
The D Sez
Thu, 06/26/2014 - 2:16pm
There were no changes in software or programming in the EAA, just an inept leadership team who were more concerned with covering their asses, then running a school. I've never heard of a school that does not have policies and procedure in place on day 1 when students walk into the building. There are no clear and consistent consequences for misconduct and as a result, the school is run by the students. In order to build a climate and culture where learning is paramount, you must be willing to rule with an iron fist and "weed" out problem students. Schools have to choose quality over quantity, but in a cash strapped economy it is easier said than done. As a result, teachers are not supported, students are not learning, and the entire operation is a failure.
Betty Moore
Fri, 07/11/2014 - 2:11am
I am a Substitute Teacher working in five different school districts. I subbed at an EAA school and was disturbed at what I saw. I was a sub in a techology class with no computers. I also was a sub in a math class at the same school, 6th and 7the graders. I had a para pro who was awful. She spoke very negatively about the students using words I won't repeat. I was also concerned about the focus on food, the students were offered breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many of the students did not eat the food, I asked them why; they stated the food was not very good. I had to eat lunch with the students, which I thought was inappropriate. Unfortunately, I did not have a good experience and would be hesitant to return. In my opinion, I would not send my child to an EAA school. I am a product of the DPS system, a 1971 graduate of Finney High School, I had a great education. What happen? My guess greed and politics, the focus is not the kids.
Thu, 07/30/2015 - 1:19pm
I graduated from Kettering in ’83. I worked for DPS on and off for the technology and data department between ’90 and ’03. I started, working at Henry Ford HS. I left, and returned as a database architect and administrator to the Identification department. I got outsourced to Compuware in 2000, and finally quit after I realized that nothing was happening, and nothing was going to happen. Back then, we begged DPS to upgrade its outdated data systems, but instead they chose to outsource all responsibility to a data firm that chose to treat the symptoms instead of cure the patient. Now, I build data systems for UW-Madison in Wisconsin, and the system I left behind continues to fail. Superficial fixes, whether orchestrated by DPS or EAA are like trying to paint on a house that is burning down. There needs to be a deep investigation into the systems that are broken here, and a full-force effort to systematically repair each one.