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Investigation uncovers non-certified teachers at Muskegon Heights new charter school

Update: As of February 14th, these teachers have now obtained valid Michigan teaching certificates or permits.

Teachers in Michigan need some kind of certificate or permitto teach. Whether it's in a public school or a charter school, it doesn’t matter; it's Michigan law.

“Like other professions in Michigan and around the country, we say those kinds of people need to be certified,” said Phil Smith, legislative and policy chair for the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators. Smith also heads the Special Education Department in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University.

If teachers aren’t certified? “It’s a big problem,” Smith answered. “We need to know that they have those skills and experiences.”

Beyond the legal requirements, Smith says there are also practical reasons to have certified teachers. Mainly, to make sure they’re prepared to manage a classroom and motivate a diverse group of students.

“Would you want to have somebody up in front of your kiddo who doesn’t have the experience and knowledge to teach them all the things that we want kiddos to know?” Smith asked.

School districts are supposed to verify that the teachers they hire are state certified. It’s easy to do – anyone can go online and look up their kid’s teacher’s certification.

But sometimes school districts don’t check. Michigan’s Department of Education officials report they expect nearly fifty districts and public school academies will be issued penalties this year.

In Muskegon Heights, public records from January show at least eight teachers were not certified. That’s a little more that ten percent of the teaching staff in those records.

But to be fair, the situation at Muskegon Heights schools is not typical. It’s Michigan’s first privatized public school district. Last summer its emergency manager laid off everyone,because the district was so broke it couldn’t afford to open in the fall.

Instead, the emergency manager hired Mosaica Education, a for-profit charter school company, to run the schools. Mosaica only had around five weeks to set up everything. Then they had problems keeping teachersfrom quitting.

Who’s responsible for uncertified teachers at Muskegon Heights schools?

Mosaica Education Chief Executive Officer Mike Connelly says the company hired some teachers who weren’t certified yet. But he says the company verified the teachers were eligible for certification. He says Mosaica expected those teachers to then obtain proper certifications from Michigan’s Department of Education. “The process of getting certified can only be done by the teacher themselves,” Connelly noted.

“I think, for the most part, the teachers followed up; whether they submitted everything that MDE required them to submit or wanted them to submit, whether MDE had additional questions, what caused delay with respect to these particular teachers, I don’t know,” Connelly said.

Alena Zachery-Ross is the company’s regional Vice President – basically the superintendent of Muskegon Heights schools.

“When we contact Michigan Department of Education and they say ‘pending approval,’ those are the type of things that we had these teachers notified, that if you can’t prove certification that you will no longer be able to work,” Zachery-Ross said.

But under the law, people aren’t allowed to teach until they actually get approval.

According to records from Mosaica, five of these eight teachers have been with the district since at least the first week of September. Two of the eight no longer work for the district. Three of the teachers transferred from other states. Valid teacher certifications for two of those three in their respective states have been confirmed.

Connelly admits some responsibility for not following up; to make sure those teachers were indeed certified in Michigan.

“That’s our responsibility,” Connelly said. “We accept that responsibility. We’re the ones who are supposed to do that. And we did, I think in every case, I’m not aware of any exceptions, determine they were eligible for certification.”

But he hesitated to say it’s anyone’s “fault.” He disagreed that, legally, a person cannot teach while an application is pending.

“I think there’s a difference between putting someone who’s unqualified in the classroom and putting someone who is completely qualified, totally eligible for certification, and who is just waiting for the government to issue the certification papers,” Connelly said.

Possible legal consequences of uncertified teachers

Officials with Michigan’s Department of Education wouldn’t agree to a recorded interview for this story.

But the Director of MDE’s Office of Professional Preparation Services, Flora Jenkins, says some of these teachers didn’t apply for the proper permits until last week, which is right around the same time Michigan Radio started asking questions of the district. In fact, a few of these teachers have already managed to get certified in the past few days.

Jenkins says MDE is now formally investigating the matter. She says the department can issue fines for each day an uncertified teacher was in the classroom.

“The district is required to pay the sum of the amount paid to the non-certificated teacher during the time of employment,” Jenkins explained in an email.

A little quick math and salary records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show those fines could add up to more than $100,000 in Muskegon Heights for these eight teachers.

Not only that, but the contract between Mosaica Education and Muskegon Heights’ charter schoolsays the company has to follow state laws, including a specific mention of the need for teachers to hold a valid certificate. If it doesn’t, it could be grounds to revoke the 5-year contract worth at least $8.75 million dollars.

But it’s not at all clear that’s something the charter school board, that’s been appointed by Muskegon Heights Public Schools’ Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon, is considering.

Requests for comment to the charter school board president and the board’s attorney got no response.

Initially, Weatherspoon responded in an email, saying only that the old Muskegon Heights Public School district does not operate any educational programs. He did not respond to further requests noting the old district’s oversight responsibilities in the legal document that sets up the public school academy system.

Challenges in finding and retaining “highly qualified” teachers plays a role

Retaining teachers at Muskegon Heights has been a challenge. At least 1 in 4 teachers quitin the first three months of the school year.

Shawn Quilter is Associate Dean of Faculty, Professional Development & Administration at Eastern Michigan University.

“In Michigan we’re usually in the position of having a number of highly qualified people available for each position that becomes open,” Quilter said.

But his EMU colleague Phil Smith, with the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators, points out it’s tough for some very rural districts, ones with high poverty rates or high numbers of minorities to attract and retain those “highly qualified” teachers.

Muskegon Heights is one of the poorest cities in Michigan. The average household income is just above $20,000.

“It means one more time that students in rich neighborhoods get better education and kids in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods with high numbers of minority folks get not as good an education,” Smith said.

Mosaica CEO Mike Connelly says teachers that work for the company have to be “highly qualified’ in the English language sense of that word.”

“We’re out there to try to find great teachers and that’s always hard,” Connelly said. He says it’s been especially hard now that it’s mid-school year.

Mosaica Regional VP Aleana Zachery-Ross says they’re working with the few remaining uncertified teachers to make sure they get certified or obtain an emergency permit because “otherwise (students) would have a substitute teacher because there’s a lack of teachers available.”

Right now, there are 13 job listingson Mosaica’s website for MHPSA, the majority of which are teaching positions.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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