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At Detroit meeting, hints of a possible softer approach to closing schools

School desks
Flickr user Frank Juarez/Flickr

One of Governor Snyder’s key advisors says “there’s no way in the world” the state will close 38 “failing” schools this year.

That’s what Rich Baird told the crowd at a Detroit meeting about potential school closures Monday night.

The State School Reform Office has sent letters to parents at 38 schools across the state, warning they could be shut down because of persistently low test scores. 25 of those schools are in Detroit.

But Baird says it’s not wise to do that unless the state can guarantee better options for those students—and currently, it can’t. And he repeatedly said that “closing” a school doesn’t have to mean shutting a school building down.

In this sense, closure “could mean creating a district within a district that changes the way in which education is delivered. Or it could mean creating a school within a school,” said Baird, adding that he would leave it to the educators to determine what forms of intervention are best.

"We have to think about closure in terms of closing out failure. Not closing out schools. Not closing out buildings, and not closing out effective educational offerings," he said.

Baird also said that it was a mistake for the State School Reform Office to send out those lettersabout the possible closings without reaching out to affected communities first. Many people at the meeting said that had just confused and upset parents, and has already had a destabilizing effect on the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“No intervention is ever going to succeed unless there is absolute and complete engagement with the local folks,” Baird said. “So when letters go out talking about school closures, and it immediately jumps to the notion of well we’re going to close these schools down and move kids to other places that’s not the narrative we should have.”

Baird’s words cheered Detroit state Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit. She said she felt like this was a starting point for dialogue with the state, and that Detroiters needed to hear acknowledgement of the state’s role in the schools’ current crisis.

“Sometimes people can’t get to a place where we can have communication, or dialogue, about moving forward, without dealing with what you did to me in the past. And that’s in any relationship,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

Gay-Dagnogo did have harsh words for state school reform officer Natasha Baker, who did not attend Monday’s meeting. She says Baker has demonstrated a “cold mentality” when it comes to dealing with people concerned about closing schools.

“I’ve received too many calls from people who were just almost explosive in how she addressed them, how she talked to them, how she made them feel,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “You don’t do that to a group of people who are concerned about their children, and who are looking for answers. You must honor their pain.”

Gay-Dagnogo says this meeting was a good starting point for a better discussion. Ultimately, she wants Gov. Snyder, who controls the SSRO, to rescind that letter, and cancel the current 30-45 day review period for the named schools, which both she and Baird pointed out is an “arbitrary” time period not written in law.

Then they can “open up a dialogue about how we can put a transformation model in place for the schools,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

DPSCD officials are trying to convince the state to let the district implement its own turnaround plans at 24 of the “failing” schools.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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