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District, community leaders busy crafting deals this month to keep schools open

young kids playing with toys on floor
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

The heads of most of the 38 schools facing closure for low academic performance are drafting agreements that would allow the schools to stay open and collaborate with the state.

The state offered the agreements as a sort of olive branch after major backlash to the closure announcements in late January.

Michigan’s Department of Education announced Friday it’s working with eight districts to develop partnership agreements. State Superintendent Brian Whiston is arranging meetings with Benton Harbor Area Schools, Bridgeport-Spaulding, Detroit Public Community Schools/Education Achievement Authority, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Muskegon Heights Public Academy System; Pontiac, River Rouge, and Saginaw Public School District.

A template for the agreements is still being drafted, an MDE spokesman said.

The partnership model that could keep failing schools open

The superintendent of Benton Harbor Area Schools says the state’s offer to collaborate with the district, instead of closing three of its low performing schools, is a “lifeline.”

“We only have so much staff and we have so many areas we need to work on. That’s why I like the partnership agreement because the idea is we’ll get support, it will allow us to look at all of our systems and try to align them all,” Walker said.

Walker says the district has been focused on three main goals; improving instruction, creating an orderly classroom environment, and building leadership capacity.

She says improvements are happening, but at a “turtle’s pace.” With the partnerships, she’s hopeful change can happen faster because Michigan’s Department of Education may be able to offer expertise the district alone cannot afford or attract.

Thecommunity votes on a millage to pay for building maintenance and repairs in May. So Walker hopes to sign the new partnership agreement by the end of this month to cement some certainty for parents, who are still worried the school might close.

“The sooner we can bring stability I think that’s going to make our parents feel better, because I do believe that is a question that’s, you know, kind of on their heart,” Walker said.

Muskegon Heights schools superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross says the deal fits perfectly with the strategic plan they’re already working on. 

“We see it as an added benefit and a way for us to be able to hold ourselves accountable and for others to be able measure ourselves against reasonable goals and expectations,” Zachery-Ross said.

Zachery-Ross says the liaison MDE sent her has already been a “tremendous” help with the questions she’s asking and pointing out research and best practices specific to the student population Muskegon Heights serves.

“Our conversations are at a more in-depth level of really, how can we get our partners to support our students and our instructional outcomes?” Zachery-Ross said.

If schools don’t improve over the 18 months the agreement runs, the state could move to close the schools again.

But both superintendents stress the importance of knowing up front what benchmarks they’ll have to meet to stay open and how they’ll measure success.

When the School Reform Office announced the closures in a letter sent directly to parents in January, the process for closing and the reason for selecting those particular 38 schools wasn’t completely transparent. That created confusion for school administrators and frustration for parents.

“We had a number of parents want to get involved and we tried to leverage that,” Zachery-Ross said. She says parents feel like the governor heard their cries to stop the School Reform Office and give the district’s reforms more time to work and a transparent plan they can follow along with.

“We have new leadership. We have new curriculum,” Benton Harbor’s Shelly Walker said, “We’re definitely not the same Benton Harbor that produced those results.”

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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