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Most schools at risk of closure for poor performance will stay open, but lawsuits remain

The Washington Writer's Academy in Kalamazoo
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
The Washington Writer's Academy in Kalamazoo will stay open under the agreement.

Detroit and at least seven other Michigan school districts have reached an agreement with Michigan’s Department of Education to allow more than 35 schools to stay open for at least the next three years.

All the schools performed in the bottom 5% on standardized tests for at least three consecutive years.

The state’s School Reform Office, or SRO, caused an uproar in January when it sent letters directly to parents announcing the potential closures without first notifying local school officials.

“It’s a huge relief. That’s like a weight off of shoulders,” Detroit parent Wytrice Harris said of the agreement. She’s part of the community group 482Forward.

She’s happy the deal says the school board will control the future of schools and hopes the state will send a letter home to all the parents affected again.

“The same way a letter went out that put all the parents in a frantic [state],a letter should go out that puts all the parents at ease,” she said.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he’s signed letters in Pontiac and East Detroit school districts, but is leaving it up to district leaders to decide how they’d like to notify the community.

Whiston has signed agreements with the following districts: Detroit, Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, Pontiac, Saginaw, East Detroit, and Kalamazoo. River Rouge’s agreement was expected to be signed today, Whiston said. District officials did not return requests for comment.

It’s not clear yet if Michigan Technical Academy, a charter school in Detroit, will stay open.

Central Michigan University, the school’s authorizer, sent a notice to the school board in February of its intent to revoke its agreement with the school.

Whiston says the state notified school leaders and CMU that Michigan Technical Academy will fall under the School Reform Office because a partnership agreement couldn’t be reached. Whiston says they couldn’t reach an agreement because the school may be closed this summer or allowed to stay open one more year – partnership agreements run for three years, Whiston says, so there wasn’t enough time for the plan to work.

A spokeswoman for CMU says the school board could close the building this summer on its own or wait for the revocation process. It’s not clear how long that process could take, she said.

Whiston says the School Reform Officer may take action at Michigan Technical Academy, or may choose to allow the revocation to run its course.

Generally speaking, the partnerships outline individualized goals the schools must meet at 18 months and then again at 36 months. They outline steps to reach those goals and specific resources businesses, universities, intermediate school districts, and other community organizations are willing to provide to help.

Most goals are measured by student growth and proficiency, but also include student and teacher absenteeism rates, office referrals for behavioral problems, and implementing new reading and math programs.

The specificity of those goals and partners varies widely by district.

Benton Harbor’s agreementenlists the help of corporate giant, Whirlpool, headquartered in the city limits. Muskegon Heights’ mayor, Davenport University and Boys and Girls Club signed off on the agreement for the high school in that community.

In Kalamazoo, the agreement explicitly mentionsthat by signing the agreement, the district is not waiving any argument it may have in an existing lawsuit against the School Reform Office.

“The broader question about whether the SRO has the ability to close schools and if at all, under what conditions, that question has not been resolved by the partnership agreement,” Superintendent Michael Rice said.

Rice says he’s encouraged by State Superintendent Whiston’s efforts on the agreements.

But, he says Kalamazoo schools will not drop the case before the state’s Court of Claims.

Saginaw, Detroit and East Detroit schools have similar lawsuits pending.

There’s a joint hearing for the three cases scheduled for July 18. That hearing is for oral arguments on the legality of Governor Rick Snyder’s executive order that moved the School Reform Office out from under the Michigan Department of Education and put it with the Department of Management, Technology and Budget.

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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