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School “hardship reviews” offer few details of SRO’s closure intentions

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Students at Muskegon Heights join a community rally in February in support of their school.

You cannot tell if Michigan’s School Reform Officer Natasha Baker was prepared to recommend closing any of the 38 schools on the state’s lowest performing school’s list. That information was redacted from public documents released this week by the state, following a March 3 request filed by Michigan Radio under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Detroit Free Press reports it sought the same documents in April, and says the documents released paint, “a sober picture — in many cases — into the amount of work needed to turn the schools around.”

The so-called “hardship reviews” were completed by February, after meetings with teachers, students and some students in the 38 named schools. The reports include notes about these small, community meetings. They include details about how many slots would be available in a 30-mile radius, if the schools were closed. There are notes about curriculum, teacher evaluations, and intervention strategies the school employs.

The reports also include an evaluation of the school building; giving it a score based on how good of shape the HVAC system, the roof, electrical, and plumbing is.

You can find the draft hardship review for each of the individual schools here.

Baker was planning to use these hardship reviews to decide the “next level of accountability” for the 38 schools. That could’ve included closing the schools, according to a letter Baker signed and sent directly to parents, sending shock waves through many communities.

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

More than half the 38 schools were located in Detroit. Others on the list are in the Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Pontiac, Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor, East Detroit, River Rouge and Bridgeport-Spaulding school districts.

We live here: A neighborhood school on the brink of closure

But instead, 37 of those schools were able to avoid closure by the state, by signing “partnership agreements” over the last month. Michigan Technical Academy, a charter school authorized by Central Michigan University, did not sign an agreement and still may face closure by SRO or its school board.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education says the hardship reviews were not used to inform the partnership agreements.

The state redacted Baker’s actual recommendations for the individual schools in the draft hardship reviews. In its response to Michigan Radio’s FOIA, the state said those sections were withheld because they were not SRO’s final determinations.

“The public interest in encouraging frank communications among SRO staff clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this particular instance,” a FOIA coordinator for the state wrote.

The state has offered to refund the more than $2,160 it charged Michigan Radio to produce the reviews.

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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