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How Michigan’s lowest performing schools are doing two years into state partnership agreements

a map of michigan with stars where there are school districts that have partnership agreements with the state
Michigan Department of Education
A map of the locations of the 33 districts currently in partnership agreements with the state.

In early 2017, more than three dozen schools across Michigan faced an uncertain future. After ranking in the bottom 5% of state test scores for three consecutive years, they risked being shut down by the state’s School Reform Office.

But then state Superintendent Brian Whiston proposed an alternative plan. Instead of closing low-performing schools, the state would partner with districts to help improve academic performance.

So what’s happened since then?

Stateside talks to Bill Pearson, who oversees partnership districts for the Michigan Department of Education, about what progress the state’s lowest-performing schools are making.

The initial round of partnership agreements in 2017 included 37 schools in 8 districts. There have been two more rounds since then, and there are now a total of 33 districts under partnership agreements. The state partners with districts to come up with an improvement plan for each school. Those plans include goals for improving student achievement and a strategic plan for the school’s future financial stability.

“There needs to be stability within the district from the top that is working together on a strategic plan, so money can be designated towards the things that they want to work on,” Pearson said.

One serious challenge facing partnership districts, Pearson says, is a lack of certified teachers. Pearson thinks this is because fewer high school students are pursuing teaching careers, possibly due to low pay or perceived lack of employment.

Still, Pearson has high hopes for success.

During a recent 18-month evaluation, he says, six out of the eight districts from the first round of partnership agreements were considered on track. There will be another evaluation at the 24-month mark to see if the remaining two first round districts are making adequate progress.

“If not, then we will look towards our next level of accountability, which could include closure of a building, or reconstitution of a building, or some other methods that we put in place,” said Pearson.  

Pearson says the goal of the partnership model is to avoid school closures. But if there are schools that don’t meet the benchmark, he says the department plans to work with the district and the community to determine the next steps.

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