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East Detroit public schools fight state takeoever of four schools

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
East Detroit superintendent Ryan McLeod blasts the state takeover of four local schools

Backlash against a state takeover of four East Detroit district schools is growing, with a lawsuit moving forward in court and the school board and city of Eastpointe signing a joint resolution against it.

“We’re at a point right now where our schools are under attack by the state, there’s no kinder way to put it,” says school board vice president Craig Brozowski.

“We have found ourselves underfunded, as have most schools in this state. And as such we’ve unfortunately had to make cuts that have been detrimental here. However, the state has decided in their wisdom that they’re going to come in and take four of our schools. Four! The children are not to be experimented on.”

The state’s School Reform Office has hired a CEO to run four schools in the district it says are “chronically underperforming.” It’s the state’s first academic CEO.  

Gary Jensen, a former Montcalm County principal credited with turning around his previous school, has been chosen by the state to run Bellview Elementary, Pleasantview Elementary, Kelly Middle and East Detroit High school.

This CEO role is different from an Emergency Manager, says state school reform officer Natasha Baker, because an EM is primarily focused on a district’s financial deficit – while a CEO comes from an academic background and is responsible for academic turnaround, as well as being able to control the school’s financial operations.

These four East Detroit schools “have been identified in the lowest performing five percent of all Michigan schools at least one cycle, with the high school identified for improvement eight times,” a state press release says. “Student proficiency has declined in all subject content areas since each school was identified as a Priority School.  Beginning in the 2008-2009 school year, the district has seen enrollment declines across all four schools.”

Meanwhile, East Detroit staff say they don’t deny the district has struggled academically – but they say they’re already making progress without state intervention.

“We have the capacity to rapidly improve student learning, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” says school superintendent Ryan McLeod. He’s only been on the job this year, but already some school board members and teachers credit him with making major improvements. And McLeod says their internal data and national testing points to improving academics.

Linda Clinton, a literacy teacher and the homeless student liaison in the district, says the state’s move is stressful for staff.

“Probably the biggest thing is the unknown,” Clinton says, “and that it’s somebody from the outside, who’s not in here with us and knows our situation, our history, our culture. That’s the biggest thing.”

Plus, she says, the state’s handling of other schools districts, like the Education Achievement Authority and the Detroit Public Schools, don’t inspire any confidence among teachers. “Well, the truth of the matter is, they [the state] haven’t been successful yet, have they? Look at the EAA. That’s hasn’t been a successful model. The people on the inside is what it’s all about.”

Natasha Baker, the State School Reform Officer, says the new CEO will still be able to be successful in the district, despite the fervent pushback.

“Absolutely, it’s a place where he can do the work he needs to do. And all of this is being litigated, so there won’t be a whole lot of choice, in the event that we prevail.

"...Every kid who graduates from a Michigan public high school, should have the skills they need to be successful in whatever they want to do in life. And that's what this work is about for us, and that's what this work is about for Gary Jensen (the appointed CEO)," she says. 

The case is currently moving forward in the court of claims. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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