College Guide

from the Hechinger Report

August 04, 2014 9:47 AM At Troubled Detroit Schools, Adjusting to More Class Time

By Sarah Butrymowicz

DETROIT —Many of Malik Canty’s classmates left Southeastern High School of Technology and Law last summer when they discovered the school year would no longer end in June but barrel straight through to August.

Malik, though, could see the value in the new requirement. And he thought his peers at other schools in the city, let loose for the summer while he was still in class, would have been better off sticking it out like he did.

Coming from Detroit Public Schools, the 17-year-old said, “everyone has a lot to make up.”He said he made it through his first 12 years of school reading only one book on his own, “Percy Jackson and the Titans Curse. He’ll be up to two by his August graduation.

Students at Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. The school is using its expanded learning time to address social and emotional issues through group discussions. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Students at Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. The school is using its expanded learning time to address social and emotional issues through group discussions. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Southeastern is one of 15 failing schools in Detroit that were wrested from local control and turned over to the state to manage in the fall of 2012. More time in school —24 minutes more a day and 35 additional days a year —was just one of the strategies brought in for an attempted transformation. A closer look at those strategies shows just how difficult it will be to revive some of the most troubled schools in one of the nation’s most troubled cities.

The 15 Detroit schools joined a national movement to help poor students catch up by adding class hours. With most students learning several years behind grade level, administrators at the state authority’s schools say extra time is desperately needed — and not only for academics. Southeastern is using its additional daily minutes to help meet students’ social and emotional needs, which the staff views as critical for learning to occur, and this allocation of time will be set by individual advisors.

But the school has fewer students to educate now: Jeff Maxwell, who recently resigned as principal after two years, said the longer year played a major role in Southeastern losing nearly 400 students — half its enrollment — between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years. About 200 of those students dropped out, according to state data. Others transferred elsewhere.

In a city still reeling from the recession and mortgage crisis that accelerated its decline, even critics of the state takeover agree that a radical overhaul of education is needed. Yet they question the merits of added learning time when, as they see it, quality teaching and learning isn’t happening in the first place.

“I don’t necessarily have a problem with year-round schools; I just don’t think that in and of itself is a solution,”said Chris Savage, community activist and author of the Eclectablog, which has served as a watchdog to the state control. “A year-round school in a sound program is a great idea.…They need to get their program in order.”

An outgoing principal says a longer academic year played a major role in his school losing nearly 400 students — half its enrollment — in a 12-month span. About 200 of those students dropped out, according to state data. Others transferred elsewhere.

Just 3 percent of Detroit’s eighth graders were proficient in math on a recent national test and nearly a quarter of students in the public school system drop out. Unemployment in the city is nearly 15 percent and a federal report found the city with 84,641 blighted buildings and vacant lots.

Research has shown that low-income students are disproportionately affected by summer-learning loss and have far fewer learning opportunities outside of school than their middle-class peers, but that just adding more timedoesn’t necessarily result in higher achievement. Indeed, seven of the 15 state takeover schools had academic days longer than 7.5 hours before the outside intervention, and they still ranked among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

The state organization running the schools, called the Education Achievement Authority, has found itself under a barrage of criticism since opening. Although the organization says students are demonstrating large academic gains, opponents say the numbers from internal assessments are not to be trusted, especially when compared to statewide assessments. The authority has been blasted for not properly addressing student safety, wasting money on administrator travel, and losing nearly a quarter of its students in the first year.

Teacher and administrator turnover has also been an issue. Chancellor John Covington abruptly resigned on June 17, saying he needed to care for his ailing mother, and Southeastern’s Maxwell left the week prior to take over a Chicago school. Interim replacements were immediately made for each from within the authority and weeks later Maxwell was permanently replaced with a former Detroit Public Schools school director.

(Disclaimer: The state authority receives funding from the Eli Broad and Kellogg foundations, which are among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.)

The Education Achievement Authority, as originally conceived, was tasked with developing a radically new approach to education. Grade levels were dropped as teachers were encouraged to divide students strategically and to let them collaborate in small groups. All students use an online curriculum to go through lessons at their own pace. Although the work changes, a day in July looks much like a day in October.

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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