Partnership agreements help failing schools avoid closure

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Thirty-eight of Michigan’s lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools are about to wrap up their first year under a partnership program created to save them from closure.

In 2017, the state’s School Reform Office announced that the schools, which had been in the bottom 5 percent for academic performance for three years in a row, were at risk of being shut down.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had 16 schools in danger of being closed, while Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Saginaw and Kalamazoo all had multiple public schools on the original list.

Facing public backlash, the Department of Education instead chose to partner with those districts to improve academic performance.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, has “always preferred” finding an alternative to school closures, said David Crim, the MEA’s communications consultant.

“We were supportive a year and a half ago when [state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston] announced the creation of these partnerships, and we’re still supportive,” Crim said.

Under a partnership agreement, a district remains in control of its schools, with additional support from the department and local partners like colleges, community foundations and businesses.

That level of community involvement is crucial to the agreements’ — and the schools’ — success, said William Disessa of the Department of Education’s Office of Public and Governmental Affairs.

“The partnership agreements are designed to be positive and collaborative in nature,” Disessa said. “Working together, partnership districts and schools have a real opportunity to succeed.”

In late March, 21 districts entered discussions with a goal towards signing their own partnership agreements, including ones in Baldwin, Grand Rapids and Flint.

Of those 21, 16 are public charter schools. The MEA’s Crim said the union “railed against” that fact, saying it was proof of the state’s misguided investment in “failing for-profit charter schools.”

“We’re very concerned about the money we’re spending on corporate charter schools which end up on these partnership lists,” Crim said.

Improvement in state English/Language Arts and math test scores is a “common thread” among the partnership agreements, but every agreement is tailored to individual districts’ needs, said Dedrick Martin, the Education Department’s school reform officer.

“There could be a number of systemic issues, whether that’s getting enough certified teachers, changes to the curriculum or training that teachers need, instructional coaches, data systems — each district will have their own unique fingerprint on their partnership agreement,” Martin said.

Martin was hired as school reform officer in October 2017 and wasn’t involved with creating any of the current agreements. Since even the earliest adopters have yet to finish their first full year, he said it’s too soon to gauge the agreements’ success.

Seven districts signed partnership agreements last October, including Lansing Public Schools, which entered five schools into its agreement.

Three of Lansing’s schools — North Elementary, Woodcreek Achievement Center and Gardner International Academy — entered the agreements on an optional basis. That means the schools’ performance wasn’t poor enough to require a partnership agreement now, but was so low that they might require one in the future, Disessa said.

Lansing’s agreement provides assistance from the department, the Ingham Intermediate School District and 18 community groups like the Lansing Promise and the Capital Area College Access Network to meet the benchmarks.

Among many other benchmarks, Lansing’s schools must see a 5 percent increase in students who test at their grade level in reading and math by fall 2019, and reduce the number of suspensions by 20 percent by 2021.

For all participating districts, schools have 18 months to show improvement on “intermediate” goals. At that point they enter another 18-month review period to complete the agreement. Failure to meet their benchmarks puts districts right back where they were — facing closure.

Martin said closure isn’t off the table for schools that fail to meet their goals after three years. However, he indicated the department is taking a more “holistic” approach to these agreements, and may grant more time to districts that have shown significant — if not total — progress.

“If a person sets a goal of losing weight, and they want to lose 15 pounds in a month, do you tell them that they’re unsuccessful because they only lost 12?” Martin said. “No. They keep with the same program, and you give them a little more time to do it.”