State offers ‘sense of relief’ to schools facing closure

Posted at 2:26 PM, Mar 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-14 17:37:44-04

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. — Dozens of schools once facing what seemed like imminent closure, including several in West Michigan, could avoid that fate thanks to a new offer being made by the state.

Under a new so-called 'partnership model,' 38 schools targeted for potential closure due to chronically low test scores will be given an additional 18 months to prove progress is being made. The list from the state's School Reform Office included schools in the bottom five percent of academic performance for at least three consecutive years.

The Michigan Department of Education announced it is working with eight districts—Benton Harbor Area, Bridgeport-Spaulding, Detroit Public Community, Kalamazoo Public, Muskegon Heights Academy Public, Pontiac, River Rouge and Saginaw Public Schools—to develop a plan that would leave local control in tact but would require partnerships with outside organizations, like school boards, foundations or businesses.

“It's a great sense of relief," said Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Muskegon Heights Public Academy. “I think it gives us an opportunity to mend some wounds."

West Michigan schools at risk of closure.

Like many school leaders whose districts had schools flagged for closure, Zachery-Ross said the state's announcement in January came as a shock and letdown.

"The frustration ... came from the fact the Michigan Department of Education had just released their report card showing our growth and we always knew we needed time, so there was a lot of anxiety," she said. “Our schools have been improving, our students have been showing up."

Zachery-Ross said a mandated partnership agreement seamlessly fits with plans the district has already been working to implement.

"We’ve been working on a five year strategic plan," she said. "We understand the urgency, we’ve embraced the fact that our scores aren’t where we want them to be. We cannot do this alone, we must work with community partners and this is happening."

Muskegon Heights students have access to existing partnerships between the district and the Coalition for Community Development, the city manager's and mayor's offices and the local Boys and Girls Club, according to Zachery-Ross.

"This is a clear partnership with everyone, including the Michigan Department of Education, including those people who will hold us accountable, who will know what’s expected of us, who will know how we’ll be measured and will understand the timeline," she said.

The new option for districts comes just weeks after Gov. Rick Snyder announced plans to delay any potential closures until the end of the current school year.

Once agreements are reached, each district will be given 18 months to show improvements are being made before the state reassess further measures, which could still include closure.

It's a timeline Zachery-Ross says is achievable for her district.

"There’s optimism, there’s hope, and there’s excitement, and that’s what we need," she said. "Our goals are really clear… and it gives our students a chance to show they can be excellent.”

In response to the announced closures, parents and students in the Kalamazoo and Saginaw public school districts filed a joint lawsuit against the state in February.

Testifying before the Michigan Senate Education Committee earlier this month, Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice said he believed the state's latest proposal signaled "good intent" but questioned the legality of the education department's actions, according to a March 9 MLive report.

"We feel for a variety of reasons that the state has not acted legally, and quite frankly, we think a court of law needs to address that," Rice testified.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Kalamazoo Public Schools told FOX 17 the partnership agreement has no immediate impact on the status of the lawsuit, adding that district officials have yet to meet with State Superintendent Brian Whiston to discuss the state's latest offer.

It was not immediately clear when that meeting would happen, the spokesperson said.