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Facing school closures, Detroit district leaders look to a "learning summit" for turnaround plan

Jan 24, 2017

Detroit school leaders say they’re ready to take on the task of transforming some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

But first, they’re inviting counterparts from around the country to a “learning summit” next week, to discuss and formulate a broader school turnaround strategy.

Just last week the State School Reform Office deemed 38 Michigan schools so chronically low-performing they face a “next level of accountability”—meaning the SSRO could shut them down after this school year.

Twenty-five of those schools are in Detroit, and all but one of them are part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, or the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

DPSCD interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather said the summit is also a “call to action,” an acknowledgment that many Detroit schools do need a radical overhaul.

But she says the district is implementing its own “innovative” turnaround plans, and some are starting to pay off.

"There's such a thing as 'disruptive innovation,' which brings about better results, and there's such a thing as just disruption."

“We need to be very careful about disrupting work that is already in progress,” Meriweather said. “There’s such a thing as 'disruptive innovation,' which brings about better results, and there’s such a thing as just disruption.”

EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme admitted that her district—initially meant as a statewide “turnaround district,” but that never expanded beyond Detroit—has been riddled with problems. But Conforme says some EAA schools made significant gains on the most recent statewide assessments, and closing them would bring that momentum to a crashing halt.

“The type of disruption you don’t want to see is when you have progress being made in a school--you have a leadership team that’s working, when you have evidence that you’re moving in the right direction--that you implement a new plan,” Conforme said. “Because that’s not going to help anyone.”

Conforme says that’s especially true as the EAA winds down on July 1, merging its schools back into the Detroit system they were pulled from in 2012.

“We need to keep that momentum going during this transition,” she said.

Meriweather pointed to “targeted intervention” models like those used at Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Elementary, which was just released from the SSRO’s priority schools list, as an example of internal strategies that are working.

She says the summit will highlight those local successes, as well as examining what hasn’t worked.

Leaders from school districts including Indianapolis, Shelby County (Memphis), and two Massachusetts cities will also attend, to share lessons from their “rapid, aggressive turnaround efforts” that have had some success.

By state law, the districts must now prove that closing the schools deemed as “failing” would be a significant hardship to students, families and communities.

Meriweather says DPSCD and the EAA have been putting that case together for months, and it will be part of the larger “aggressive and comprehensive” turnaround strategy they hope will emerge from the summit.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work around the hardship cases, so as part of the learning summit next week, we will be sharing those maps and that data,” Meriweather said.