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Michigan Names 38 Schools That Could Close Over Academics

Lori Higgins , Detroit Free Press

The state School Reform Office today released a highly anticipated list of 38 schools targeted for potential closure.

The list — which includes 16 schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District — was released months after the office warned that schools showing no academic improvement and persistent poor performance from 2014 to 2016 could be shut down by the state.

Closing the schools would mark the most aggressive action taken by the state and would impact more than 18,000 students. The state has rarely closed schools.

In addition to the 38 that face closure by the end of the current school year, the reform office released a list of 35 schools that are at risk next year if they don't show improvement. Twenty-six are in Detroit.

"We want every kid in Michigan to have access to a high-quality school," said Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer.

The release came on the same day the Michigan Department of Education released school score cards, as well as a top-to-bottom ranking of nearly every school in the state. For 2016, 186 schools were identified as priority schools, so-called because they rank in the bottom 5% academically.

The good news? Seventy-nine schools that previously were identified as priority schools improved enough to be released from state intervention, the largest number of schools to be released since the state law was enacted, Baker said.

A school on the potential-closure list will get a reprieve only if closing the school would leave students without a quality option nearby. The state will make a final determination on that by late February or early March.

But those schools would still face some other kind of intervention, such as a state-appointed takeover by a CEO or a replacement of their principal and half of the school staff.

The list of 38 includes:

• Eight schools that are part of the Education Achievement Authority, a state reform district created in 2012 to turn around poorly performing schools. The EAA has been mired in controversy from the start — partly because the system was unable to produce marked improvement in state test scores — and the schools in it are expected to be returned to Detroit's public schools district after this school year.

• Several districts with multiple schools on the list: Benton Harbor Area Schools (which has three) and Kalamazoo Public Schools, the Pontiac School District and Saginaw Public Schools, which have two each.

• Pontiac High School, the only comprehensive high school in the Pontiac School District. That raises questions about where the students would be sent if the state closes the school.

• Schools that were part of the Muskegon Heights school district when it was taken over by a state-appointed emergency manager in 2012 because of financial problems. The district's schools were turned into a single charter school, but continued to struggle academically.

• In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the list includes the Osborn Academy of Mathematics, the Osborn College Preparatory Academy and the Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. The three schools were created years ago on the premise that students would learn better in smaller communities. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan, with support from General Motors, financially backed restructuring efforts at Osborn.

• Also on the DPSCD list: Thirkell Elementary School. Its former principal, Clara Smith, was among more than a dozen administrators in the district charged in a kickback scheme. Last year, she was sentenced to two years in prison for taking $194,000 in kickbacks from a vendor — money she spent on furniture, airline tickets, cruises, casino trips and pay for people who worked for her tutoring company.

Most, if not all, of the schools on the list have a heavy concentration of high-poverty students. There is a high correlation between poverty and low academic performance.

The move to potentially close the schools was met with resistance, anger and vows to fight to keep them open.

"Our position is that we’re not accepting the closure of any of our schools by the state," said Ryan McLeod, superintendent for East Detroit Public Schools in Macomb County, which last year sued the state to block the appointment of a CEO to take over the academics at four district schools because of poor academic performance.

Three of those schools have improved enough to no longer need state intervention, and McLeod said the same turnaround can be made with Kelly Middle School, the fourth school. The lawsuit is before the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who represent Detroit in Lansing blasted the potential closures because of the impact they would have on the Detroit district, which for the first time in years is financially stable after the Legislature in June passed a $617-million financial-rescue package that resolved the district's debt.

"DPS is already hanging on by a thread," Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said in a statement. "The district would collapse under the weight of additional closures. These kids and families have been put through hell for the last decade."

The reform office could have another battle on its hands, given that a key lawmaker wants to repeal the state law that gives the office the power to close low-performing schools. Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, announced last week that he wants to replace the law because, he said, it has been ineffective in improving schools.

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