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ABCs of Detroit's EAA

Michigan’s new school district and its goal to help underperforming schools

On a steamy Saturday afternoon in late July at Detroit’s Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School, several dozen parents and students sat in gymnasium bleachers to hear firsthand what the state’s new Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) will mean for them, their community and the children who will be part of it.

The open house was one of multiple forums held during the past year at which the public has been invited to ask questions, meet administrators and more firmly grasp the revolutionary changes being instituted by the EAA in 15 Detroit public schools come Sept. 4. 

The EAA is a new state-run public school system created to help the state’s lowest performing five percent of public schools. With 4,000 public schools in the state of Michigan, that equals 200 schools. Of those 200 schools, 45 are located in the city of Detroit. Fifteen of those Detroit schools will be the first folded into this new school system for the 2012-13 school year.

“We’ve all seen the headlines that only three out of every 100 Detroit students scored proficiently on the MEAP exam,” said Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Emergency Manager Roy Roberts at the June 2011 press conference introducing the EAA. “And that roughly 80 percent of Detroit high schools fail to produce a single college-ready graduate. We are tired of that. This system is broken. We have to do something different.”

That something different is an overhaul of the current way educational services are provided at the state’s lowest performing public schools. That overhaul will be led by Dr. John William Covington, who left his post as superintendent of Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools to take on what he acknowledges is his most challenging role yet, Chancellor of the EAA.

 

“I believe one reason we are failing to educate children has little to do with the people in the system and more to do with the system itself,” says Covington, who also previously served as superintendent of Pueblo, Colo., and Lowndes County (Montgomery), Alabama Public Schools. “The system of today’s public schooling is no longer acceptable in the world we live in, where kids have an iPad or laptop in one hand and a cell phone in the other.”

At the core of the EAA model is a student-centered learning platform. Teachers in EAA schools will assess every single child to target their deficiency areas and then develop individualized learning plans to meet the needs of the student at his/her current level. Each student’s progress will be tracked in real time throughout the year. 

“This student-centered platform uses one-to-one technology,” explains Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the EAA’s Deputy Chancellor for Instructional Support and Educational Accountability and the former superintendent of Seattle (Wash.) and Charleston (S.C.) Public Schools. “Parents can track their child’s progress at any time. And students will know the lesson plan awaiting them each day. This technology platform will allow us to track data on a daily and weekly basis so we can make appropriate modifications and adjustments based on our data and student needs.”

All EAA schools will be held accountable for statistically significant increases in measurable student performance outcomes based on growth. According to Dr. Mary Esselman, Chief Officer, Accountability, Equity, and Innovation for the EAA, 10 performance metrics will be used to monitor progress.

“Three of those metrics will be directed toward student performance—individual student growth; common assessments, which assess mastery of standards; and performance tasks which measure acquisition of 21st century skills.”

Creating a Culture of Autonomy

Arming principals, teachers and staff at each individual EAA school with the flexibility and autonomy to make decisions as they see fit is another crucial piece of the EAA model.

“The EAA will operate under the umbrella of a more autonomous system that in turn will place the ultimate power for running each school in the hands of the principal, teachers and staff at the school rather than a central administration,” emphasized Roberts who also chairs the EAA Executive Committee. “It will allow principals to hire the best teachers, place, train and support them, therefore providing continuous improvement based on student need and nothing else and ensure that at least a third more taxpayer dollars are spent in the classroom rather than a central office far removed from the classroom. “

 

To that end, EAA officials worked with educational doctoral students at Harvard University to develop a recruitment strategy and application process that would attract top administrators to lead the EAA’s first 15 schools. The rigorous application process drew more than 600 applicants for principal.

Among those was Dr. Donnie Davis of Atlanta, who will serve as Mumford High School’s new principal.

“When I heard about the EAA and what the state was trying to accomplish, I became interested,” recalls Davis who most recently served as principal of a K-8 charter school in Atlanta. “I have a passion for helping students in urban settings, and the model of giving site-based principals autonomy to direct the work with students was very attractive. Principals know what needs need to be met more than anyone else.”

Though the majority of EAA school principals are newcomers to Detroit schools, five were DPS principals who reapplied. K.C. Wilbourn had served as principal of Denby High School for three years before learning it would be moving to the EAA. Though initially hesitant of what it would mean to be part of this new school system, she made the decision early on to apply and scored the highest of any applicant for principal. She was elated to learn her assignment would be to remain at Denby.

“I believe change takes three to five years,” notes Wilbourn, who is pursuing her doctorate at Wayne State University. “I had invested so much time at Denby already. It is in the most violent crime community in the United States. I didn’t want to be yet another force there and then gone.”

Wilbourn interviewed and selected each staff member on her new team. Of the 27 teachers who will usher in Denby’s new school year, only 10 were retained from the DPS high school.

“I am excited and confident,” Wilbourn says. “I’ve been able to select every staff member on my team.”

 

In June, Wilbourn, Davis and their colleagues participated in intense training to ready themselves for the coming school year. Among the topics covered were creating a student-centered master schedule, learning about the culture of the community and providing positive behavioral support. Additional training during August will provide a final preparatory boost to ensure the principals can confidently implement the student-centered, digital learning model.

“This has been the most rewarding professional experience I have ever had,” Wilbourn says. “I am excited about leaving the bubbles of bureaucracy behind to work for children.”

Operational Changes at Hand

In addition to the EAA’s student-centered approach and its focus on a flexible, autonomous culture, the EAA will implement an extended school year and an extended school day. Traditional public schools are in session for 170 days each year; EAA schools will be in session 210 days. The EAA school year will begin on Sept.4, and wrap up Aug. 6, 2013. Similarly, whereas traditional public schools are in session for anywhere from 5 to 6.5 hours daily, EAA schools will benefit from 7.5 or more hours of daily learning time. EAA schools will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to accommodate the longer school day.

“The EAA has the flexibility and autonomy to transition schools from 170+ days to a 210-day school calendar, putting us on par with countries like Japan, China and Singapore,” Covington notes.

The additional classroom hours will look much different to students. EAA schools will organize students by instructional level based on the skills they have mastered rather than their grade level. That may mean students of different ages share the same classroom. In fact, EAA schools will not use grade levels for children who would traditionally be in grades K-9.  Students will advance when they master a skill.

To help make a smooth transition, the EAA will form a Parent Advisory Council (PAC) at each school to collect feedback from parents. As the year progresses, the parent council will take on additional responsibilities. Parents also are asked to support the EAA’s efforts by agreeing in writing to support their children’s schooling.

 

“Having parental involvement in a child’s education is absolutely important relative to maximizing a child’s chances to succeed,” Covington stresses. “I know it’s not possible for working parents to attend PTA meetings, and you don’t have to. But I do encourage you to work together with the school to make sure your kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

To communicate the benefits of an EAA education to hesitant or uncertain parents and students, the EAA has been holding public forums and open houses at each of the EAA’s 15 schools. In addition, a grassroots door-to-door campaign is under way to inform the community of what the EAA is all about in hopes of enrolling as many of the 12,000 students previously served by the EAA’s initial 15 schools as possible.

“We’ve had high participation at our community meetings,” notes Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. “Parents tend to be excited. There has been some pushback on the change and why it is happening, but overall the EAA model has been well received from a parent standpoint once people understand what we are doing.”

Because of the low parental involvement in her school, Wilbourn honestly doesn’t know how parents are feeling about Denby’s move from DPS to the EAA.

“What I do know is I will continue to build it, and students will continue to come.”

 

Looking Ahead

EAA schools will be part of the new state-run public school system for a minimum of five years. If after that time, the schools have met their benchmarks and progressed to the satisfaction of the EAA Board and the school’s PAC, they are free to assimilate back into their original school district, seek a charter to run independently or remain with the EAA.

In the short term, the EAA plans to take lessons from its pilot year and implement those as the next round of low-performing schools is folded into the system for school year 2013-14.

“Once the state makes available the Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools list, a set of scorecards will be created looking at both status and trend performance data for each of the schools on the list,” explains Dr. Esselman. “A rubric created to rank order the schools will determine the second cohort of schools to enter the EAA.”

During the EAA kickoff announcement in June 2011, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, underscored the sense of urgency in moving forward under the new system.

“We are fighting not just to save kids and public schools, we are fighting to save the city of Detroit,” he noted. “By virtually every measure, Detroit is at the bottom of the barrel in terms of urban education, but there is no reason that with hard work, five years from now, Detroit isn’t a model of education reform and achievement. The bigger Detroit thinks, the more it can set a model for the entire country.”

JACQUIE GOETZ BLUETHMANN IS A FREELANCE WRITER FROM BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP AND OWNER OF JGB COMMUNICATIONS, LLC.

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