Follow by Email

Friday, June 21, 2013

Post by Carina Hilbert, former Albion teacher

I think I can finally write about it: They closed my school.

I was a proud Albion High School teacher. I will never forget the sheer joy I felt when I got the job at Albion–both times, the first being the long-term sub job and the second being the full-time job.  I remember Mr. Crum telling me that they’d decided to keep me on as a long-term sub and the look on his face when I started jumping up and down and then got teary-eyed that I got to stay in such a great school.  He was a bit shocked, apparently. I had a similar reaction when I left the superintendent’s office after she offered me the job for last year: my chest hurt with unshed tears of joy.
Yes, AHS was a great school. Did we have problems? Sure, we did! Oh, trust me, we did, and I don’t have time or space to write them all.  Communication was our biggest problem, but that was just the start of a very long list.  I still maintain we were a great high school, though, because the list of what we did well was far longer than the what-we-did-wrong list. Oh, the things we did right:
  • We raised our test scores from the 5th percentile to above the 50th in the state in two years. Two years!  No one else has done that, and that should tell anyone right there just how amazing our students were.  We had some of the best students around, and it was a real honor to work with them.
  • We only had one fight all year in the high school and only one the year before that. I’ve had people ask me how I dealt with the shootings only to get totally flummoxed–we had no violence in our school. In my year and a half, I never had to break up a fight, the longest I have ever gone as a teacher, by the way. I never had to clean anyone up from one, and while we all ran into hallways to deal with kids starting to get angry, our amazing students never took it to the next level in my hallway or anywhere where I was.
  • I saw such amazing progress in my students that I’m still a bit chuffed just thinking about them. My freshmen came into my class last fall below where they should have been, and their final writing/research projects were amazing. They all grew so much in less than a year! My seniors fought me at times, especially on getting their paragraphs stronger, but at the end of the year, I saw each of them writing better paragraphs, better essays, and showing better evidence of critical thinking skills. My AP kids did amazing personal anthologies that made us all laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. I could go on and on–we really did have some of the best students anywhere.
  • We had more support for our students than any other school I have ever been in. Graduation coaches, social workers, support staff–you name it, we had it for our kids. We had the best school secretary ever who knew everyone, knew whom they were related to, and what everyone liked. We had a college coach from MSU who worked in our school part-time and was a driving force in getting our kids scholarships, getting into the right college, and then navigating FASFA and all that came after.  We had support staff that knew each and every student, knew what classes each needed the most help in, and then knew what to do to make it happen.  I will miss them no matter where I am next year.
  • We had parents who tried. Every time I called a parent, I talked with someone who was trying, working hard, and who wanted to help us all help his or her student be successful. Some were ready to fight for their kids, and I can’t help but honor that as a mom myself. We could not have had the successes we had without our students’ parents.
  • We had traditions that we didn’t let die, no matter who wasn’t there anymore to run it or who was in charge. Who could ever forget that basketball game right before Thanksgiving or the dodgeball tournament or the field day?  The school play was wonderful, so at least some of our students got to act despite everything against a drama program.  My fellow teachers worked above and even above that and beyond to make everything as positive as a high school experience could be, and even the students respected that. For our last senior class, they still had their senior send-off, one of the best traditions I have ever witnessed in a high school.  I wish our students, no matter where they go next year, will still get to have that tradition wherever they go.

It still hurts to think about too much. I went to the rally for public schools in Lansing yesterday as a former Albion teacher, and even then, it hurt to talk about with other teachers from other districts.  At times, it was difficult not to cry, but honestly, what I deal with more often is anger.  I am so angry that all those adults have let down my students. My students deserve to have a safe, positive school environment with teachers who know and love them and all the support and great extra programs they need to be successful. They don’t deserve to be scattered to the winds or sent to a district ill-prepared for them. My students deserve the best because they are the best. I just hope everyone else can see that.
I may be gone from AHS, but a piece of my heart will always be there, hidden away in room 121, where magic happened, students learned and grew, and lives were changed. We are all Wildcats.
Published in: Uncategorized on June 21, 2013 at12:32 am Comments (0)

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Despite state takeover, special education problems linger for Muskegon Heights schools

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Listen to the on air version of this story.
New reports show special education students in Muskegon Heights didn’t get all the services they should have this year. The company that runs the state’s first all-charter public school district is working to correct the problems.
Problems with charter company’s handling of special ed services
Federal law and state regulations outline the rules that are supposed to make sure kids with special needs still get a fair education.
Michigan’s Department of Education found more than a dozen ways the new Muskegon Heights charter district violated those rules, affecting a couple hundred special education students.
“In my opinion this was probably the worst delivery of special education services I’ve seen in my career,” said Norm Kittleson, a former special education teacher at Muskegon Heights. He’s been teaching for 15 years.
Kittleson started teaching a small class of students with learning disabilities and emotional issues at Muskegon Heights last October.
“In the position I was in I was there to deliver academic instruction as well as a stable structured environment in which they could be more successful, but I’m not a trained social worker,” Kittleson said.
At first, there was no social worker provided for a number of kids who were supposed to get those services. Kittleson says some students had severe emotional impairment, lashing out, sometimes violently in his self-contained class that was kept separate from the general student population. Social workers help students cope with those emotions.
The MDE says in February, a parent (the names are redacted in the documents provided) filed a complaint. State investigators found school staff were told to say students didn’t need those services because the district couldn’t provide them.
“This was a real serious vacuum in the program that I was trying to run in my classroom,” Kittleson said.
It wasn’t just social workers that Muskegon Heights was missing. A different report from a separate complaint says special education students were not given speech and language, physical therapy, mobility and other services. It says teachers didn’t get help they needed for kids with autism, or with visual and hearing impairments. Students also lacked instructional materials they needed to make progress under Michigan’s Merit Curriculum.
Marcie Lipsitt filed that second complaint and she’s waiting on results from a third. Lipsitt heard rumors that there wasn’t any speech therapist in the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System (MHPSA).
“I thought ‘if (students) aren’t receiving speech, they’re clearly not receiving other related services’ and I can file a complaint,” Lipsitt said.
As an advocate for special education students based in Southeast Michigan, she frequently files complaints with the state.

"They deserve a free and appropriate public education as the Michigan Constitution requires for all children," Lipsitt said.
“I’m not 'complaint happy.' I’m never happy about filing a complaint. I file them to fix problems for children,” Lipsitt said.
Lipsitt calls the level of noncompliance at Muskegon Heights schools “unspeakable.” She says she tried to contact Mosaica Education, the company that runs the district, before she filed the complaint. She says she didn’t get a response.
No one from Mosaica would agree to an interview for this story. Alena Zachery-Ross, the equivalent of the district’s superintendent, issued this written statement.
“Muskegon Heights Public School Academy is committed to providing a high quality education to all students. The Academy, along with the Muskegon Area ISD (MAISD), would like to get this complaint resolved and have some of the questionable findings and inconsistencies within it addressed to avoid these issues moving forward. MAISD has sent a letter to MDE to express concerns about the complaint and request a meeting to discuss this matter. We are awaiting a response from MDE and we expect that we will hear back soon.”
One of MDE's investigations required the district to send letters home this month to parents whose children didn’t receive these services. MDE will require MHPSA to document contact made with these parents and work with those who “wish to develop a plan that addresses educational loss.” Building principals, service providers, and all special education teachers are to undergo training by September.
A history of special ed problems 
To be clear, there’s a long history of problems with Muskegon Heights’ special education program.
Dave Sipka is the superintendent of Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, which has an oversight role in Muskegon Heights.
“Unfortunately in this case when a charter company comes into an existing school district with a lot of history you don’t know all the details and you may only find them out as time goes on,” Sipka said.
Sipka’s staff filed complaints against Muskegon Heights Public Schools, before it was taken over and made into a charter district. In one of those investigations, the state found the problems “so pervasive” that it declared the whole special education program systematically non-compliant. That report came out in April 2012, the same month Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to run the district. By that point MHPS was practically bankrupt.
“It got to the point that (MHPS) was in so much debt that they literally had to pick and choose what they could and couldn’t do,” Sipka said, “Mosaica underestimated the magnitude of the problems that existed previously.”
Lipsitt says the intermediate school district and MDE should have done more to prevent non-compliance from continuing as soon as they knew about violations.
“When I look at this complaint, I look at children who have lost a year of an educational life that no one can give them back. The district can’t give it back. I can’t give it back. The state can’t give it back,” Lispitt said.
Sipka says the solutions are as complicated as the history of problems, and people need to be patient with the process.
“Did we report that to the state immediately? No,” Sipka said, “What we did was try to process that with them first because again this is all new territory for everybody in the state of Michigan – having a charter school district."

“Mosaica needed to have their act together sooner than they did but with that being said, they have done what I would call a remarkable job in trying to give the services to kids that are needed," Sipka said.
Sipka says the company has brought in its national special education director. He says the district has been able to fill some vacant special education positions and brought in contractors to help with other services.
MDE Spokeswoman Jan Ellis says there were about 500 noncompliance issues identified in the state during the 2011-12 school year. She the vast majority of school districts involved implemented changes to come into compliance.
“When there are problems our goal is to get them fixed and identify with the district and the intermediate school district what supports are necessary to make that happen,” Ellis said.
Ellis said it’s difficult to say how this set of complaints stacks up against other districts because “each district is unique.” For example, some district have more active parent groups that are more likely to file complaints than others, Ellis said.
“It’s important that all districts are in compliance with state and federal laws, Ellis said, “This is an issue that’s important and needs to be corrected whenever non-compliance issues are found. And we work very diligently between districts and intermediate school districts to see that these issues are resolved.”
“The first emphasis is on kids, not on institutions,” Sipka said, “You have to realize that sometimes institutions do take a while to get it right and I think Mosaica is headed in that right direction.”
MHPS Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon and the charter district's board president did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Monday, April 15, 2013

GOING . . . GOING . . .



To find out what is gone, listen to this recording -- worth the 7 or so minutes  to find out what happens to education once it has been "reformed."

Letter from Washington – Part III   What SHOULD we be doing?

So here is the historical perspective.  For decades the “reformers” have been pushing this concept that our schools are broken and need fixing.  The truth is that our schools are among the best in the world* when we take out those in high poverty areas.    The problem, of course, is poverty, not “bad teachers" or "broken schools."

Regardless, the so-called reformers came up with a bunch of ideas to “help”:

·        Fire all the teachers and hire new ones (which leaves us with few experienced teachers in the neediest schools, and broken trust)

·        Test, test and test again.

·        State take-overs, which unempowers citizens

·        Schools of choice (as the best students leave, they take their money with them, so the neediest schools, then, are under-funded)

·        Because  schools are under-funded, there are severe cuts to art, music, P.E., school nurses, school librarians.

·        Vouchers

When people who understand education don’t go along with these ridiculous measures the so-called reformers say it is to defend the status quo because we only care about the adults in the situation, not the students.  (Unbelievalby, the world buys this stuff.)

"What is your solution?"  They ask.

So here are some actual solutions suggested by Dr. Diane Ravitch:

·        Full, rich curriculum with arts, history, music, P.E.

·        Certified, qualified teachers in every classroom

·        Superior and principled educators (teachers, principals and superintendents).

·        Local control

·        Counselors, librarians, social workers, psychologists, school nurses.

·        Real assessments for students, rather than high-stakes testing

·        Genuine teacher evaluations rather than basing evaluations on testing , which was never the purpose of the tests in the first place.

·        Professional autonomy


Thanks for your interest in this topic.  Next up:  we heard from the students raised on No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Mary Valentine

If you have a chance, "like" or "friend" the facebook page of Citizens to Preserve Public Education.

Friday, April 12, 2013


At the Occupy DOE (Department of Education) event last week, we marched to the White House on Saturday, after listening to speakers most of the day, which made for a very long day for this old lady:)  There were about 300 of us stretched along the road; our presence was huge. Our police escorts were fantastic – the cleared the road for us and took us right into the touristy area where there were thousands of people.  We marched right down the street, into the heart of the tourists, during cherry blossom week no less, chanting, singing, playing tambourines.  A man behind me talked to the crowd about education with his bullhorn. Bystanders stopped and watched, honked their horns, gave us thumbs up.  Some even joined us.  

I hope they will go home with questions about what in the world is happening to our public education system.

At the White House we did a “mic check”.  People poured their hearts out, the rest repeated their words for all to hear.  Again – bystanders stood and listened to us.  We drowned out all the other protesters at the White House that day.  I never thought I would find myself at the White House protesting for the right to have a neighborhood school – took them so for granted. People talked about many things, including how the extreme testing regime is sucking the joy out of education and wasting money that should be spent on our students.

The news continues to be bad – but hopeful because the grassroots are organizing.  The more we test, the more severe and ridiculous the tests become.  The testing companies, of course,  are making a fortune – taking it right straight out of the already-thin public schools funding.  They are now working to get bubble tests in pre-schools!  This is so the opposite of everything we ever learned in any college class, any training we ever went to as educators. High stakes testing only breeds more high stakes testing.  It will never stop until we just stand up and take this into our own hands and simply stop.

Bully Michigan state rep Tom McMillan and his cohort Lisa Lyons suggest that those who don’t want to corporatize our schools don’t care about the kids and only want to defend the status quo.  Well, guess what?  Over and over again studies show the methods they are promoting are ineffective.  Solutions such as school libraries with credentialed librarians lead to school success, not a “turn-around” school, in which all the teachers are fired.  A good library can nearly balance the impact of poverty.  Throw the tests out and bring back school librarians!

The federal government brought us No Child Left Behind and Race to the top.  The result of those policies?   Every child was left behind and our children are exhausted from racing to the top.

Dr. Diane Ravitch is a true hero of this movement.  Pearls of wisdom poured out of her mouth.  

  • Schools with low test scores have children with high needS
  •  Vouchers don’t work!   Wherever they have been tried, they have failed.
  •  Merit pay is a proven failure.
  •  The notion that we can fix schools by closing them is a ridiculous  notion that only hurts the kids.  
  •  This is not a “reform” strategy; it is a “destruction” strategy.

Next installment:  what DOES work?

Mary Valentine

P.S.  This link will take you to a speaker who shared his experiences teaching in Rhode Island.  Please repost and send out wherever you can.  The population needs to hear these stories.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Dear Friends,

Internet access was spotty and the mile-long walk to the occupy site left me too exhausted to cope with Mailchimp while I was in Washington, which is why I did not send more updates. Now that I am home, though, I’ll send you updates I wrote while I was there. 

My first report from Washington. It is lovely here: steeped in history and cherry blossoms. There is an image of Frederick Douglas etched into the sidewalk right outside the front door of my hotel with this quote: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.” 

Now to Occupy the Department of Education (DOE). There is so much information I’d like to share, so in order not to bore you to death I will keep you informed in a series of short letters. If anyone is interested in a meeting of some sort where I can share and we can discuss, let me know. I would love to do that. 

The news from what is happening in the education systems out east is not good. I have heard these stories but did not realize they were already happening. The beauty of coming together is that the stories are so much more real when you talk to the people experiencing them. 

I met a man who talked about the scripted teaching in his Rhode Island classroom. His schedule is posted in 12 different locations. If he is not doing exactly what he is “supposed” to be doing at the exact time, he is written up. Good-bye to everything we ever learned about teaching. Good-bye teachable moment. Good-bye to answering questions from curious minds. Good-bye to consoling a child for loss of a loved one. Good- bye to recess, art and music. They are not on the test, so don’t teach them. It was so bad, he quit – on YouTube. You can find it at Rhode Island Teacher Resigns. 

Teachers are fired and schools are closed, based on the test scores of young children. The stress causes the most vulnerable students to have melt-downs and hospitalizations. Katie Osgood is a social worker at an in-patient mental health treatment center in Chicago. She told us that during the week of high-stakes testing, referrals increase. If they do poorly on these high-stakes testing, not only do the children feel terrible about themselves, but their teacher could be fired or their school closed. The stress does nothing to improve education but weighs heavily on them. School closings are causing an increase in violence, even leading to children dying because those closing the schools know nothing about the neighborhoods they are dealing with. As a result, they have kids crossing through gang territories to get to school. 

The good news is that parents are opting their children out of testing. Young people themselves are opting out. I even heard of a wise, brave superintendent opting out his entire school district. 

Troy Grant, a dynamic young teacher from St. George’s County told us a story about opting his students out of a test. He was instructed to give three tests in one week, but by Friday, the kids were exhausted. He realized that testing the children would be educational malpractice, so he simply did not give the test. Nothing even happened, which led him to wonder if anybody was even reading those tests. 

Next installment, the march on the White House . . . . 

Mary V.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


So me and Diane Ravitch were chillin’ today in Baton Rouge discussing some education stuff. . . .
Posted on March 14, 2013

So me and Diane Ravitch we chillin’ today in Baton Rouge discussing some education stuff. . . .  :)
I figured I’d start off my post that way since it sounds much cooler than Diane came to town and gave an awesome speech at a luncheon (and Chas Roemer was also there as the comic relief) and I was fawning over her like an obsessed anti-reform education groupie (do they have those?) But I digress.
Diane made a very excellent speech summarizing all the ways Louisiana’s education system is dead set and hell-bent on a road to ruin. The counterpoint or rebuttal was made by current BESE (the state board of education) President Chas Roemer. I would like to to say that Chas’s points were simply less eloquent and and passably adequate, but they were actually pretty insulting for most parents - about 98% of them to be exact.  I had every intention of listening politely, until he responded to a question about the low voucher (private school) participation percentage this way.
“Rather than question why the participation in the voucher program is only 2%, I would question why only 2% of parents care about their student’s educations.”
This of course was after making much ado about providing “choice” to parents, but I think it reveals his true feelings. If you don’t send your kids to a creationist teaching, revisionist history teaching, private school, then you are a bad parent and don’t care about your children. Until this point I was simply happy to be at the Drusilla Seafood gathering, where they served chicken. (It was decent chicken, but really, if you invite people from out of state to a restaurant with “seafood” in the name you’d think there would be some?) Chas Roemer concluded his speech by describing something he said he likes to call his “money back guarantee.”
“If charters don’t perform well, they get shut down.” – ( and new charters perpetually open in their place (until one succeeds I presume?)
Some folks at my table shouted out, “when do we get our money back?”
When indeed? I suppose this is the “exceptionalism” that one can expect from someone who is a product of the private school system, like Chas.
Suffice it to say I was not about to let these statements go without redress, but alas, the person right in front of me, the esteemed professor and researcher Barbara Ferguson, was the last to get a volley off, and I was left with my question unasked.
Whenever I see her from now on I will say “Ferguson!” under my breath as an homage to Jerry Seinfeld and his arch nemesis Newman.
So I present to you my readers, my question(s).
Maybe one of you can forward it to Chas to see if he has a response?
Hi. My name is [redacted], and unlike Chas, I was not surrounded by politics and career politicians my whole life. I am a parent of public school students in Baton Rouge that attend [redacted] Elementary. My wife is on her second year of PTA president for the [redacted] Ducks, and we volunteer for many of the school functions and field trips as chaperones. For years I’ve volunteered as a mentor to work with children through the Big Buddy program in Baton Rouge. I am a product of the Baton Rouge Public school system and my wife was a teacher in this schools system for several years.
I would like to first say that as a parent I am deeply offended by the comment Chas made in response to the low participation rate in the voucher school program “he wonders why only the 2% of parents that applied for private school vouchers care about the education of their students.” I want my kids to go to public schools because I care about them, and because I don’t want them artificially sheltered from their peers in racial and social class silos like Chas’s kids. That is a choice he has made, but by defunding and overburdening public schools Chas is eliminating “my choice,” to have my kids attend a vibrant, robust, communal public education system.
Chas’s statements reveal his true feelings, he doesn’t believe public schools are a valid “choice” and so he is trying to eliminate them so I am forced into conforming to his choice. Reform is about convincing you that you made the wrong choices and guilting you into choosing something else that is unproven and often worse.
Chas, charter schools and voucher/private schools are not subject to the same oversight and reporting that public schools are. You claim your objective is to offer parents choices, but how can parents reasonably be expected to make informed choices when you don’t report the same statistics for them as you do for the public schools you denigrate? The department website was recently revamped to remove most historical data and the department routinely refuses to provide data – to researchers it deems unfriendly. I know this because I am a witness in a case against the Louisiana department of education involving the sharing of basic student data to a researcher in Orleans. That data already exists and has been given to other “friendly” researchers! I know this for a fact, because I am a former Louisiana Department of Education employee and I worked in the data management department and I actually prepared the data being requested – but for other groups!
We were instructed by John White and Erin Bendilly (a Jindal appointee assigned to ram through the charters at LDOE) to leave charters alone when their data was incomplete or obviously wrong, and many reporting requirements were not “requirements” for charter operators and virtual schools (like attendance). Schools in New Orleans that are “taken over” by the state are not assigned SPS (School Performance Scores) for 2 years after they are handed off to another operator.
How can parents make informed, real “choices” without data? Charter schools are like random TV dinners, but without any nutritional information. Could you plan a nutritional healthy family meal without any information on calories, preservatives, vitamins and minerals or sodium content? How would you choose between all the offerings: based on the look of the package, the taste? That is what charter schools and voucher schools are, unlabeled, mislabeled, or attractively labeled TV dinners that you expect us to feed our family for 2 years and “Believe” that they are good. Sure, we might be able to figure out after a while what is offered is crap, after our kids start getting fat or having heart attacks, but is that a fair choice to make, or to force us, as parents, to make? The free market has shown that Doritos and donuts are more popular that bananas and yogurt, but that doesn’t make them better, and providing those choices does nothing for our children but put them at risk for obesity and diabetes. Charter schools and voucher schools are the junk food of the education system, but without the proper labeling.
Fresh charter school choices, just heat, Believe and serve!
Fresh charter school choices, just heat, Believe and serve!
If you truly believe that charter schools and voucher schools are “better” choices, and not just additional ones, why does BESE and John White not encourage proper reporting of data and free access of data to researchers that request it? Surely if we are concerned about parents and students making informed choices, this is common sense?
As a parent, I find it hard to believe even you and your political sponsors believe this is about students and parents when you fight proper and timely disclosure of data that could be used to properly evaluate these “choices” and misrepresent failure (like the perpetual closing and rebranding of charter schools) as success.
And by the way, how much money has the state gotten back on your “Money Back Guarantee” for failed charters? When people sell you a shoddy product and they get to keep the money and walk away and open up shop somehwere else, that is not a money back guarantee, that is just a robbery (to which you are an accessory), and sadly only half the story.  How have you reclaimed the lost educational years for the students you allowed to be experimented on, only to find the experiment was a failure?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Investigation uncovers non-certified teachers at Muskegon Heights new charter school

Teachers in Michigan need some kind of certificate or permit to teach. Whether it's in a public school or a charter school, it doesn’t matter; it's Michigan law.
  • Listen to the on-air version of this story.
“Like other professions in Michigan and around the country, we say those kinds of people need to be certified,” said Phil Smith, legislative and policy chair for the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators. Smith also heads the Special Education Department in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University.
If teachers aren’t certified? “It’s a big problem,” Smith answered. “We need to know that they have those skills and experiences.”
Beyond the legal requirements, Smith says there are also practical reasons to have certified teachers. Mainly, to make sure they’re prepared to manage a classroom and motivate a diverse group of students.
“Would you want to have somebody up in front of your kiddo who doesn’t have the experience and knowledge to teach them all the things that we want kiddos to know?” Smith asked.
School districts are supposed to verify that the teachers they hire are state certified. It’s easy to do – anyone can go online and look up their kid’s teacher’s certification.
But sometimes school districts don’t check. Michigan’s Department of Education officials report they expect nearly fifty districts and public school academies will be issued penalties this year.
In Muskegon Heights, public records from January show at least eight teachers were not certified. That’s a little more that ten percent of the teaching staff in those records.
But to be fair, the situation at Muskegon Heights schools is not typical. It’s Michigan’s first privatized public school district. Last summer its emergency manager laid off everyone, because the district was so broke it couldn’t afford to open in the fall.
Instead, the emergency manager hired Mosaica Education, a for-profit charter school company, to run the schools. Mosaica only had around five weeks to set up everything. Then they had problems keeping teachers from quitting.
Who’s responsible for uncertified teachers at Muskegon Heights schools?
Mosaica Education Chief Executive Officer Mike Connelly says the company hired some teachers who weren’t certified yet. But he says the company verified the teachers were eligible for certification. He says Mosaica expected those teachers to then obtain proper certifications from Michigan’s Department of Education. “The process of getting certified can only be done by the teacher themselves,” Connelly noted.
“I think, for the most part, the teachers followed up; whether they submitted everything that MDE required them to submit or wanted them to submit, whether MDE had additional questions, what caused delay with respect to these particular teachers, I don’t know,” Connelly said.
Alena Zachery-Ross is the company’s regional Vice President – basically the superintendent of Muskegon Heights schools.
“When we contact Michigan Department of Education and they say ‘pending approval,’ those are the type of things that we had these teachers notified, that if you can’t prove certification that you will no longer be able to work,” Zachery-Ross said.
But under the law, people aren’t allowed to teach until they actually get approval.
According to records from Mosaica, five of these eight teachers have been with the district since at least the first week of September. Two of the eight no longer work for the district. Three of the teachers transferred from other states. Valid teacher certifications for two of those three in their respective states have been confirmed.
Connelly admits some responsibility for not following up; to make sure those teachers were indeed certified in Michigan.
“That’s our responsibility,” Connelly said. “We accept that responsibility. We’re the ones who are supposed to do that. And we did, I think in every case, I’m not aware of any exceptions, determine they were eligible for certification.”
But he hesitated to say it’s anyone’s “fault.” He disagreed that, legally, a person cannot teach while an application is pending.
“I think there’s a difference between putting someone who’s unqualified in the classroom and putting someone who is completely qualified, totally eligible for certification, and who is just waiting for the government to issue the certification papers,” Connelly said.
Possible legal consequences of uncertified teachers
Officials with Michigan’s Department of Education wouldn’t agree to a recorded interview for this story.
But the Director of MDE’s Office of Professional Preparation Services, Flora Jenkins, says some of these teachers didn’t apply for the proper permits until last week, which is right around the same time Michigan Radio started asking questions of the district. In fact, a few of these teachers have already managed to get certified in the past few days.
Jenkins says MDE is now formally investigating the matter. She says the department can issue fines for each day an uncertified teacher was in the classroom.
“The district is required to pay the sum of the amount paid to the non-certificated teacher during the time of employment,” Jenkins explained in an email.
A little quick math and salary records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show those fines could add up to more than $100,000 in Muskegon Heights for these eight teachers.
Not only that, but the contract between Mosaica Education and Muskegon Heights’ charter school says the company has to follow state laws, including a specific mention of the need for teachers to hold a valid certificate. If it doesn’t, it could be grounds to revoke the 5-year contract worth at least $8.75 million dollars.
But it’s not at all clear that’s something the charter school board, that’s been appointed by Muskegon Heights Public Schools’ Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon, is considering.
Requests for comment to the charter school board president and the board’s attorney got no response.
Initially, Weatherspoon responded in an email, saying only that the old Muskegon Heights Public School district does not operate any educational programs. He did not respond to further requests noting the old district’s oversight responsibilities in the legal document that sets up the public school academy system.
Challenges in finding and retaining “highly qualified” teachers plays a role
Retaining teachers at Muskegon Heights has been a challenge. At least 1 in 4 teachers quit in the first three months of the school year.
Shawn Quilter is Associate Dean of Faculty, Professional Development & Administration at Eastern Michigan University.
“In Michigan we’re usually in the position of having a number of highly qualified people available for each position that becomes open,” Quilter said.
But his EMU colleague Phil Smith, with the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators, points out it’s tough for some very rural districts, ones with high poverty rates or high numbers of minorities to attract and retain those “highly qualified” teachers.
Muskegon Heights is one of the poorest cities in Michigan. The average household income is just above $20,000.
“It means one more time that students in rich neighborhoods get better education and kids in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods with high numbers of minority folks get not as good an education,” Smith said.
Mosaica CEO Mike Connelly says teachers that work for the company have to be “highly qualified’ in the English language sense of that word.”
“We’re out there to try to find great teachers and that’s always hard,” Connelly said. He says it’s been especially hard now that it’s mid-school year.
Mosaica Regional VP Aleana Zachery-Ross says they’re working with the few remaining uncertified teachers to make sure they get certified or obtain an emergency permit because “otherwise (students) would have a substitute teacher because there’s a lack of teachers available.”
Right now, there are 13 job listings on Mosaica’s website for MHPSA, the majority of which are teaching positions.

Monday, February 4, 2013


    January 31, 2013
Dear Editor,

    I am writing in response to your January 29 story ³State police spent
$900,000 extra during protests over right-to-work.²
    Even though it was not specifically stated that the protesters were the
cause of this additional expenditure, it was implied.
    What I would have loved to have read in the Chronicle was the real
reason for the protests which was the betrayal of Michigan¹s unionized
workers by Governor Snyder.
    After stating many, many times before the November election that he
doubted he would sign a right to work bill if it crossed his desk because it
was too divisive, Governor Snyder, after the election, turned around and
requested the House and Senate to put a right to work bill on his desk
during the lame duck session.
    Then he had the nerve to say that because Proposal 2 failed the people
really wanted Michigan to become a right to work state.
    I think the people of Michigan wanted to leave the state constitution
alone and took Governor Snyder at his word about not signing into law a
right to work bill.
    That¹s the betrayal.
    That¹s the real reason for the protest.
    How on Earth can we ever believe him again.?
                             Laurel Raisanen

Monday, January 7, 2013


8:00 am
Mon January 7, 2013

Muskegon Heights school leaders “building the airplane as we fly it”

This story is the fourth in a four-part series about how things are going so far in Michigan's first fully privatized public school district. Find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Students in Muskegon Heights are going through a lot of changes this year, because the entire school district was converted to a charter school system. After tackling some tough issues in the first half of the school year, the operators of the charter school system want the public to give them a full school year to put the changes in place.
Former lawmaker: school system's fate lies in state policies
Muskegon Heights Public Schools faced such a huge budget deficit last spring, the state appointed emergency manager laid off the staff, teachers and all, and hired a charter school company to run the new school district he created.
He says the financial situation was so bad he didn’t have a choice.
But former Democratic State Representative Mary Valentine doesn’t buy that.
“There’s no other alternatives because that’s the way our legislature has worked it,” Valentine said.

Mary Valentine has become a vocal critic of the new charter school district in Muskegon Heights. She thinks state policies around schools of choice, charter schools, and school funding are impacting public school districts in negative ways.

Valentine’s been very interested and very unhappy with the changes at Muskegon Heights schools under the emergency manager.
“Anytime you put someone in charge of a school district who will fire all of the teachers and pull that safety net out, it is very clear they don’t know what they’re doing and how they’re hurting children. So why are we putting people like that in charge of our schools?” Valentine asked.
Valentine was a speech therapist in public schools for 30 years. At her home office in Norton Shores, which borders Muskegon Heights, Valentine proudly displays a signed picture of herself and President Barack Obama.
She fears that Republican state lawmakers are looking for cheap solutions to the complicated problems facing cash-strapped school districts and she’s speaking up about it. She wants to see lawmakers put forward “solid, research-backed solutions”.
“If they cost a lot of money then we should pay for them anyway, because it’s a lot cheaper to pay for good schools than it is to pay for prisons and there isn’t any way around it,” Valentine said, “Let’s bite the bullet and do what we need to do to make it a good solid school system.”
Muskegon Heights students, families keep watch on "work in progress"
A couple hundred parents and students spread out in the Muskegon Height High School auditorium for the December school board meeting.
The hot topic on the agenda was mid-year implementation of school uniforms at the high school.
A letter informing parents of the policy change went home less than two weeks before Christmas. Many parents felt that did not leave them with enough time to fit the cost of new uniforms into their budgets before January 2nd. Eventually, the board opted to delay uniforms at the high school until next school year.
“As a student I can honestly say there are bigger and better things to worry about at school right now than uniforms,” 17-year old Trevon Kitchen, a high school senior, told the charter school board.
Kitchen and other students started listing things off for the board. They don’t feel like they have any help researching or applying to colleges. Young, new, teachers can’t keep kids in class under control. Many are unhappy with their class schedules.
Kitchen wants to be a computer engineer. He says he certainly didn’t pick a class about music appreciation.
“Can I tell you what I learned in that class? No, because I didn’t learn anything. I can’t even take a pre-calculus class that I need for college,” Kitchen said.
“If we would’ve been paying attention the first time around we wouldn’t be in this situation now. So we’re trying to get better at it,” Trevon Kitchen’s dad, Roger Kitchen said, speaking in part to the parents in the room. 

Roger Kitchen, the parent of a Muskegon Heights high school student, makes a heartfelt plea with parents near the end of a tense charter school board meeting December 17th.

“We’re not blaming ya’ll or pointing fingers. You’ve got your hand full,” Roger Kitchen added, pointing at the school board and administrators on stage.
He looks around at frustrated parents as he speaks. “We have to get out of this together. We can’t point fingers because it starts with us. So we got to do better – we got to be held accountable too…We can’t blame them. This starts at home,” Kitchen said.
New system needs time: "We're building the airplane as we fly it."
School administrators say they understand things aren’t perfect.
“People should definitely hold us accountable,” Mosaica Education Regional VP Alena Zachery-Ross said. But she cautions that the company, staff, and students need more time to adjust. “I want people to realize that it’s going to take the full year,” Zachery-Ross said.
"It takes time to build a foundation," Zachery-Ross said, "Any house that’s built too quickly and doesn’t have a strong foundation, in the long run it falls down and it’s not secure. We are building the foundation."
“Well remember, I said we were building an airplane as we fly it,” Muskegon Height schools’ Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon said, “Nothing is going to be perfect in its first year.”
Weatherspoon says it’s “very easy for people to develop negative impressions” about the district and says that’s wrong. He says it’s unfair to judge the new system too soon.
He’s expected to hire an outside consultant to independently evaluate the charter companies running Muskegon Heights and Highland Park schools. He’s now managing both school districts.Don Weatherspoon says the community has regrouped around the new school district, and it's wrong to develop negative impressions.

He points out Mosaica is working with community groups to re-open the high school pool. The company is working on a teacher retention program, and he says student enrollment is higher than he expected.
Last year there were 1,265 students at MHPS. This year there were 1,112 on student count day in October. But Mosaica’s records show attendance had increased to 1,211 by late November. Mosaica had more than 1,400 students in their budget plan that was adopted by the charter school board in July.
Weatherspoon estimates it’ll take the old school district up to 20 years to pay off all its debt. He points to the community's support for a property tax renewal in November as proof they've "regrouped" around the new school system.
“If you look at where this community has been and what it’s done for itself you’ve got to say ‘wow’, because at the beginning of this year there was total despair," Weatherspoon said. "Now, did some things happen that were disruptive? Absolutely, and there were some hard decisions that had to be made."

Could this happen to other cash-strapped Michigan school districts?
Weatherspoon was appointed to run the district in April 2012 under Public Act 4, commonly known as the emergency manager law. That law allowed managers to break union contracts, in this case laying off the school staff, and forming the new charter school district, which then hired Mosaica Education.
He got all that done before Public Act 4 was put on hold and eventually repealed by voters in November. At that point, a former version of the emergency manager law took effect, a version that would not authorize an emergency manager to break union contracts.
“Yes, we were very fortunate that we got (the charter contract) done when we did,” Muskegon Heights Public Schools attorney Gary Britton said in November 2012, shortly after Public Act 4 was repealed.
Governor Rick Snyder just signed a new emergency manager law. It goes into effect later this spring.
Under the new law, the privatization of a school district could happen. Emergency managers will once again have the power to break part or all of union contracts; although there are more stipulations in the new law.
Governor Snyder on privatizing public schools: “The kids don’t care”

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Governor Snyder's tour bus parked in front of a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids just before the November election. Don Weatherspoon and others supporting Public Act 4 rode along.
I got a chance to sit down with Governor Snyder shortly before the November election. He was taking a tour bus across the state to urge voters not to repeal the emergency manager law he signed. Don Weatherspoon was along for the ride.
“Bankruptcy is not a trivial act. It’s a major issue,” Snyder said. The basis for the law was that one city or school district’s bankruptcy will hurt the credit rating of not only that district, but the credit rating of surrounding communities and the state's too. So the law gave emergency managers broad powers to avoid bankruptcy.
I asked what Snyder thought of a private, for-profit company running a whole public school district, like in Muskegon Heights school (and Highland Park schools).

In late October, Governor Rick Snyder says the concern shouldn't be about who runs schools, but whether students are getting a great education.

“The real question isn’t ‘are they not for profit or for profit?’ It’s ‘are the kids getting a great education?” Snyder answered.
“The kids don’t care,” Snyder continued, “I’ve never had a child come up and say, you know, I need to have a for-profit or a not-for-profit. They want to get a great education, so that’s the driving consideration in this whole discussion.”
The new emergency manager law (Public Act 436) does require managers to submit an “education plan” to the state. But the conditions under which the “emergency” is triggered or resolved are financial, not academic in nature.
The new law provides more options for financially troubled school districts and municipalities up front (options besides the appointment of an emergency manager), and a more clear transition process once the finances are in order.
David Arsen is a Professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University’s College of Education. He co-authored a study on Public Act 4 shortly before it was repealed in November that concluded the law “does not address student learning and could even hurt academic performance in high-need communities.”
Arsen says it would be “hard for the very best administrators in the state to avoid deficits” given the situations in such districts. He says state education policies, particularly funding policies, can play a big role in those districts getting into deficits in the first place.
“As much as we’d like to think so, these are problems that can’t be solved simply by changing the boss. It’s wishful thinking,” Arsen said.
Arsen says Public Act 4 didn’t have “basic provisions” for academic accountability. He noted that emergency managers were required to have expertise in business and finance, but the law says nothing about required experience in education if a manager is appointed to a school district.
A read-through of both the now repealed Public Act 4 and the new Public Act 436 shows identical requirements for those individuals considered to be emergency managers.
(a) The emergency manager shall have a minimum of 5 years’ experience and demonstrable expertise in business, financial, or local or state budgetary matters.
(b) The emergency manager may, but need not, be a resident of the local government.
(c) The emergency manager shall be an individual.
Arsen declined to comment on the new emergency manager law, since he has not had adequate time to study it yet.
Public Act 436 goes into effect March 27th, 2012.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio 
Muskegon Heights schools emergency financial manager Don Weatherspoon (right) talks to Muskegon Area Intermediate School Board members. Without the MAISD's help, Weatherspoon said “we would be probably still be fighting our way out of the mud."
Muskegon Heights students are heading back to class today to begin the second half of what’s been a very turbulent school year. This is the first in a four-part series looking at how things are going so far in Michigan’s first fully privatized public school district.

Old district “implodes” after years-long financial problems

The school board in Muskegon Heights battled a budget deficit for at least six years in a row. They gave up the fight a year ago and asked to state to just take over.
“The system that was in place imploded,” said Don Weatherspoon, the guy the state eventually sent in late April to be the emergency manager.
"Enrollment went down, costs went up, they borrowed more than they could pay back; you’re on a collision course with disaster and that’s what happened," Weatherspoon explained. Student enrollment is a big factor in how much money a school district receives from the state.
“Everything that you can think of basically broke down. Discipline, learning, record-keeping, financial accounting, etc,” Weatherspoon said.
By May, Weatherspoon discovered the district is more than $16 million dollars in debt; so much debt it couldn’t afford to open school in the fall.

Privatization “the only option” for viable 2012-2013 school year

The Michigan Department of Treasury and Governor Rick Snyder appointed Weatherspoon to avoid bankruptcy, so that was not an option. No other school district in the area wanted to merge with Muskegon Heights because then they’d have to take on the district’s massive debt.
So Weatherspoon did something different, something that’s not been done before in Michigan.
First, he laid off all the employees. The old emergency manager law allowed this.
From there it gets a little more complicated; but really, Weatherspoon had the power to create a new Muskegon Heights school district (the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy), authorized by the original one he’s been appointed to run (Muskegon Heights Public Schools) . The new school district is in the same area but it’s a totally separate, new, charter school district with its own school board that Weatherspoon appoints.
Most importantly, the new district has zero debt.

“Chaos” reins in rush to build a school system in less than 60 days

By early July the new school board hires Mosaica Education Incorporated, a charter school company, to run the schools. Class begin less than 60 days after the contracted was signed. The first month or so of class did not go smoothly. 
“At first when we got here, what was it  like? I don’t know, like, ‘crazy’ yeah it was crazy…” a group of high school students told me.
“It was just mayhem,” one former elementary teacher said.
“It was confusing. It was chaotic,” two other students chimed in. "A hot mess," another one said.
“Very chaotic. And chaos seems to be the word of choice to describe, not only that day, but all the other days,” another former teacher, Susan Strobel said. And she was right; nearly every person I interviewed uttered “chaos” or some form of the word to describe those 60 days before class started and up to the first 60 days or so once school started.
The high school principal quit before training was over. High school students didn’t get their class schedules for weeks and when they did, many had missing classes or the wrong classes.
Local clothing stores ran out of school uniforms because they didn’t have enough time to stock them (or weren’t informed at all the district was requiring uniforms). Cleaning and school supplies arrived late.
The school buildings were not up to state building codes for safety. The company had to invest more than $400,000 in building improvements to attain a "temporary occupancy" permit from the state. It lasts through March.
Daryl Todd says he was “very frustrated" during that time. He's a MHPS graduate who's optimistic that good opportunities can sprout from such challenges.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Arthur Scott, Carmella Ealom, Darryl Todd (left to right) were appointed by MHPS emergency manager Don Weatherspoon to make up a new school district; the Muskegon Height Public School Academy.
He’s one of three members on the new school board. When I talked to Todd just a few weeks ago he hesitated to say the chaos was over yet.
“I don’t necessarily feel that there’s a calm right now," he said with a chuckle. "Because I know that there are so many things that are happening that need to come together so that we can have this be a successful year,” Todd said. However, he does feel things are beginning to show some improvement.
As a decent example of some of the chaos, near the end of our chat at one of the district’s elementary schools, the woman from the front desk comes over the loud speaker. She announces “we are very short-staffed right now and zero people who are able to go into the lunch room.”
Teachers are instructed to feed their students in their classrooms or accompany them to the cafeteria.
“Wow…interesting” Todd says, closing his eyes as we pause to listen to the voice apologize for the inconvenience and promises to teachers to make up for the lost prep time.
“We will make it up to you; I promise, promise, promise,” the voice on the loudspeaker says.
Keeping teachers under such chaotic conditions is hard. More than one in four have quit so far this year.
I couldn’t get any current teachers to agree to a recorded interview.
Mary Valentine, one of the district’s most vocal critics, was not surprised.
“Teachers who are working over there are willing to say there are a lot of problems and there’s a lot of morale problems but they won’t say it out loud and they don’t want you to use their names because they are afraid of losing their jobs,” Valentine said. We’ll hear more from her later in this series.
And while those teachers are returning to work today, I did find some teachers who quit already and were willing to share their experiences. We’ll hear from them tomorrow.