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Failing Schools Face Tight Deadline: Federal Rules Require Them to Restructure by September

More than 100 of Michigan’s chronically failing schools have six months to outline a major overhaul that could include replacing entire teaching staffs.

Educators and experts say the September deadline is too tight to come up with a restructuring plan, one of the most severe penalties schools face when consistently failing to meet federal achievement standards.

The next round of achievement results are due out late this summer, and if the schools fail again, they will have to put the plans into action before the new school year starts.

The state Department of Education is being blamed for the time crunch because it released the latest progress reports in January — about six months late. State officials agree there is not enough time to come up with restructuring plans and say they likely will ask the federal government for an extension.

If schools do not get it, parents at 70 Metro Detroit schools next school year could see major changes, from new teachers to mini-school boards.

“It’s unrealistic,” said Ken Siver, spokesman for the Southfield school district, where MacArthur Elementary is headed toward reorganization. “It will be too rushed. These things don’t happen overnight.”

Compounding the problem, administrators are uncertain what constitutes restructuring under the law. MacArthur has a new principal as of last September, is working on a school improvement plan and wants to create an advisory committee. But it is unclear if that is enough to fulfill the federal government’s requirements.

Generally, replacing the school’s principal would not be enough, said Jo Ann Webb, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. That move would have to be paired with significant changes to the school’s operation and curriculum, she said.

State education officials plan to meet with superintendents this month to outline their options.

Zaria Clinkscale, whose son Hakeem is a fifth-grader at MacArthur, is all for making improvements. She would like to see all-day kindergarten and outside tutoring. But she knows a major overhaul would take time to plan.

“They may be starting something they didn’t think through properly,” Clinkscale said.

Michigan is the first state to have so many schools go through restructuring under the No Child Left Behind Act and likely will set a nationwide precedent, experts say.

The law requires schools that fail to meet the standards for five straight years to develop a restructuring plan and outlines a series of choices including reopening as a charter. If a school fails for a sixth year, it has to implement its plan. Only schools that receive federal money for low-income students have to adhere to the penalties.

Though the law is 2 two years old, Michigan has schools that have failed for five years because it and about a dozen other states began tracking achievement when the federal government first required it in 1997.

“There is so much that goes into (reconstruction),” said Jeremy Hughes, the state’s chief academic officer. “I don’t think it can be done between now and next fall.”

Time crunch

With 53 schools that need restructuring plans, Detroit is significantly affected by the time crunch.

Board Chairman Bill Brooks said forcing the district to quickly restructure those schools with no new money is “crazy” and puts the improvements already made at risk. The district has implemented a number of changes including a new reading program and has focused attention on struggling schools.

“We’ve got people fired up and a plan in place,” Brooks said. “To force you to do something you can’t do doesn’t make sense to me.”

Lansing leaders need to demand that the federal government give schools another year, said Susan Neuman, the former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for U.S. Department of Education.

“This is a very, very critical point in our history,” said Neuman, now a professor of early childhood education at the University of Michigan. “If we don’t do this well, we risk hurting kids.”

Neuman was responsible for implementing the law until she left the post in January 2003. She says parts of it are unworkable and the federal government needs to be more flexible with its requirements. Not everyone believes more time is the answer.

Highland Park’s Superintendent Theresa Saunders has been working on ideas for an overhaul of two of her schools since she joined the district last summer. She thinks districts should have been planning for change all year.

“We need to get beyond the moaning and groaning and get on with the work,” Saunders said.

Community support

In Redford, Hilbert Middle School already has undergone changes. The school has a new principal and in September switched from a junior high to a middle school.

It took a year to make the change, said Donna Rhodes, the school’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. Having only a few months to come up with a plan is unrealistic, she said.

“You need a year to really investigate ... to get the buy-in of staff and parents,” said Rhodes. Without that, “it could be a disaster.”

Schools need time to make sure parents and others in the community feel they are a part of the process, Neuman said. For many urban parents, the school is one of the last places they can turn to. If it goes through a major change, without their input, they may feel betrayed, she said. “They will just give up,” Neuman said.

Pamela Gallon of Pontiac wants to be a part of any overhaul of Lincoln Middle School, which her sixth-grade son attends. She said the school needs to improve. Her son, Richard, often comes home without homework and is behind in his reading skills.

“It’s our children being affected by the change,” Gallon said. “It would be terrible if (the change) is not good for children.”


Restructuring options

Schools not meeting standards for five straight years must develop a restructuring plan. Restructuring options are:

Replace all or most of the school staff and principal.

Hire a private company to operate the school.

Turn school over to state.

Reopen as a public charter school.

Implement any other restructuring of governance, which Michigan defines as: temporarily suspending principal and having district's central office run the school, hire or appoint a specialist, establish a mini-school board, turn over operation to an improvement committee, or reopen as a theme school.

— Christine MacDonald
Detroit News


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