Evaluating the Progress of a Privately-Run Public School District
As the school year wraps up for students around the country, I wanted to check in on the latest news back in Muskegon Heights in Michigan, where a bold experiment to revamp a district—financially and academically—took center stage this year.
After facing millions of dollars of debt at the end of the school year last year, an emergency manager named Donald Weatherspoon was appointed to the district by Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Weatherspoon made the drastic decision to lay off the entire staff of the school district and start a new district in its place, one that would be run by Mosaica Education, a for-profit charter school company. The company had three months—from June to August—to hire and train staff, as well as convince parents to keep their students enrolled in the new charter district.
In addition to the crippling financial struggles of the district, the majority of the students there face deep deficits in their learning, with 92 percent of 9th graders testing at least three grade levels or more below where they should have been in reading and 82 percent testing three grade levels or more below where they should have been in math at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
When I visited the district last March, it was obvious that it had been a tough year for the students, teachers, and the administrators in Muskegon Heights. But what was less clear was how successful this 'experiment' would be. The district was finally financially solvent, but would it be able to raise the achievement of the students in Muskegon Heights?
We may have to wait even longer to find out the answer to that question, but a local reporter, Lynn Moore, at MLive.com is releasing a series of stories this week that fill in some of the back story to how Muskegon Heights school district got into its precarious position and how it plans to dig itself out of that hole.
So far, Moore has detailed the failed teacher negotiations that would have stemmed the district's debt but required teachers to accept a 35 percent pay cut and 40 percent cut in benefits. There's also another story up about the resignation of the district's superintendent and the men who stepped in to sort through the chaos and keep the district running through the 2011-12 school year.
On Thursday, there will be a live chat with Donald Weatherspoon on MLive.com, and we'll have to wait until Friday to get an update on students' academic progress and Mosaica's plans to improve achievement in the district.
Meanwhile, on Michigan Radio, reporter Lindsey Smith details reports from the Michigan Department of Education that found the Mosaica-run district did not provide the special education services students should've had in place this year. In fact, the district has a long history of problems with its special education services, leading to an investigation in April 2012, just before the district was approved for an emergency manager, that found that the district's special education program was systematically non-compliant.