Excellent Schools Detroit

DETROIT—It’s 10 a.m. on a frigid March morning as our Excellent Schools Detroit school review team approaches the entrance to Henry Ford High School on Detroit’s northwest side. The reviewers already have their antennae up, keenly observing the school surroundings, including a group of five young men exiting from the front entrance.

“Where are you going,” one of the reviewers asks. “Isn’t school in session?” The boys grumble something about missing the bell and the security guard not letting them back in.

Dismay and worry marks the faces of the reviewers, all of whom are parents, as we watch the boys leaving the school grounds and entering a two-car garage across Trojan Street through a busted, bent garage door. They are out of sight.

“It’s a cold morning, and they’re not even dressed for it,” notes one of the mothers in the group.

The verbal and mental notes made by the reviewers outside are soon transferred onto record sheets once the group is inside the building and have rendezvoused with their ESD team leader to receive their evaluation paperwork.

Measuring School Quality

Excellent Schools Detroit is an independent nonprofit that wants to guarantee a quality education for every child in Detroit, so it makes sense that a large part of what the organization does is measure school quality.

Not only does it look at public schools, but also charter schools, independent or private schools, and schools outside of Detroit where a significant percentage of their students live in Detroit.

Much of what ESD measures is quantitative: math, reading and overall proficiency and academic progress of K-8 students and various ACT assessments, graduation rates and college enrollment for 9-12 students.

These qualitative factors account for 70 percent of the schools final “grade” from ESD. The report cards with grades will be issued in July for 205 schools. (Note: new schools or turnaround schools, like Henry Ford High School, which is an Education Achievement Authority school, won’t be given a grade until their fourth year of operation).

But, because ESD believes there is more to school quality than standardized test results, it also measures the qualitative stuff:

  • collaborative teachers,
  • involved families, 
  • supportive environments, and 
  • ambitious instruction. 

These qualitative factors are measured through student, teacher and parent surveys, accounting for 15 percent of the school’s grade.

The unannounced site review, like the one I participated in, accounts for the final 15 percent of each school’s grade, looking at school surroundings, common areas and classrooms; community and parent engagement; and the existence of a safe and caring environment.

Walking the Halls: Meet the Henry Ford High School Review Team

I was privileged to shadow a review team consisting of an impressive team of six reviewers.

Christina, an eastside Detroit parent, is raising a first grader and a preschooler. She became an ESD school reviewer to learn more about educational options for her own young children, having moved here from California. She was impressed with a charter elementary school she reviewed earlier this year and is working to transfer her son to that school next year. Henry Ford High School was the fourth school she reviewed.

Chuck, a graduate of Detroit’s long-vacant and recently demolished Redford High School, is a parent of college-going kids and a resident of Oak Park. He has a passion for improving the educational system in the city of Detroit. Henry Ford High School was the third school he reviewed.

Carrie, a graduate of Cass Tech, is a Detroit mother of two children who attend Burton International Academy where she is actively involved. She has taught in DPS and worked in a latchkey program. At a crossroads with her own children’s education, she is considering other school options for her children.

Zenda is a parent of multiple children, grades first through tenth, who attend various Detroit schools. Henry Ford High School was her third review. She is interested in observing the schools and the process of school improvement.

Beatricis, who goes by BeBe, is an eastside Detroit mother and a strong believer in Detroit Public Schools. “My son progresses because his mama works [volunteers] at the school.” She got involved in ESD because she wants all kids to be successful.

Dean Johnson, our team leader and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Innovation Leadership, has a background in international business and was schooled in Europe. Concerned that Detroit schools aren’t providing the talent that Detroit businesses need, he is working with ESD to better prepare students for success in college and the workplace.

Identifying School Strengths and Weaknesses

These six individuals spent three hours canvassing Henry Ford High School’s expansive 225,000 square feet of space and another 90 minutes debriefing and recording their findings on final evaluation forms.

They flushed toilets, sat in on classes and witnessed a student-teacher shouting match in hallway. They noted the clean hallways and the students’ generally polite demeanor. They had concerns about the school’s strict tardy policy that left a number of students waiting in the vestibule instead of building knowledge in the classrooms.

They learned about the school’s student-centered learning approach from the Dean of Students, saw long lunch lines, checked out the on-site student health clinic. They made note of the student achievements posted in the hallways, watched a student being hauled out of the cafeteria by an armed security guard, and checked out Henry Ford’s lovely auditorium.

In short, they worked extremely hard and took their job very seriously.

Pushing for True Reform

These six reviewers are part of a 375-person strong group of ESD community reviewers, 80 percent of whom are Detroit residents.

They were all trained on how to conduct a review and to understand the events and challenges that school administrators and educators face on a day-to-day basis. More than half of the reviewers have or have had a child in school within the last five years.

Most importantly, the school reviewers are committed to participating in a process that will truly make Detroit schools better.

The end results are shared with parents so they can make informed decisions about where their kids will attend school. The process recognizes and applauds the great schools and puts pressure on the bad schools to either improve or close.

And it fosters the accountability that is needed move forward ESD’s education plan to ensure that every Detroit child is in an excellent school by 2020.

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