Detroit reformers are rejecting the status quo for the sake of Detroit’s children
Of the difficulties in Detroit, perhaps none is more painful than the state of Detroit Public Schools. A deficit of more than $300 million. A dropout rate triple the national average. The loss of 100,000 students over the past decade. Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores and other measures of academic proficiency among the worst in the nation.
These aren’t just facts and figures. They are indicators of how adults and institutions are failing the city’s children, which equates to wrecking our collective future.
“After just a few months being here and looking at the financial situation, and other issues consuming the school district, I thought, ‘This school district doesn’t need an EFM. It needs a federal takeover,’” says Robert Bobb, DPS’ emergency financial manager from March 2009 to June of this year. “The situation was so deep and the culture of indifference so pervasive that having an EFM at that time required so many battles to be fought on so many fronts that my team seriously discussed and considered if it was possible to have brought charges against DPS in federal court.”
After years of administrative and union turmoil, chronically bad test scores and rampant corruption, whether opposed to or in support of Bobb’s work, even the heartiest DPS booster will concede the district is in dire need of radical change.
Instead of waiting for a savior to fix DPS, some passionate local educators are creating the change they believe Detroit youth need. They are establishing new schools, seeking to shift the entire education paradigm.
Many are following the lead of Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic president and CEO of the much-lauded Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit organization in New York. Its philosophy is based upon meeting the needs of children beyond the walls of schools—including the needs of their families—in order to effectively educate them. HCZ serves families with economic, educational and demographic profiles similar to many in Detroit. In two decades, it has grown from a one-block pilot program to a 100-block entity serving more than 10,000 children.
“It’s a comprehensive education strategy that starts with kids from birth and stays with the kids and families all the way through college,” says Marty Lipp, HCZ’s communications director. “So we work with kids and families and the community at large. We work inside and outside school by doing a lot of academics, but also focusing on their development and health. We look to make sure that they become responsible members of the community, because we’re trying to break the cycle of poverty for an entire community.”
Carol Goss, president and CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation—the largest local nonprofit benefactor of DPS—says her foundation is helping to fund pilot programs like HCZ in select areas around the city.
“One thing Geoff talks about is everybody putting their stakes in the ground in their neighborhood and coming together around supporting a school and making it a best possible place for children,” Goss says. “He believes every child should be on the path to go to college and it starts at birth. So why wouldn’t we think this is possible for all kids—including ours?”
New DPS emergency financial manager, Roy Roberts, did not respond to B.L.A.C.’s requests for an interview. However, Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson says he fears that traditional public schools might be short-shrifted in the public embrace of the charter school concept as advocated by Canada and his admirers.
“I’m not trying to make this an us against them,” says Johnson. “But I do want to make it understood that when a charter has a degree of latitude a district or public school does not have, you are not making an equitable comparison.”
Still, local education reformers reject the old orthodoxy still commonly taught to those studying to become teachers. It narrowly focuses on rote learning and the teacher being the center of the education process, not the students.
B.L.A.C. shares the perspectives of some of the innovators who are moving forward with different visions of education for Detroit. For them, the time for change has already come.
Along a busy stretch of West 12 Mile Road in Southfield stands a nondescript two-story building sandwiched between medical buildings, party stores and small restaurants. It is the home of one of the best kept secrets in metro Detroit.
At Crescent Academy, teachers’ and administrators’ approach to education is comprehensive and holistic. The school provides round-trip transportation (95 percent of students live in Detroit), breakfast, lunch and dinner, and after-school tutoring. During the school year, there is Saturday school from 8 a.m. until noon, during which time students are fed breakfast and lunch.
“Next year we are buying a washer and dryer for the school,” says Cherise M. Cupidore, principal of the tiny, tuition-free charter school of roughly 500 students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. “If the parents can’t provide clean clothes, we have to be an extension of where our kids are coming from and provide resources.”
That can even mean providing gas cards for parents who don’t live along the bus routes, have cars, but are without sufficient money for gas.
“[We do] whatever it takes to make the children feel secure or comfortable enough to be able to focus in on the learning process,” she says.
While the school may be located in Southfield, some 90 percent of the students are from the Detroit Public School system, with the other 10 percent from Southfield and Oak Park. Ninety-five percent live at the poverty level.
Crescent has open enrollment and does not turn a child away if there is room. Currently, 200 children are on a waiting list. Students must sign a pledge of commitment to abide by the school rules, and parents must sign a pledge to be actively involved in their child’s learning process.
“It has to be a priority with the parents,” Cupidore says. “They have to be on the same page in building a child’s program which is going to prepare them to compete globally.”
According to Cupidore, her school has been able to meet or exceed state averages on MEAP scores on a regular basis. The school has been open six years and has already achieved what many public and charter schools with similar demographics have yet to accomplish.
“The fact is there has to be a paradigm shift at universities and colleges to better prepare these [future teachers],” she says. “They are going to have to be the social worker, the nurse and the psychologist. They have to develop a sense of duty to go beyond the classroom if you are to prepare the whole child.”
Ralph Bland says that given the challenges so many students from Detroit encounter in the quest for a decent education, he uses a very simple yardstick to determine whether the children in his school are being properly served. “I observe how a class is being run and students taught,” says the superintendent of Detroit Edison Public School Academy. “And I ask myself, ‘Would I want my child to be in that classroom?’”
Known as DEPSA, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Michigan with 1,104 students in grades kindergarten through eight. Bland says his school simply has little room for error. Thus, the former Paul Robeson Academy first grade teacher is committed to going beyond a best practices approach to education to what he calls “effective practices” in the classroom.
“Effective practices are practices where you can see student growth,” says Bland. “It’s like going in and having a professional learning community where the staff meets and discusses different strategies that move a student from point A to B, instead of the teacher doing just point A.”
Located near Eastern Market, DEPSA was formed in 1998 in cooperation with Oakland University. The school has developed a positive reputation based on two main factors: a rigorous assessment plan that tests students biannually to measure academic progress and demands for teacher accountability based in good measure upon those test results.
According to Bland, his faculty now engages in much more classroom observation to critique a teacher’s technique. Up to five teachers at a time may quietly observe a colleague’s interaction with his or her students in order to offer feedback to empower that teacher to become more effective.
Bland believes it’s imperative that administrators and staff have a coherent, effective strategy in place that sets meeting the educational needs of students as its highest, if not sole, purpose.
“It’s important that we keep children at the forefront and we look at what actually has been working and consistently works,” he says. “Detroit Edison is a data-driven school and every decision that is made is based on how it’s going to affect the student environment in the classroom.”
In addition, DEPSA provides resources for at-risk students and their families in order to do away with distractions. “For example, we have a health center at the school and provided 50 pairs of glasses to students last year,” he says. “And we have a full-time nurse and a social worker inside the health center to provide additional services. We want to try to eliminate more impediments. The more excuses we can eliminate, the more we can educate the child better.”
DEPSA’s overarching educational philosophy revolves around what Bland calls its “Five Pillars.” “We have superior educators, provide superior education, are student focused, community centered and believe in pioneering change,” says Bland. “And when we talk about pioneering change, it means we look at how students become the change agent and make an impact on society rather than just being a part of society.”
The old Holy Redeemer High School in southwest Detroit is still a building where teenagers are taught. But it’s now a school that also sends students out into the world. Over the entrance hangs a large sign that reads: “The school that works.”
Detroit Cristo Rey High School, now in its fourth year, is a Catholic high school that provides a college preparatory curriculum to youth who would not otherwise be able to afford private school. What makes Detroit Cristo Rey most unique is its Corporate Work Study Program.
“The primary way Cristo Rey funds itself is that all of our students work jobs—at hospitals, auto firms, law firms, in the office at the Detroit Salt Co.,” says Mike Khoury, president of the school. “The companies pay us instead of paying the kids. The school finds the job for them and we provide transportation for the students to and from their jobs.” The program provides youth with valuable experience in a professional environment at an early age, and even possible future employment opportunities.
In addition to helping to cover the annual tuition of $2,350, students gain real-world job experience, improve their self-confidence and realize how their education is relevant to life after school. Most important, Khoury says, students have an awareness of taking responsibility for his or her education. The school utilizes a longer school day and year, academic assistance and counseling to accommodate students’ work schedules.
Detroit Cristo Rey is part of a national association of 24 high schools that provide a quality education to urban young people who live in communities with limited educational options. According to Khoury, most of his students come from a family with an average annual income of less than $39,000. Most parents pay out-of-pocket between $500 and $900 a year, but everyone receives some form of financial aid.
“We are in most urban areas around the country, including Chicago, Boston, New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Of those schools, the families in our Detroit school have the lowest income,” he says.
The employment program is mutually beneficial for the school, parents, students and employer. “The kids go out and do a good job and the companies love them,” he says. “Eighty-five percent of our companies renew the jobs each year. And what happens to our kids is they begin to see the opportunities that are available to them if they have a college degree.”
The 2012-2013 school year will be Detroit Cristo Rey’s first year with 12th graders. Khoury expects all of them to go to college. “At most other Cristo Rey schools over the last three years, 100 percent of Cristo Rey kids have been accepted to college and 85 percent have enrolled and are staying in college,” he says. “That’s better than the national average.”
(This school is not yet open. Its application for charter status is now under review.)
Julia Putnam was a 16-year-old Renaissance High School student in 1992 when she first encountered Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs. The nurturing and mentorship she experienced under their guidance changed her life.
In her 20s, Putnam spent five years teaching at public and charter schools in Detroit. Because of what she began learning in the Boggs’ Detroit Summer program as a teen, she realized she wasn’t satisfied with the traditional mode of education in which she found herself working. Now, she and four other educators are in the process of creating a new charter school that counters not only conventional thinking about schools, but also about society at large.
“We really see education as a way to realize everyone’s potential as human beings, not just potential as future earners,” says Putnam. “What is done often when we talk about education today is that the school is this building that you plunk in a community, that’s completely divorced and remote from the community in terms of dealing with the issues surrounding that building.”
Instead of simply preparing youth to earn money and move away, Putnam would like to see students empowered to improve the community. She says the school she’ll help lead will do this through place-based education—the concept of regularly taking on neighborhood improvement projects through which academic subjects can be taught.
“Our goal is not to discourage anyone from being upwardly mobile,” she says. “We want to graduate kids who are prepared to go to Princeton [or] start a plumbing company in the community. Success for different kids is going to look different. We’re ready to help kids be successful in whatever way they choose.”
Putnam and her colleagues also have a goal of creating a school that prepares youth to be leaders. And they also plan for this school to be an educational center that serves entire families.
“Maybe there’s a kid who could go to Princeton, but [his or her] parents are functionally illiterate. They don’t know how to help with homework, don’t know how to help with college applications, and don’t even know the path to Princeton,” says Putnam. The school will not only support students in reaching their goals, but also provide programs and resources for parents like literacy tutoring and resume writing.
“We see ourselves as a support for families who are struggling,” she says. “We see ourselves as support for kids, families and community.”
In the east side Osborn neighborhood of Detroit, next to St. Raymond Catholic Church and across the street from small, single-family homes, is a school that has been educating children in a nonconformist way for more than two decades. Even its name, Nsoroma Institute—the first word of which is a Ghanaian Adinkra symbol meaning “a child of the heavens”—provides a clue that something different is going on here.
With a student body of kindergarteners through eighth graders, this school is a leader in African-centered education. Says Elizabeth Whittaker, Nsoroma Institute’s executive director, “It’s definitely a holistic approach to education. We look at the entire child—body mind and spirit. And that body, mind and spirit isn’t isolated from his or her community or family.”
A principal tenet of African-centered education is that the western regions of the world are not the foundation upon which the curriculum is based. “We teach about the whole world,” she says. “But we do it from our vantage point, through our lens, recognizing that our people were the architects of humanity.”
According to Whittaker, traditional education in this country has not evolved very far from the days of preparing people to work in factories. That model, she says, is designed to fill youth with information that may not even be relevant to their lives. Her school’s approach assumes that all children are gifted, and it is educators’ responsibility to draw out and help develop those innate gifts.
At Nsoroma Institute, even the physical environment is unconventional. Outside the brick building (and in a garden a couple of blocks away), collard greens and other vegetables are being grown. All students participate in gardening. Hanging hosta plants line the ceilings of the hallways inside. Posters of figures like Maya Angelou and Malcolm X adorn the walls. Carved African masks and other arts are displayed. And classrooms are named after African countries or ethnic groups.
“One of the things that really sets us apart is our environmental focus. We’re currently building an aquaponics project,” says Whittaker of the vegetables, perch and tilapia students will help raise beginning this fall. “In addition to self-determination and the elements of environmental science that are interwoven, entrepreneurship…lessons will be infused into that program.”
Whittaker suggests that it’s an unusually impactful experience for Black children to continually be exposed to successful African Americans in a diverse range of professions, to see reflections of themselves in books and to learn not only through reading and lectures, but also by engaging in social action. She says, “We want them to recognize, and it’s in our school pledge, we are creators of our own realities.”
*Editor’s Note: In the August 2011 print edition of B.L.A.C., it was reported that Detroit Edison Public School Academy is a Detroit Public Schools charter school. It is an Oakland University public charter school, not a DPS charter school.