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Steve Perry Sounds Off on Detroit Public Schools

The outspoken founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School talks education reform before his address at the Detroit Deltas Founder's Day Festival on Jan. 25, 2014

Steve Perry, founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, is equally lauded and criticized for his views on education reform that are sometimes called "controversial." But, as he puts it in our interview, "No great idea can be cast away because it is politically unpalatable."

Before Perry was set to appear at the Detroit Deltas Founder's Day Celebration on Jan. 25, 2014 at MGM Grand Detroit Casino, BLAC took a few moments to talk with him about education reform in Detroit Public Schools – and to get Perry's advice for our new mayor.

We just elected a new mayor.

Yes, I know, a White mayor—first one in a long time.

What advice can you give him to better Detroit Public Schools?

The primary emphasis has to be on what kids need as opposed to what the adults and their unions need. Meaning that he needs to focus on bringing in effective operators, whether they be local or national. He needs to identify low-performing schools and shut them down. No great idea can be cast away because it is politically unpalatable.

According to Pew (Research Center), Detroit has lost 54 percent of its students (between 2000 and 2011), which means that the people have spoken and they don't want what Detroit Public Schools has to offer. So what needs to happen is the most attractive school models need to be brought there. Whether it's PIP (Primary Intervention Program) schools or Green Dot schools, there are brands you can bring in to inspire people to come back, or to stay.

At this rate, (you've) lost 54 percent in 10 years. In 10 more years, you could be done.

But how do we get kids excited about education and going to college?

I have yet to meet a kid who did not want to go to college. That's a myth. You can go to Detroit's most jacked-up elementary and ask every single kid in there, "Who wants to go to college?" – and the hands will raise as if you asked, "Who wants a new Xbox?"

So the problem is the school system setup?

The parents have spoken pretty loudly about what they think about Detroit schools. They can't make it any clearer. They said, "We think these schools stink." And they don't want them anymore. This cannot be overstated. People are leaving the city, and these are people who have deep roots.

What we so often want to do is, we want to say, "The parent. The parents." The parents don't have any control over the effectiveness of the teachers and the principals.

But what can Detroit do now to turn things around?

If Detroit wanted to keep more parents, the first thing they would do is put in vouchers. Meaning: You don't have to move. We will provide you with the level of financing that you need from your tax base for you to go to another school. It will save the district money.

Here is one of the problems in politics and education: It is called pride. It is misplaced too often. Districts and politicians say, "We don't want someone else to run these schools, because we've always run them." Yes, but you run them poorly. It's best to look at what is best for kids.

What kind of position are we in to make real change now?

Detroit is like post-storm New Orleans. It can't get worse. So you guys should have a ball getting creative.

Is the traditional school learning structure still effective?

Nope. No. It has failed miserably, and this is why: We have learned so much about the way in which people learn, yet we see so little of it in the way public schools are run.

We know, for instance, lecture is one of the worst ways to teach anyone anything. Yet our physical classrooms are set up for lecture. We know that one-size-fits-all education doesn't really work.

I am traveling the country, or I have been for the past 10 years. But this most recent push is specifically geared towards making sure our kids gain access to the best schools and that our Black boys receive access to the tools they need. And the way in which I am working to do both those things is to communicate with the adults, who either present the opportunity or stand in the way.

What is your message coming to Founder's Day?

I want people to understand that all is not lost in Detroit. And that the power that is in that room is enough to move Detroit in the direction that it wants to go.
 

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