Help save the schools! 

As every metropolitan region in America is discovering, its future is tied inextricably to its central city. The future of central cities rests foremost on their school systems. So it is in Detroit.

– David Adamany, CEO, Detroit Public Schools

Coal boilers. That was the image I couldn’t get out of my head after I read Detroit Public Schools CEO David Adamany’s preliminary improvement plan.

That was, incidentally, the night of JFK Jr.’s funeral. After the ashes had been majestically scattered at sea, and all the footage played, and all the triumphs and tragedies and might-have-beens discussed one last time, I focused on the report.

What I expected was a sketchy blueprint for putting the schools back in order, in which grim realities would be mingled with some guarded optimism. Alas, I soon realized what I had was a preliminary field survey from Hiroshima.

Put another way, the school system looks like something you might find in some wretched outpost of the wreckage of the Soviet Union, or perhaps in Sierra Leone.

But can I have read that one footnote right? Surely it can’t be true that in the era of the microprocessor, Detroit Public Schools are still in the coal age?

Yes, Adamany told me the next day, there are still 18 school buildings heated by coal. That still will be the case in January 2000, for he fears if they attempt to replace them now, the children may end up with no heat this winter.

Yes, he confirmed the rumors. Sometimes ceilings had been replaced before the leaky roofs that ruined them, so that the new ceilings would promptly be destroyed at the next rainfall. The schools’ management and administration are dysfunctional.

Nobody knows the real attendance figures. Nobody enforces the truancy laws. Nobody even knows how much land the schools own. Nobody faces penalties for overspending their budgets. Purchasing policies have, in polite language, "encouraged brokers and middlemen who increase costs to the district," while forcing the schools to rely on an inefficient, Soviet-model central warehousing system.

Worst of all, the schools don’t educate. There were schools in the early part of this century with below-par physical conditions, but students learned.

They don’t do so now, in any acceptable way.

So what can we possibly do?

Elementary, my dear reader: Fix it.

And we can. Amazingly, in one way, the near-total mess may be a blessing. The Detroit Public Schools have to start over from scratch and essentially abandon everything they have been doing except the one thing they need to do superbly well: teach.

What the schools need, Adamany rightly says, is to be obsessed with the "single-minded pursuit of educational achievement." Everything making that possible is necessary and desirable. Everything else that gets in the way of learning is useless and usually dangerous, and must be dropped.

Sometimes – all too often, really – in past years, corrupt boards have forced different priorities on the schools, "as an employer, a buyer of goods and services, an electoral or political organization, or symbol for various causes."

At other times, in other places, revelation of what has happened to these schools would set off a furious campaign to identify and punish the guilty.

There are places in this world where people would be shot for what has been allowed to happen here.

But we can’t worry about that now. This city, this community – all of us, really – have more important business: making these schools work.

To rejigger Karl Marx’s famous motto: What the Detroit Public Schools have become is clearly and starkly outlined in this somewhat misnamed "Preliminary School Improvement Plan." The point is to change it, as quickly as possible.

David Adamany, who a year ago thought he would settle into a cushy berth as law and poli sci prof following an exhausting decade and a half at Wayne State, is now facing the task of his life, as he, as interim CEO, tries to unsnarl messes, negotiate expiring contracts with all the unions and set up a modern, responsive administrative structure. Hardest of all, he has to change ingrained, hardened, "can’t-do" attitudes.

Today, no job is more important for the future of Detroit.

Forget casinos, empowerment zones, finding a million people, etc. For this city to make it, it must have a school system that works, period. For if the schools work, middle-class people will be willing to live here again.

And if Detroit makes it, we all make it, even in Huntington Woods.

Now then: They need a lot of help. Right now, there are a thousand openings for certified teachers. They want retirees who want to give a year or so – at no risk to their pension plans – and bright young pioneers.

They want some folks who just want to work part-time; teach a few classes in the morning, say.

Why, by the way, did we care so much last week about the death of that young man who never came within a million dollars of a coal-heated inner-city classroom?

For many of us, it was because he had a father and namesake who once said "Every man can make a difference, and every man should try," and most importantly, made those of us alive then feel like it was worth doing. This is worth doing, and we mustn’t fail.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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