Destroying Detroit’s future

“We will make the hard financial choices that will benefit the children, help us maintain quality and keep educational reform moving forward.”

—Kenneth Burnley, CEO, Detroit Public Schools, Dec. 14, 2001

No, they’re not. Actually, they may be making things worse. Pardon my rudeness, but it’s time to tell the truth, which is that there isn’t anything more important to rebuilding Detroit than making it possible for kids to get a quality education. And what teachers across the city tell me is that things are getting worse, not better, under the new regime.

Right now, the only people moving back into the city are “the newlywed and the almost dead,” in that marvelous phrase of Wayne State University demographer Kurt Metzger. People in the suburbs who have kids stay there. People in the city who have kids do anything they can to avoid sending them to Detroit Public Schools.

Unless and until that changes, the city will never have a chance of attracting a stable, “normal” working- and middle-class population of any race, creed or color.

That’s why I supported — though with reservations — the Legislature’s takeover of the schools three years ago, the disenfranchisement of the elected board and the installation of an appointed “reform” board, which was to pick an all-powerful CEO.

For decades, phalanxes of political scoundrels had used the schools as a political football. To be sure, the loss of a tax base, racism in the Legislature and the flight to the suburbs were a large part of the problem. But too many of the so-called leaders who ought to have been helping uplift their people through education were instead squandering money and stepping on the oxygen tubes of the next generation.

The reform board was supposed to fix that. David Adamany, the interim CEO, told me conditions were far worse than he had ever imagined, but he would do his best to clear the deadwood and give his successor a real shot.

Everyone who knows anything about education knows that a key factor is class size. Roughly, the fewer the students, the better the education. The more kids, the more the classroom is likely to degenerate into a cell.

So how are we doing? Let’s take one small, better-than-most, so-called school of choice, Communicaton and Media Arts High School, in the Fenkell and Grand River area. The school is relatively small, with about 489 students, and meant to be college prep. In fact, virtually all these students go on to some form of higher education.

Late last year, it seemed Detroit schools would suffer a massive budget shortfall, thanks to the downturn in the economy and anticipated stinginess on the part of the Legislature. So “downtown,” as all teachers call the central administration, cut four of Communication Arts High’s 22 teachers. Principal Kim Gray was horrified.

But there was no appeal. What this meant, according to veteran math teacher Linda Levesque, was that the contractual limit of 35 kids per class was massively violated. “I have 39 kids in one class. One science teacher has 45.”

These teachers aren’t howling because they don’t want extra work. The fact is, you can’t adequately teach math to that many students at once. Levesque can’t even use some of the blackboards in her room because they’ve had to squeeze in extra desks.

When I asked why the teachers didn’t file a grievance, Liz Natter, who teaches English and journalism there, set me straight. They have. But loopholes allow the administration to drag its feet on the issue until the school year is over.

However, the students here aren’t as bad off as some places. The embattled Communication Arts teachers are a close-knit bunch and don’t miss much time, but when they do, they get a substitute. At much larger Murray-Wright High, substitutes are a luxury seldom, if ever, available. When a teacher doesn’t show, his students are merely divided up and sent to other teachers’ classrooms, as if they were cans of soup.

Naturally, the school bureaucracy will reply — correctly — that their funds are being cut. What are they to do? They have a point, though they do plan to spend more money in some other areas next year. Meanwhile, now bored with school reform, the Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature have indicated Detroit shouldn’t expect any extra school money. The problems seem likely to get worse.

Last week I talked with an impressive young woman named Laura Evans, a Birmingham native whose goal is to do something about education policy in this country.

For the last few years, she’s been living in Chicago, trying to make a difference. “While working on my state teaching certification, I worked at the School for the Privileged … the kind of school education professors and textbooks pretend you will work at after you graduate.” There, classes have twenty-some students and two (!) teachers in primary grades, and the children are treated individually and with respect.

“I left with the idea that I could bring the experience of idealistic teaching to disadvantaged children.” Soon, she knew better. “Cram a classroom with more than 30 kids, no matter what their socioeconomic background, and the priority can no longer be learning; it is the order and discipline of the group.” Now thoroughly disillusioned, Evans sees only one solution: A national standard for smaller class sizes.

The bottom line is that if Detroit administrators don’t get class sizes down, there is no way they will get test scores up. Which means Detroit will remain a pit, a warehouse filled with the hopeless; a warehouse, by the way, with no walls.

Why this doesn’t scare the crap out of the legislators and suburbanites, I don’t know. Maybe, when they were in school, their class sizes were all too large.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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