Tomorrow's lessons

May 5, 2010 at 12:00 am

Everyone knows that Detroit still has the largest public school system in Michigan, even if students have been fleeing it in droves.

But what's the second-largest system? Grand Rapids? Lansing? Not even close. The answer is Macomb County's Utica Community Schools, which has an astonishing 29,283 students.

And those kids, that school district, and what happens to them could serve as a key indicator of what kind of future this state is going to have. This is a story of a passionately inspired superintendent, a dedicated staff and some wonderful students.

Pitted against them are a long-term economic downtown and a bunch of shortsighted, selfish and narrowly partisan politicians.

Who wins is, in the end, up to us.

Culturally speaking, Macomb County has for years been used as sort of a synonym for culturally deficient, white, blue-collar America. When I said, "What kind of careers do you think Utica high school students are likely to have?" to people in Birmingham, they gave me answers like: "Arc welding. Factory work. The army. Maybe a shop teacher?"

Nothing like a little cultural stereotyping. The fact is that the Utica schools are far better than most in far tonier places. Superintendent Christine Johns is promoting something she calls "K-12 College-Ready Culture." That includes immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese ... for kindergarteners. There's a Japanese language institute. And a high school robotics program that has won world championship competitions — twice. Plus the Utica Academy for International Studies; the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology, and more. Much, much more.

The slogan is "every child achieves." The expectation is that all go on to some kind of higher education, if for no other reason than that they must, to survive.

"I feel like we're in sort of a Tale of Two Michigans," Johns told me, "one that was and which still is, but which is dying. And the other, which is what we want to become."

Her goal is to jump-start her kids into being ready for the future. And she's been doing that. Utica's dropout rate is far lower than most places — less than 5 percent.

Her district is also more diverse than you might think. White kids are still an overwhelming majority, but they aren't all native-born. When home, her kids speak 47 different languages. Nearly a thousand are just now learning English in the Utica schools.

And her background may just make her the best possible leader Utica's schools could have. She was a steelworker's daughter, born in the mid-1960s to a family without much money. Christine was determined and driven. She put herself through the University of Pittsburgh, working two jobs and going to school full time. She then became a science and math teacher in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and a principal before she was 30.

She earned a master's from Johns Hopkins University, then another, and finally a doctorate from Harvard. She became an assistant superintendent in Pasadena, then a deputy in Baltimore.

Four years ago, she was hired to run the Utica Community Schools. She knows firsthand how important education is.

"With blue-collar kids — and I was a blue-collar kid — if they don't start college right away, and don't go full time, the chances of their not finishing is huge."

In the old days — say, the 1990s — failing to finish higher education didn't necessarily mean a life of poverty. There were good-paying jobs for people without degrees. Yet that world has vanished. There is, simply put, less than nothing for the unskilled. Education is the only hope — for her kids, for Michigan, for the next generation, for our whole nation.

Yet some still don't get it. Her students' parents largely understand that the auto industry will never be what it was. But some still don't understand how important higher education is.

One current Utica high school student is a brilliant young woman with test scores off the charts, who beat long odds to win admission to MIT. But her parents are reluctant to sign for the loans she needs to go. Christine Johns knows about money problems; she was close to 40 before she paid off the last of her own student loans. She knows, however, that this is a decision that will likely determine the course of that student's life. There are other Utica students who've been admitted to the University of Michigan or Michigan State, and whose parents are none too sure the sacrifice is warranted.

Johns knows how much it is worth it, because she lived it. Now, she has a good salary, yes — $197,000. But that's a fraction of what she would make in the private sector, running an enterprise as large or as complex. She has a commuter marriage and a job that literally never ends. Johns understand that parents who haven't had a lot of education themselves may not necessarily get it right away.

But she expects better of those who run the state — some foresight and some vision. She isn't seeing much. I met her a few weeks ago in Lansing, where the Macomb County superintendents had gathered for an annual two-day retreat. I talked with her one evening after she and her colleagues had spent the day meeting with state legislators, who last year savagely cut education.

Some of them, busy covering their asses and running for their next offices, had no answers other than "make do with less."

She has been doing that. Her teachers and administrators have too; last week, they were voting on yet another round of concessions and givebacks. Johns knows that if Michigan is to have any chance at a prosperous economy again, if her kids are to have any chance at all, the Legislature and the taxpayers have to invest in them.

Utica is a place where the only exposure most kids get to the arts, to theater, is in the schools. Take that away, and you stunt their growth. Late in the day, she finally had a chance to talk to Jennifer Granholm. Johns is a fairly direct person.

She told the governor how important education is, and how important it is that we think through these policies that threaten our future. "She basically looked at me and finally said, 'I understand.' "

Christine Johns hopes she does, at least well enough to keep her promise not to again cut education this year.

Is Matty slipping?
Last week, Canada surprised everyone by offering to pay Michigan's cost of building a new internationally owned bridge, the Detroit River International Crossing.

That was guaranteed to throw Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, into a tizzy. Nobody familiar with him was the least surprised to see his lawyers threaten lawsuits.

But I am worried that Matty is slipping. He hasn't put forward his most powerful potential argument. Matty, you see, is an orphan, as are most 83-year-olds. His parents have been dirt-napping for decades, and the least both the United States and Canada should do for this lonely billionaire is scrap any plans for a modern bridge that might protect both nations and cut into his bottom line.

We are, after all, such heartless brutes.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]