DETROIT, MI – Talk of school closures has the educators of Detroit in a fierce battle against Robert Bobb, the man in charge of turning around Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal disaster. Bobb’s decision to shut down or consolidate up to 41 public schools by June to balance the budget has come under heavy scrutiny in a series of public town hall meetings. Friday, Detroit’s Board of Education can celebrate a small victory as it won a preliminary injunction from the Wayne County Circuit Court to temporarily halt the emergency financial manager’s school closing plan. Yet, the debate rages on as Detroit attempts to revamp its public school system.
This situation isn’t just the song cry of Detroit. Due to the recession and declining enrollment in many major school districts, other cities are looking to school closures to solve their harrowing deficits and poor student performance. Students in Cleveland recently received new school assignments after the district shut down 15 of its 121 schools. Kansas City, MO is preparing to eliminate nearly half of its schools; and even New York City is trying to figure out a new strategy to shutter 19 of its public schools after a state judge stalled their plans last month.
Unfortunately, once districts start cutting, it can be difficult to stop the bleeding. Detroit is the most drastic case with 64 schools shut down in 2007, 29 schools last year, and there are plans to close another 13 by 2012 in addition to this year’s school closures. In all, this would leave Detroit with just half of the schools it had only five years ago. New York City, to a lesser degree, is reported to have closed 91 schools since 2002; and Washington, D.C. already cut 23 schools two years ago before closing or consolidating another 27 last year. Dr. Dalton Conley, the Dean for Social Sciences at New York University and the author of “Being Black, Living in the Red”, calls it a vicious cycle that needs new and innovative approaches for results. “Schools get cut. Then the parents don’t want to live there anymore. Depopulation occurs causing the tax base to go down. And then the schools get worse, and it’s all just a part of a never-ending cycle.”
WATCH A ‘DATELINE’ INTERVIEW WITH DETROIT MAYOR DAVE BING HERE:
While budgets need to be balanced, this tendency to cut schools in order to reduce budget deficits creates a concerning pattern for the children affected. Dr. Conley says usually children are left to deal with longer commutes, are forced to adjust to new teachers and classmates, and must learn in larger classrooms every time their school is closed. In addition, the students being hit hardest by this disruption in their education are predominantly African-American and, most often, economically disadvantaged. African-Americans make up 64 percent of Kansas City’s student population; 70 percent of Cleveland’s; and a whopping 88 percent of Detroit’s. To make matters worse, all of these districts have graduation rates below the national average of 71 percent.
This disturbing pattern can already be seen in Dacota James, a sixth grader at Sherrill Elementary School. He has switched schools five times due to school closures before ending up in Mr. Robert Walker’s Language Arts class this year. James, a bright student who loves his English class and finally feels settled, might have to switch yet again as Sherrill Elementary is now subject to closure under Bobb’s current plan. Mr. Walker says he’s not alone. The school has found that 64 percent of its middle school students have already attended at least two different schools within the past three years. “A school is an extension of the home,” Walker explained. “And in the home, you need stability. When you’re changing schools like that, you’re moving from teachers that know you, you know how the teachers work, and you have to relearn everyone all over again. So you never have an opportunity to truly shine like the diamond that you are. You stay a lump of coal.”
Fellow Sherrill teacher Susan Hynes shares her colleague’s concern. “Many of my students are from non-traditional families, either living in single-parent households, under a relative’s guardianship or even in shelters,” she says. “This school is the most stability some of these kids have; but if we keep shuffling these kids around, it sends the message that we don’t care.”
But Bobb, who manages a district over $300 million in the red and that hasn’t met Adequate Yearly Progress in three years, is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s trying to fix a problem that Detroit has been avoiding for years and, from what he can tell, is significantly more dismal than what he had to deal with as president of Washington, D.C.’s Board of Education. “Although 27 schools were closed or consolidated last year in D.C., the Detroit financial picture is significantly different,” Bobb explained, “because, in D.C., we would never have permitted the school district or the government to have a legacy deficit that’s carried from one year to the next. That’s been the case here.” His hope is that the cuts will save the district $35-40 million and provide students from lower-performing schools access to the curriculum of their higher-performing peers.
Although many Detroit residents aren’t on board yet, Bobb is working to gain support and end once and for all any perceptions that he is slashing schools and programs at the expense of the students’ education. He and his team are in the process of accessing the information they receive from the town hall meetings before submitting a final deficit elimination plan to the state, something he admits they’re taking more into account this year versus last year when they closed 29 schools. Bobb is drafting a five-year academic plan that intends to raise student performance by aligning the district’s various curriculum with national standards in reading, writing, English Language Arts, and science. Plus, he was able to convince voters to pass a $500.5 million bond issue for use of Federal stimulus funds to build and/or modernize 18 schools. This is in addition to other educational programs he’s already initiated. “I’m trying to balance, on the school closure process, the impact of when you close a school,” Bobb clarified, adding “The potential is that it can have a negative impact on a child.”
Dr. Janice Hale, a Wayne State University professor and the founder of the Institute for the Study of the African American Child (ISAAC), isn’t quite sure that balance can be struck. While cutting schools may be a necessary evil at this point in time for many cities across the country, she believes more and more children like Dacota James will be, as a by-product, the victims of school districts driven by fiscal policy. “We have an ideology where we need to have a public school system so that every child can get a good, quality education. Then we have a conflicting ideology in this country which is the survival of the fittest, what capitalism is based on,” she described. “And black children are being caught in the middle of that struggle.”