When you see the reports about the perils of the American public school system, the one place that is mentioned most often is Detroit. Thus why when MSNBC chose the Motor City to host Making The Grade, it was essentially a no-brainer.
There are many common misconceptions about Detroit. Whether it involves our crime rate, our personality, or our slew of abandoned buildings and houses that dot the city’s landscape.
One of them, however, is not our educational system. Things are not good. In fact, in recent years the numbers have been absolutely startling.
In May, a study by the National Institute for Literacy revealed that 47 percent of the city’s 714,000 residents are considered “functionally illiterate”. Karen Tyler-Ruiz, head of the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, told news radio station WWJ that means that thousands of people cannot as much as read a prescription or fill out a job application.
Just 3 percent of Detroit’s fourth graders and 4 percent of eighth graders meet national math standards. The often-disputed high school graduation rate was as low as 25 percent in 2007, by far the worst in the country.
Depending on who you ask, it has since risen to as little as 32 percent, according to the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, or (according to the Detroit Public Schools) as high as 62 percent.
Whatever the case, those numbers are far too low. In Detroit, the most common reflex over the last 10 years has been to point fingers.
Administrators blame teachers and parents. Teachers blame administrators and parents. Parents blame teachers and administrators. All three will also blame suburban schools and the media. The kids are often ignored altogether.
There is even a faction that insists that nothing was ever wrong with DPS and this was all created by the state of Michigan taking over the school system in 1999.
As a product of a Detroit Public High School and the son of a retired 38-year teacher in DPS, I can assure you that the problems in Detroit’s school have existed for far longer than 12 years. My alma mater, Renaissance High School, is seen as one of the crown jewels of DPS, along with Cass Technical High School.
Renaissance is widely regarded as not just the best high school in Detroit, but one of the best in the country. My graduating class sent all but four people to a four-year college or university. The others chose the military.
We routinely posted the highest test scores, best grade point averages, and highest graduation rate in the city. But this did not mean we had it any easier than anyone else.
“I remember how the text books would always be outdated,” said LaKaisha Hollingsworth, a 1997 Renaissance graduate who also attended Dossin Elementary. “What made up for it was having a teacher that knew how to instruct without a textbook. A teacher that could bring the real world into the classroom based on current events and real life experiences.”
During my freshman year at Renaissance, we made the local news when it was discovered that the school’s bathrooms had no soap or toilet paper. Students were actually packing toilet paper and bars of soap in their book bags. In our first few years of having a football team, we practiced on a 60-yard field with one goal post.
Things were not much better at the city’s largest high school: Cass Tech. Cass has produced a who’s who of famous alums, from Robin Williams, to Lily Tomlin, to Jack White, to former Detroit Mayors Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick.
The school’s original building, which was vacated in 2005 in favor of a multi-million dollar new building some 30 feet away, was recently town down after sitting abandoned for six years.
“I remember reading Beloved by Toni Morrison in my 11th grade AP English class for extra credit and my teacher having no idea of how to approach the text,” said Anita Dalton, a 1999 Cass Tech graduate. “We’re so focused on emulating the understanding of European classics that we lose understanding of literature generated by those that look like us and their struggle.”
Outside of the “big three” high schools — the third being Martin Luther King High School — students looking to excel in the other schools often found the road to be a tough go of it.
“If we didn’t share books in some advanced classes such as Calculus or Trigonometry, we had outdated history books,” said Theo Nicolaidis, a 1994 graduate of Northwestern High School. “I remember my history book had no mention of the Berlin Wall falling in 1989.
“We were using Apple II-C computers, which were 11 years old at that time, but brand new Compaq’s sitting in the Maintenance Closets, still in boxes. I worked for DPS for a short while in 1999, and saw the same scenario, asked the principal and her answer: ‘We don’t want the students to ruin the new machines and we don’t want them stolen.’”
Detroit schools have suffered from largely the same issues as many urban centers across the country. The difference between our issues and others is that there is such a huge disconnect between everyone involved that very little movement has been made.
“We have two major issues here in Detroit,” said current Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts. “The academic pace is missing. By every measure we have not done the job.”
Roberts, who has been on the job just three months, was previously group vice president of North American vehicle sales, service and marketing at General Motors.
“We have a $327 Million deficit. That’s not going to go away. That’s our job to work to make that go away. We’ve gotta get rid of that deficit.
“The key is how do you prioritize to where you can get the best return for it. Rather than having 60 percent spent in the classroom, we want 90 percent of it.”
Millions of dollars meant to service DPS were either stolen or misused over the last 10 years. Audits by former Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb showed that money meant for the schools was spent on everything from parties, to motorcycles, to cell phones, to personal shopping sprees.
Due in large part to that deficit, many traditional neighborhood schools such as Redford, Chadsey, Mackenzie (whose famous alums include former NFL All-Pro Jerome Bettis), and Murray-Wright High Schools have closed. Others, such as Northern High School, have been converted into specialty schools in lieu of shutting them down.
Charter schools have also sprouted up all over the city, which has led to contentious battles between DPS and the corporations that run charters.
There have also been questionable, to say the least, appointments to the Detroit School Board. The most glaring being former school board president Otis Mathis, who was discovered to have been a functioning illiterate.
Last year, the Detroit News published copies of e-mails he had sent out to the press during the contentious battles with Bobb over control of the city’s school system, such as this one:
“Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row’s, and who is the watch dog?” (Detroit News, March 4, 2010)
It was revealed that Mathis had graduated from Southwestern High School with a 1.8 grade point average,. After a stint in the military, it took Mathis 15 years to obtain his Bachelor’s Degree, and that was only after Wayne State University dropped a required English proficiency exam.
Ironically, he was able to become a substitute teacher in DPS during this time. Mathis resigned from the board on June 20, 2010 after he was accused of inappropriately touching himself during meetings with former superintendent Teresa Gueyser.
With what has gone on here, parents, teachers, and administrators all share responsibility for this situation. But where are the solutions?
“What the (DPS) administration needs to do is bring this to the frontlines, and the frontlines are the students and teachers in each school,” said Theresa Landrum, a parent of a DPS student and 1972 Southwestern High School graduate.
“We shouldn’t just have two or three good schools, every school should be a good school. And everyone, from the administrators, to the teachers, to the counselors, to the parents, to the students should make sure that the school that their child is in should be a good school.”
Landrum noted that the collapse of DPS did not happen out of nowhere. She noted that as far back as the late 1960s, there were problems in the Detroit school system.
“After the (1967) riots, there was white flight from the city,” Landrum said. “Well, a lot of good teachers also left. There was a deficit, so there was a mad dash to fill these deficits.
“We have to admit that there are some bad teachers that do put the effort in. They’re just there to get a paycheck. But then you have to teachers who see a child has a problem, and they nurture that child. I was one of those students.”
When it comes to in-school programs, the subject of preparing students for college and post-secondary education is also seen as a must. Renaissance was the only college preparatory school in DPS.
“There needs to be more educational programs that assist students on making a transition to college,” Hollingsworth said. “Counselors and teachers need to be tasked with letting students/parents know that college is affordable to everyone.
“In addition, more colleges need to step up to the plate and make themselves visible in DPS. For Wayne State University to be a top research university in Detroit, as a child I had never heard of them. Colleges need to be visible in the early years, so as a child progresses, college is always on their mind as the next logical step.”
For the city of Detroit to finally “come back”, it needs to be on the backs of an educated group of citizens. As Roy Roberts said during Making the Grade, when a business looks at moving to a new city, one of the primary things they look at is the city’s school system.
If a city has poor schools, there is a strong chance that business will look elsewhere. For Detroit, my hometown, to get people to take the city seriously when it says “good things are happening” and that we’re “coming back”, we need to improve our future and our future is in our children.