Thousands of Detroit students without books for months

DETROIT – The 2011-2012 Detroit Public School year started on Sept. 6, with thousands of homes and streets all over the city adorned with signs that had the two-word slogan “I’m In” everywhere. Nearly two months into the school year, the one thing that is not in a lot of Detroit Schools right now are books.

“I know there is a shortage and there is an order and they are still sharing books,” said Andrew Hayes, whose son is a third-grader at Fisher Magnet Elementary on the city’s east side. “There are a lot of frustrated parents. They want the kids to have what they are supposed to have. At the beginning of the year, we were told that every student would have the textbooks. It’s seven weeks into school.”

Teachers at Cass Technical High School — the city’s largest high school — say that they are short nearly 2,400 textbooks in all grade levels. According to the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the deficiencies range across all subjects including English, chemistry, geometry, Spanish, and U.S. history.

Teachers at Cass say they are missing 950 chemistry books and 250 history books, while teachers at Priest Elementary-Middle School on Detroit’s southwest side say they are missing nearly 3,500 books. Priest has nearly 1,000 Kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The missing books are for K-6 English classes as well as science workbooks and workbooks with tear-out sheets.

Textbooks are typically ordered for the coming school year in the spring so they arrive before teachers return in August. The district has been plagued for years by issues of students using outdated books and materials or having no books at all, leaving teachers to improvise lessons or hand out photocopies of the main text.

“If we didn’t share books in some advanced classes such as Calculus or Trigonometry, we had outdated history books,” said Theo Nicolaidis, a 1994 graduate of Northwestern High School, back in August after MSNBC’s Making the Grade Detroit special. “I remember my history book had no mention of the Berlin Wall falling in 1989.”

At Cass Tech, considered one of the “Big Three” schools in Detroit along with Renaissance and Martin Luther King High Schools, this problem has persisted for decades. As recently as 2009, the district had credit holds placed on it due to unpaid bills with book vendors.

“I remember how the textbooks would always be outdated,” said LaKaisha Hollingsworth, a 1997 Renaissance graduate who also attended Dossin Elementary.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.”

Cass Tech’s original building was vacated in 2005 in favor of the current multi-million dollar building, which sits some 30 feet away. It stood abandoned for six years with desks and old books left behind in the blighted building before finally being demolished in August. “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 back in August. “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.”

DFT representatives have said that 29 of the 127 DPS schools have reported more than 8,300 missing textbooks. Of the rest, 10 schools reported no missing books and the other 88 did not file a report, so the extend of the problem is still not completely clear.

“With regard to the Cass Tech example, the students have a sufficient number of textbooks for class sets, as has been the case in the past,” DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said to the Detroit News. “In addition, all students and teachers have access via their netbooks to the core subject area textbook content online, and content is available online.

“With respect to other individual instances at schools, we are working with principals to resolve those issues. The vast majority of textbook concerns at schools are due to schools exceeding the population that was originally projected to attend.”

According to the 2011-2012 budget, DPS has slashed spending on textbooks and library books from $6.5 million last year to $3.5 million this year. Teachers who do have books are often forced to share them with other teachers in order to make due.

Stacey Apap, a teacher at Holmes Elementary on Detroit’s west side, shares 25 reading books with another teacher for 50 students. She said that her principal has asked for and ordered more books.

“I have 12 and she has 13,” Apap said to the News. “We learn to adapt. We know we will never get our supplies that we need.”

Union officials said they would give surveys with the lists of missing textbooks to Karen Ridgeway, DPS academics superintendent.

“Why is the union collecting the data on the missing books and telling the district?” said DFT vice president Mark O’Keefe. “This is how things work at DPS. A lot of things are backwards”

O’Keefe said that DPS needs to do a better job of tracking textbooks each year and getting them into the right hands.

“I suspect that there are unused textbooks in cupboards or buildings where people haven’t found them,” O’Keefe said to the News. “You may have a teacher or classroom that was used to teach second grade. There is a change, now they are teaching third grade, and there are some second-grade books back in the cupboard.”

Meanwhile, the current teachers and students at Cass Tech and other schools continue to sit and wait for their books. The frustration has become a part of the DPS experience.

“Someone tell me what to do to get these things in the classrooms,” Apap said. “Sometimes teachers call each other and do trades. It’s like the barter system of ancient times.”

“I don’t know how many kids at Cass Tech have Internet access,” said Edward Long, whose son is a sophomore at Cass. “I know my wife and I would do better helping him if we had the textbook, something we can open at the dining room table so we don’t have to go on a laptop. But maybe that’s old school.”