Detroit Public Schools’ Last-Minute Bid to Save Its Image

etroit Public Schools has always had an image problem that students and teachers have known about, but now the whole world knows.

A series of "sickouts" in recent weeks-teachers unofficially striking en masse by calling in sick-have led to sporadic school closings across the district, affecting the 47,000 students currently enrolled in DPS. The reason for the sickouts could be because teachers and students are actually getting sick.

Deplorable conditions in several schools were brought to light through social media and press interviews-heavy emphasis on the former method, something unfathomable just a few years ago. Reposts of a teacher union's list of grievances about the hazardous conditions in schools with photos as proof have been circulating widely, including shocking photos of mushrooms growing from walls, buckling floors, falling ceiling tiles, mouse droppings and water-damaged rooms.

The Detroit News reports that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spotted a dead mouse while touring DPS facilities, and was disheartened to see young students wearing winter coats in class due to a faulty boiler. Teachers say they have dealt with these problems for years.

It's not new to many Detroit residents who, at one point in time or another, attended a DPS school. From sharing books because of a lack of materials, to outdated gym equipment to crumbling stairways, rare has been the time when DPS schools have been in tip-top shape.


It's the reality of a big-city school district, but this current wave of exposures couldn't have come at a worse time: A time when the city as a whole is desperately trying to rebuild its own image.

Today, State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) led several other representatives, including Reps. Stephanie Gray Chang, (D-Detroit) and Frank Liberati (D-Allen Park), and education innovators, some of whom had been visiting Detroit for the first time, on a tour of DPS' best-performing schools. In other words, the ones seemingly immune from DPS' current problems.

Gay-Dagnogo is an outspoken advocate for DPS who has led these kinds of tours before, but this one, dubbed "The Urgency of Now!" had special significance. It comes at a time when state legislators are pondering how, if they're willing, to aid DPS-particularly in wake of $575 million budget surplus, but also during a critical time for Detroit's troubled neighbor to the north, Flint.

Rumor around Cass was that Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder-though not necessarily together-were going to be present during the tour, so when a school bus with Gay-Dagnogo and the representatives arrived at Cass Technical High School this afternoon, students were lined up from the school's entrance to a waiting truck from local staple Steve's Soul Food, one-by-one loading up cases of bottled water for the restaurant to take up to Flint residents.

The goal here was clear: Show the power brokers the better aspects of DPS, starting with kids performing acts of charity, to show how much potential the district as a whole has.

A representative from ImagineLearning (a software developer that, according to its website, teaches "every child language and literacy skills") marvels at the cityscape from the window of Cass Tech's multimedia center. She has never been to Detroit, but knows that the software is being implemented in Gompers Elementary-Middle School soon. In a city which has had bad luck with outsider software programs used in public school-the Educational Achievement Authority came under fire after a program called Buzz crashed and burned-this is worth noting. But ImagineLearning has been used in other districts big and small, including Cleveland and several California districts.

The tour is treated to a performance from Cass' dance troupe, which performs an expressive dance themed around cyberbullying. While the dancers are on, two fliers are handed out: One touting DPS' Office of School Nutrition from the district, and another signed by the DTFE-Dedicated Teachers for Fairness and Equity.

The second flier is what's more interesting, detailing statistics since 1994 on enrollment, budgets and impacts of emergency managers and other state appointments since 1994. In 1994, the district purportedly had a population of 167,551, an elected school board, and more than $100 million to spend. In the years since, which have included more than 100 school closings, four different emergency managers, staff and payroll cuts and the transfer of several DPS schools to the aforementioned EAA, the district today has a $515 million deficit-not to mention $1.5 billion in voter-approved bonds from 1994 and 2009, which, at some point, must be dealt with-and only 47,000 students.

Something tells me this flier was a last-minute decision. As I'm looking through this flier, Betty Wiggins, the director of the nutrition office, quietly approaches, takes the nutrition flier out from underneath the budget flier, and places it on top, patting it down for emphasis. It's not about bad news today.

It's not about bad news at all for Cass Tech, whose principal, Lisa Phillips, and teachers rattle off a number of facts and figures that might position Cass as the crown jewel of DPS (sorry, Renaissance): A 95% daily enrollment rate, ACT scores on par or, at times, exceeding statewide and national averages, $125 million in scholarships granted to graduating classes, the only school in Wayne County to offer International Baccalaureate and one of the most diverse student populations-other than, perhaps, Western International High School and Hamtramck High School-in Wayne County.

"When parents move to Detroit, they call us and see if we have openings," Phillips says. About 500 of the school's 2,389 students, mostly attracted to the IB program, don't live in Detroit or Wayne County.

It's hard not to look at the extremes here. DPS touts a job-training program with Ilitch Holdings, which owns Little Caesars Pizza, Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings. From the media center, you can see construction of the new Wings arena- $240 million of which is funded by the city of Detroit, a figure that could have easily just have been spent on upgrading the schools.

And despite Cass in relatively stable shape-the tour of the school and some classrooms feature students learning top-level calculus and another classroom writing resumes on brand-new MacBooks-it doesn't erase the concerns of teachers in other classrooms contending with mold and mushrooms. The tour heads over to two more stable schools Pulaski Elementary-Middle School and East English Village Preparatory Academy, the latter of which completed construction just a few years ago and not nearly as old as the aging buildings with severe structural problems.

Detroit students have the potential to do great things. That's evidenced by the number of people in power, including Gay-Dagnogo herself, who are products of DPS. But this is a situation that needs to be fixed now. Showing off the bright and shiny parts of DPS is only half of what needs to be done. The people who can make a difference in whether DPS lives or dies-literally-need to see the good, the bad and the ugly, and not try to cover it up.

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