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For Detroit Schools, Hope for the Hopeless

Ohanian Comment: Michael Winerip captures the dilemma that is Detroit--and does something no other reporter has done: deglorified Robert Bobb. Winerip points out that "Bobb has set off a vicious cycle undermining even good schools."

Question: Why wouldn't Robert Bobb's public relations director for Mr. Bobb and the Detroit schools, respond to a dozen voice mails and e-mails seeking comment? Did he talk to the Wall Street Journal because he anticipated more positive coverage? Winerip doesn't soft pedal the horrible problems of Detroit, but he asks some very important questions.

By Michael Winerip

DETROIT â In 2009, Detroit public schools had the lowest scores ever recorded in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test.

The district had a budget deficit of $200 million.

About 8,000 students were leaving Detroit schools each year.

Political leaders had to do something, so they rounded up the usual whipping boys:

Wasteful bureaucrats. In 2009, the governor appointed an emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, a former president of the Washington school board, to run the Detroit district. Mr. Bobb is known nationally for his work in school finance, and recruiting him took a big salary, $425,000 a year. He has spent millions more on financial consultants to clean up the fiscal mess left by previous superintendents.

Greedy unions. Though Detroit teachers make considerably less than nearby suburban teachers (a $73,700 maximum versus $97,700 in Troy), Mr. Bobb pressed for concessions. He got teachers to defer $5,000 a year in pay and contribute more for their health insurance. Last week, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved a bill to give emergency managers power to void public workersâ contracts. If signed by the governor, Mr. Bobb could terminate the Detroit teachersâ union contract.

Traditional public schools full of incompetent veteran teachers. Michigan was one of the first states to embrace charter schools, 15 years ago. Currently there are as many Detroit children in charters â 71,000 â as in district schools. Now there is talk of converting the entire Detroit district (which is 95 percent African-American) to charters. Supporters say this could generate significant savings, since charters are typically nonunion and can hire young teachers, pay them less and give them no pensions.

So now, two years later, how are the so-called reforms coming along?

Not great.

Since Mr. Bobb arrived, the $200 million deficit has risen to $327 million. While he has made substantial cuts to save money â including $16 million by firing hundreds of administrators â any gains have been overshadowed by the exodus of the 8,000 students a year. For each student who departs, $7,300 in state money gets subtracted from the Detroit budget â an annual loss of $58.4 million.

Nor have charters been the answer. Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools). Itâs hard to know whether children are better off under these âreformsâ or theyâre just being moved around more.

Steve Wasko, public relations director for Mr. Bobb and the Detroit schools, did not respond to a dozen voice mails and e-mails seeking comment. Those who know Mr. Wasko say he cares about Detroit and is sick of the national media portraying the city as hopeless.

Is it?

Maybe the best way to say it is: Things are not hopeless, but they are not hopeful, either. Last week, union officials took me to a few schools to see some of the good.

In September the district opened a new public school, Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, that is run by teachers instead of a principal. Sherry Andrews, a 25-year veteran, teaches sixth grade there. Her credentials are impressive: she attended Cass Technical, one of Detroitâs elite high schools; graduated from the University of Michigan; and returned. âThese are my kids,â she said. âThis is my community.â

Every week Ms. Andrews holds a spelling bee. At the most recent bee, the last one standing was Keimon Gordon. âMy best method for figuring out words,â Keimon said, âis standing still, closing my eyes and drawing everything out in my mind.â

It takes practice. âI tell my mother I need everybody to be quiet, I need to study the dictionary,â he said.

Keimonâs mother, Charity Williams, a mail clerk, sent her older son to high school in Ferndale, a nearby suburb, because she didnât trust Mumford High, the Detroit school he was assigned to. âWhat do I think of the Detroit schools?â she said. âThey need a lot of improvement.â

But not Keimonâs teacher, Ms. Andrews. âA wonderful teacher,â Ms. Williams said. âAt the start of the year, when Keimon first got in her classroom, he was smart and picked on. She showed him he didnât have to follow them. She told Keimon, âJust be the person you are.â â

Down the hallway, in third grade, Emily Wize, who has been teaching 12 years, has every studentâs reading scores saved on her laptop. She knows that on Oct. 14 her best student, Danielle Rogers, read 150 words a minute on a test of her fluency. On Nov. 10, she read 184 words; and on Jan. 13, 203 words.

Detroit teachers learn to be ready for anything. In wintertime, local TV newscasts in Northern states stream the list of school closings because of snow. In Detroit, they stream the list of school closings because of the fiscal crisis.

Last spring, Mr. Bobb had planned to close 50 schools with dwindling enrollment. But his list was reduced to 30 after several public meetings at which parents and staff members pleaded their schoolâs case before the all-powerful Mr. Bobb.

In June, Mr. Bobb held a news conference at Carstens Elementary â one of the schools spared â to announce the 30 closings.

One reason Carstens survived was an article in The Detroit Free Press last March headlined âCarstens Elementary on DPS closing list is a beacon of hope.â

The school, surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned houses, serves some of the cityâs poorest children. Thieves who broke into the school last year escaped by disappearing into what the police call âthe woodsâ â the blocks and blocks of vacant houses.

Yet Carstens students perform well on state tests, repeatedly meeting the federal standard for adequate yearly progress.

âWe try to fill in the holes in our childrenâs lives,â said Rebecca Kelly-Gavrilovich, a Carstens teacher with 25 yearsâ experience. Students get free breakfast, lunch and â if they attend the after-school program â dinner.

To have more money for instruction, teachers sit with students at lunch, saving the school from having to hire lunchroom aides. Teachers hold jacket and shoe drives for children who have no winter coats and come to school in slippers. At Thanksgiving every child goes home with a frozen turkey donated by a local businessman. Twice a year a bus carrying a portable dentistâs office arrives, and a clinic is set up at the school so children can get their teeth checked.

Despite all this, teachers worry that Carstensâs appearance on Mr. Bobbâs closing list â even though it was brief â means the end is near. Anticipating the worst, several parents have taken their children out of Carstens, enrolling them elsewhere, including at charters and suburban schools.

Carstensâs enrollment is half of what it was a few years ago. Every hallway has empty classrooms, giving the school a desolate feeling.

Mr. Bobb has set off a vicious cycle undermining even good schools. The more schools he closes to save money, the more parents grow discouraged and pull their children out. The fewer the children, the less the state aid, so Mr. Bobb closes more schools.

Carstens has also been harmed by poor personnel decisions made by the district. Last year, 1,200 teachers took the retirement buyout, and Mr. Bobb laid off 2,000 others in the spring. Then in the fall, he realized he needed to hire the 2,000 back, and chaos ensued.

At Carstens, a kindergarten class of 30 had no teacher until October; teachers at the school took turns supervising the class. âHow do you think parents feel when thereâs a different teacher every day?â said Mike Fesik, the current teacher.

Itâs hard to understand why any teacher who could leave Detroit stays, but they do. Kim Kyff, with 22 yearsâ experience, is one of the lead teachers at Palmer Park, the elementary and middle school that opened last fall. In 2007 she was the Michigan teacher of the year. She has had offers from suburban schools, but stays because she believes that in Detroit, she has a better shot at being a beacon of hope.

Last summer, she went door to door in the neighborhood to explain to parents the plans for the new school, including classes not seen in most Detroit elementary and middle schools: French and Spanish, art and music. âMost were skeptical,â she said. Even so, Ms. Kyff thanked them and then tried the house next door.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times





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