Thursday marked the first time in months that I’ve been in my hometown of Detroit. Ironically enough, Thursday also marked the city’s historic filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Everyone knows that Detroit has been transformed over the past century from the industrial capital of America to a symbol of American decline. As experts have said over the past four days, this has been in the making for a long time. To be home at this time has stirred a lot of emotions and has provided me a powerful opportunity for personal reflection. I’m not a banker, bondholder, city employee, or retiree, so I am not going to attempt to dissect the financial implications of this decision. There are plenty of people taking care of that all across the web. What I will do is offer my own perspective of Detroit and hit on how Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has little to do with Detroit’s public schools.
By now, most of my friends know my story. I was born in Detroit at the end of the 1980s. When I became school age, it was important to my mother that I be in a safe school where I would get the best education. This meant packing our bags and moving across the stark municipal border to Grosse Pointe. Of course, for my mother, this meant spending the next decade working two or three jobs to maintain the cost of living in a more affluent neighborhood.
We can sit and talk about what transformed the Detroit Public Schools into what it is today. Many suburbanites will blame busing efforts that pushed them over the edge. Many residents will blame corrupt business officials, bigoted elected officials, and white flight. Whatever the cause, we know that Detroit students are not well served today. In 2010, Detroit made national headlines for its abysmal test scores. Of all DPS fourth graders, a mere 22 percent were proficient in reading. When it comes to the ACT, the Detroit News reported last month that of the 2,424 high school juniors who took the test only 2.3 percent were considered college ready. These numbers, in addition to a massive deficit, have dug the school district into a hole and put it under the control of an emergency manager since 2009. This is a separate from an emergency manager directing the city because DPS receives its funds directly from the State of Michigan. All these factors together have contributed to a bloodletting of students and families — including my 1990s self.
Now, for the past three paragraphs I’ve been regurgitating the same old gloom and doom any nostalgic octogenarian will spew at you. But too often we talk about Detroit as though it’s dead and as though there’s nobody living there. The City of Detroit, despite registering a massive loss of residents between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, is a living, breathing city complete with hundreds of thousands of residents! You can read about this in the hopey, changey, hipster “creative class” articles published over the past few years. While some book titles proclaim Detroit to be An American Autopsy, others scream that Detroit City Is the Place to Be – both excellent books by the way. While some are emotional about Thursday’s filing because it means Detroit has officially hit rock bottom, others, myself included, are emotional because it means a turning point for a city crippled by debt. It means Detroit can move forward.
Despite that population loss, there is no doubt that Detroit is seeing an influx of young people moving to hot spots like downtown and Midtown. In fact, the perfect storm of Detroit’s financial crisis, the national housing crisis, and youth interest in Detroit has brought the downtown occupancy rate into the 90 to 100 percent range. Just last week, a friend of mine moved into an apartment near Wayne State University. My partner and I have spent much of our relationship debating whether we should move to her beloved Seattle or my hometown of Detroit. Heightened interest in the city and low demand mean that Detroit’s vacant spaces can fit the vision of a new generation. But, while debating my own move home, I have the same question that came up in a recent mayoral forum. In fact, it’s the same question my mother had when I was born twenty-four years ago. Is Detroit going to be a good place to raise a family again?
Detroit’s financial crisis has meant massive layoffs and a hiring freeze. As police retire they aren’t getting replaced. Arson is rampant. An ambulance, despite a 30-minute guarantee, can take beyond an hour in many cases. And, as many of my Facebook friends recently posted, the garbage cans can sit for days. These are the public safety concerns that accompany those abysmal test scores I mentioned earlier. Why would someone raise a family in Detroit when they can do it in Seattle or even Royal Oak — a more trendy, upscale destination for Metro Detroit’s young professionals. For me, it comes back to history and it comes back to the walls.
I received a world-class education from the Grosse Pointe Public School System because my mom pushed herself far beyond a 40-hour work week. She was able to make it because she has grit and we had a supportive family to provide childcare services. Beyond that, I can still vividly picture the brick walls that divide Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park. The walls that say we’re not equal. But, rather than yet again saying “Woe is Detroit,” let’s talk about solutions.
I had the pleasure of attending Teach For America’s Educators Conference on Thursday in downtown Detroit. For as much as I will rail against the manufactured financial crisis in urban school districts, there is no doubt that there is an academic crisis that has to be resolved both for the sake of current Detroit residents and before large numbers of families will actively choose to raise their families in Detroit.
In one of my sessions on Thursday with teachers from the Atlanta Speech School, we discussed the importance of students “learning to read” in grades K through 3 so that they can “read to learn” in grades 4 through 12. This isn’t happening in Detroit. All educators, even the best, must step up their game when it comes to literacy development. Whether you work in a public school or a charter school, we must do better. I personally believe that stems from active leadership among teachers, principals, district administrators, and residents to make reading a priority. Let’s get past that 22 percent.
What I found most interesting about a second session I had was that the presenter, Julie Jackson of the East Coast UnCommon Schools, addressed how we as educators must practice and bring our A-game every day. When nobody wanted to practice in front of the whole group she said “Why is it that teaching is the only profession where people don’t want to practice?” I doubt teaching is the only profession where people don’t like to practice. The vast majority of American’s I’ve met don’t like to practice in front of their peers. But, she had a point. If we’re going to be the best that we can be we must refine our skills before we take them live in the classroom. It’s an integral part of how we get better. We have to plan. Likewise, we have to practice.
I think what I took away from the day is that we need to invest early in our kids. This means investing in early childhood initiatives and focusing on literacy development from pre-kindergarten to third grade. Of course, we need to adequately fund our schools as opposed to cutting taxes for big businesses, but what I’m addressing here are the things that we can immediately implement as educators. Let us make sure that we truly take the time to reflect on our practice, both alone and with our colleagues, to ensure that we’re bringing our A-game each and every day this coming school year. That’s how I think we work on our end to move our schools forward. That’s how I think we work on our end to move Detroit forward. That’s how I think we work on our end to make Detroit a city that nurtures its youngest residents and their families.
On Thursday, hours before my hometown filed for bankruptcy, I got to hear from one of the cities youngest residents. He said “People can take things from you, but no one can take your knowledge.” The City of Detroit may be beyond broke, but we must remember that nobody can take the lessons we teach our children. As educators and advocates, let’s continue to make that our number one goal, and recruit as many as we can to join us in the movement to make Detroit the best place to raise a child.