Jul 21 2013

Honey, I’m home: Reflection on Detroit

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.

9 Responses

  1. Amen, Alex! As one of the first generations to have had a family move from Detroit to the suburbs “for the education” I share your perspective. I was born in Detroit at Henry Ford Hospital in 1958, grew up in Plymouth, and did have a privileged, world-class education, but I have always looked to Detroit as my mother ship. Thank you for articulating the education issue so well, and for your willingness to even consider a move back to “The D.” I actually blogged about Detroit’s sports teams holding the spirit of Detroit during this most difficult time in its history: http://sportuality.authorsxpress.com/2013/03/18/a-sportual-detroit/
    Continue the good work, my friend. You make Kalamazoo College proud!

    • Thanks, Coach Hess! There’s no doubt that our sports teams do a lot to lift us up. In good times and bad, you know that I’ll be rooting for our Tigers! Hopefully they see this season through because we’re going to need them for as long as possible!

      Thanks for your comment and I hope to see you at Homecoming!

  2. Meghank

    If you care about early-childhood literacy, advocate for better school libraries and better funding to keep full-time librarians on staff. I haven’t been to a Detroit elementary school, but I would bet that their libraries look a lot like the ones here in Memphis. So take a trip to one of them. If they look anything like ours, you will be shocked.

    If they were well-stocked at any point in time, failure to return those books, which is more likely to occur in the chaos of a low-income household, has made the collections truly deplorable.

    If the neighborhood libraries are well stocked, which is the case in my own city, that is not enough. You cannot rely on low-income, time-strapped parents to take their children to the library regularly. The schools should be providing this service to the children.

    If children don’t have access to high-quality literature that, I assure you, all rich children and even those from lower-middle class homes have access to, that explains a lot. Lack of literacy in these grades can more properly be attributed more to lack of access to books than to poor or lackluster teaching.

    • That is solid point, Meghan! Something our Pre-K teachers do is send a student home with a bag that includes a book and an activity each week. It’s a little labor intensive to set up, but I’ve been meaning to do it for my own class.

      Also, I imagine something that holds people back from libraries are fines. I know when I was in school it kept me from checking out books and I’m sure the same is true for many students and families.

      This is definitely a goal for this year, get more books into the hands of my students and parents!

    • Meghank

      I love that you’re willing to do this. I have an enormous library, but I generally wasn’t willing to send books home with my students. My students were just too irresponsible and I didn’t have the money to replace books that were lost. I also didn’t want the additional stress and frustration of dealing with lost books.

      So I love that you personally are willing to do this, but we should not be relying on teachers to make this sacrifice. The school system, or the charter school as the case may be, should be providing excellent libraries with plenty of opportunities for children to check out books. And they, not the teachers, should be eating the cost of lost books and forgiving unpaid fines.

      But thanks for agreeing with me that this is a solid point. I would love to see the reformers talking about this issue more, and less about the supposed lackluster quality of teaching in low-income schools.

    • Oh absolutely. As teachers we value our books about as much as we value our life!
      We are living in truly trying times. Our neediest schools are being under-resourced and we are blaming the people who choose to go to these schools for the entirety of the problems.
      I don’t own a TV, but, since I’m home right now I’ve been able to watch some programs. Last night I watched Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man on CNN and he was going to different schools. He went to Finland, an UnCommon school in New York, and interviewed parents at a Chicago Public School. I found two things very interesting about the program.
      1) On a previous point we’ve talked about, testing, I learned that the Chicago Public Schools administer a ridiculous number of tests each year. It’s clear that testing in one school or district is not the same as testing in another school or district. We need to be advocating for one or two smart assessments that can inform our practice. If all a school is doing is administering tests, we’re swimming in data with no direction!
      2) The overarching message of the program was that there is no silver bullet in education, we need to provide our teachers with resources, and we need to treat our educators with respect.
      Again, these are trying times. We are in an academic crisis because of the poverty facing many of our students. So when I write, I’m not going to preface everything I say with that point, because people should understand that by now. If they don’t, then they’re too removed from the schools they seek to serve. So while I will always advocate that a teacher can do more to assist his/her students and their families, I am always going to advocate for more resources, too, because we just don’t have them.
      Thanks again for adding your insight to this post. I love it!

    • meghank

      Well, since we originally discussed testing in relation to opposition to the CCSS, do you understand better why so many are opposed to the Common Core? In our minds, testing and ridiculous numbers of tests are one and the same, because that is simply how our districts do things. We want less testing than the ridiculous numbers of tests we have now, not more, as is being promised under the Common Core. That is what is fueling so much opposition to the Common Core.

    • I definitely have a greater appreciation for your position! I agree with strong national standards. If there is going to be a mandated test, then there should be one linked to those standards. I don’t think teachers should be evaluated on it. In fact, I think it should simply serve as a barometer for the system as a whole. It should tell us if our standards are on target or not.

      Then, on the local level, individuals schools and teachers should be given the autonomy to create or select whatever additional tools they may like to use to gauge progress within their classrooms.

      Honestly, if we only get national standards and not a national assessment, that’s fine with me. I just think there should be a common framework we share across the country. I was happy to see the AFT pass a resolution supporting Common Core but not high-stakes testing this past week. I think it shows that there is an interest in common standards and that there is common ground here.

    • Meghank

      I understand your support for national standards, but the way these particular standards are being pushed, they are more of a curriculum than a set of standards. With district heads having so little understanding of them, you can bet that they will be requiring that schools and teachers implement particular sets of lesson plans. That’s the only way for these inept administrators to make sure the standards are being followed. Here’s a quote from one teacher who once supported the standards: “I am witnessing a shift towards uniformity and increasing government control with regards to the curriculum in New York City public schools. The NYCDOE has compiled a list of ‘recommended’ CCSS-aligned curriculum (Core Curriculum), and it urges schools to use the CCSS-aligned performance tasks from their online Common Core Library.”

      http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/06/the_common_core_loses_this_tea.html

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About this Blog

I'm an educator, Kalamazoo College alumnus, Democrat, and proud Detroiter! Views here are my own.

Region
Milwaukee
Grade
Early Childhood

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