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Education > Politics and Prejudices

Detroit's public school crisis

Why firing Superintendent Calloway is part of the problem

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Published 1/7/2009

Detroit's only hope lies in fixing the schools.It is as simple — and as maddeningly difficult — as that. Ten years ago, when the economy was far better than it is now, and Dennis Archer was mayor of Detroit, nice young suburban yuppies and buppies were talking about moving back to the city.

When I wrote about this, Kurt Metzger, aka Our Great Demographer, told me that there was one thing I had overlooked: Nobody with school-aged kids would move back to Detroit as long as the city's public schools were a wretched mess.

Sure, a revitalized downtown and sleek riverfront condos would attract some folks. But as Metzger put it, these would be the "newly wed and almost dead." Metzger, who formerly worked for Wayne State University and the U.S. Census and now directs the Detroit Area Community Indicator System, knew what he was talking about. Thriving communities need to attract families with kids, and nobody is going to move in if they don't think there's at least a chance that their kids might get a good education in the local schools.

Nobody thinks that today of the Detroit schools. It is hard to imagine anybody who cares about their kids — and who has any other option — blindly entrusting them to the dysfunctional Detroit system. Yes, I know there are occasional success stories — a good teacher, a dedicated principal, a student who succeeds despite all the odds. I have met some of these folks, and been inspired.

Yet overall, Detroit is a desperately poor district that is poorly served by an incompetent and disgracefully political school board.

Ten years ago, the Legislature took control of the schools away from the voters. Everybody howled how outrageous and anti-democratic this was, and five years later, the voters regained control. Detroiters went back to the old system of electing a school board, which has seemed determined ever since to prove that the Legislature was right to take local control away.

Nothing demonstrated this better than the whole sad and shameful Connie Calloway saga. Less than two years ago, a divided board voted to fire then-Superintendent William Coleman and hire Calloway, who was head of a small Missouri district. Detroit's district was 20 times the size of the one Calloway had been running. She had been superintendent of another district, but was fired from that one. Helen Moore, a longtime Detroit schools activist, spoke out at the circus-like meeting that hired her.

"You knew that Connie Calloway was not suited for the job, but you kept it as a secret from the community," she accused the board. But the board voted, 7-4, to hire her anyway. From the start, Calloway appeared to be over her head. Instead of reaching out to the city's eager media to explain her plans for the schools, she adopted a bunker mentality from the start. Clearly she had no idea how to function, socially or politically, in a big-city environment; nor did she build alliances on the board.

Then, last year, the financial roof fell in. Suddenly, it turned out that the schools had a $400 million deficit. Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of schools, announced he would send in an Emergency Financial Manager to run the district. Practically speaking, this is bound to mean state control again, since neither the board members nor the acting superintendent nor anyone else will have the power to buy a pencil without the emergency financial manager's permission.

A scapegoat was needed, and the superintendent was handy. Tyrone Winfrey, one of the strongest voices in favor of hiring Calloway, now led the charge to fire her. "We're holding her accountable," he told the board meeting where she was done in.

But there was something fishy about all this. I wasn't at that meeting, nor have I made a detailed study of how the school district's finances got so awry. It does seem clear that somebody didn't exercise adequate financial oversight. Nor is it hard to believe that Calloway was over her head in budgetary matters.

Yet it also seems that she was made a scapegoat for problems that had been building long before she got to town. Carla Scott, the school board president, opposed the firing, calling it a "witch hunt." Leaders from most of the city's top community groups also urged the board to keep Calloway, both in the interests of continuity and because of what she was doing as far as improving teaching. Those backing her included New Detroit, United Way of Southeastern Michigan, the Skillman Foundation, City Year Detroit and the Urban League.

The board didn't care, and fired her by the same 7-4 vote they had hired her with. What's not clear is whether they will have to eat her entire contract, which pays her $280,000 a year until 2012.

But why did they fire her, really? According to the Detroit Free Press's Chastity Pratt Dawsey, one parent charged that they "got rid of her because she opened up too many doors that board members wanted to keep shut." My guess is there may be some truth in that. What's saddest of all is who seems to have been forgotten: The students, and the future of Detroit.

When Calloway arrived in town there were something like 120,000 students in the schools. Now, Detroit public schools have only 94,054 left. What are their chances? What are their hopes and prospects?

The dropout rate is among the highest in the nation. The quality of their education is not what it should be. In last Sunday's Free Press, there was a little story that read more like an ad that boosted "homes in lush, historic Fort Shelby." These are luxury apartments that rent for between $1,630 and $4,355 a month. Just the thing for rich urban living? Not if you have kids and believe in public schools; as the story did indicate, the local schools' MEAP scores are 34.6 percent below the statewide average.

Perhaps the most telling statement of all at the meeting where Calloway got fired was made by a woman who co-chaired the Detroit Parent Advisory Council. "I've never heard anyone say in what direction we are going," she said. That may be the biggest problem of all.

What we do know for sure is that nobody can succeed in today's world without education. We also know that not only do Detroit schools not have the resources suburban schools do, but that many children arrive in them without having their minds and bodies properly prepared and stimulated during their crucial first five years.

We can blithely ignore this if we want to. Actually, that's precisely what most of us have been doing. After all, the creation of hundreds of thousands of unemployable, unskilled and desperate people isn't any threat to those of us who are better off, is it?

We can ignore this, or we can get serious about education in this country. I don't profess to know whether the answer is dividing Detroit into smaller districts, or finding an incorruptible military-type czar who concentrates all the district's resources and efforts on educating the children as best as humanly possible. I suspect either model would beat what we have now.

However, we need to think seriously about what society needs to do for children who are born into non-nurturing environments. Until we are willing to tackle that, there will be no real answer to the question of fixing the city's schools. And unless we eventually solve this, Detroit, and vast numbers of our children, will be doomed.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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