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The latest national firestorm involving Detroit Public Schools came last week, when a Fox News program host speculated that he'd burn down the district's buildings if his child had to attend them.
With district and city leaders roundly criticizing him, anchor Shepard Smith backed away from his remarks, saying he had spoken "figuratively."
It's another Detroit schools story that will pass from headlines. But an issue that could continue to smolder involves the work of one of Smith's guests, Sharlonda Buckman. In the broadcast, she repeated her earlier call for jailing those responsible for preventing Detroit children from having better educations. Buckman never actually said "teachers" should be jailed, but that's what media across the country reported.
The fire was sparked.
Buckman is executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase and coordinate parental involvement through support groups, leadership workshops and classes to teach parents how to help children with school.
Through her comments on Fox News and elsewhere, Buckman is stirring controversy of her own. And with a budget that has sometimes topped $1 million a year — and with an additional $1 million contract possible soon — the DPN is poised as an increasingly important player in the turf battles over education in Detroit. With that increased importance is likely to come increased scrutiny. And Buckman is already in the spotlight.
The issue of parental involvement was part of the underlying discussion about the dismal math scores the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported earlier this month. The sample of Detroit fourth- and eighth-graders who took the exam posted the worst scores in the history of the test. After the scores hit the news, the DPN joined Mayor Dave Bing, district Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb and others in issuing a statement calling for a community-wide effort to improve education in Detroit. But the network has been working in other ways to raise its profile.
It's likely to be soon named the recipient of a nearly $1 million, competitively bid contract to take over some parental involvement services currently handled by district employees — who would then lose their jobs. (School officials say the final contract negotiations are under way.)
Founded and largely funded by the Skillman Foundation, the Detroit Parent Network has grown from a few hundred members five years ago to about 2,000 today. They include parents, other caregivers, at least one Detroit board of education member and other children's advocates. Contributions and grants rose from about $513,000 in 2006 to more than $1.5 million in 2007. Buckman says this year's operating budget is about $1 million. Buckman estimates 10,000 parents have been involved in at least one of the network's programs in Detroit, Hamtramck or Highland Park. These include parent leadership training, workshops on parenting skills or support groups for preventing child abuse or dealing with having a child in prison.
Taking the lead
A Detroit native, Buckman used the Fox program and the network's annual breakfast in downtown Detroit on Dec. 12 to threaten to sue adults who have failed Detroit's children and also called for them to be jailed.
"Somebody needs to pay for this. Somebody needs to go to jail, and it shouldn't be the kids," she told an audience of about 500 at the breakfast meeting that Bobb also attended. Many stood and applauded the remarks, which she repeated on Fox.
But since then, she has tried to step away from those statements, calling for all adults to work together to "advance an agenda for children," in an e-mail to Metro Times. "What I am trying to communicate is that the failure of our city's education system is a crime perpetuated against children by adults who need to be accountable."
Detroit Parent Network, she says, is the one group in the city that can effectively advocate for students and families.
"The reason Detroit Parent Network came about was to be a voice for our children. When you have these issues come up with education, for example, you have somebody representing all different segments of the union. You have somebody representing the administration, but you don't have anybody representing children," she said in an interview. "The idea was, who better to speak for children than parents? Parents needed to have a place where they could develop an agenda, if you will, for their kids."
But others see the network as positioned for financial and political gains. The Detroit Parent Network has for several years done work for individual schools — parent leadership training, for example, paid for by schoolchildren's parents or community organizations — but is now poised to possibly receive the districtwide contract.
The district in September solicited bids for the contract to coordinate some of the parental involvement as required by Title I. That's the federal program that provides funds earmarked for low-income students or children with disabilities. Five organizations submitted bids, says Steve Wasko, district spokesman. Detroit Parent Network, founded in 2003, scored high on the proposal criteria, he says. Critics say the forthcoming parental-involvement contract, if or when awarded to Detroit Parent Network, is payback for the organization's support of Proposal S, the successful school construction bond that was on the November ballot and passed with about 60 percent of the vote.
"Someone needs to take a serious look at them ... something doesn't sound right," said board member Marie Thornton at a recent board committee meeting. Thornton, who was voted off the board in November, has been widely critical of Bobb and his policies.
There's no doubt the network pushed hard to get the bond passed. Buckman describes hundreds of network volunteers staffing phone banks, distributing literature and knocking on doors to garner support for the measure.
But she brushes off any suggestion of a payback.
"As much work as we hope to be doing with the district, Detroit Parent Network is not for sale. Never has been, never will be," she says. The network, for instance, did not support the "I'm in" campaign — DPS's widely advertised student recruitment effort earlier this year — because it doesn't take a position on the best type of schools for children. Its members have children in public city and suburban districts as well as charter, private and parochial schools.
Currently, district employees coordinate work related to parental involvement, guided by the Detroit Parental Advisory Council, a group mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law that outlines the coordination of parental involvement in Title I schools.
The council's co-chair, Letitia Kemp-Jarrett, says her group of parents representing different schools will continue no matter who gets any new parental involvement contracts. "By law they have an advisory council regardless of who they have doing the work," she says.
Parental involvement in the district does not have a single form, Kemp-Jarrett says, with schools all having some form of community organization participation. That could be a parent group sanctioned by the state and national Parent Teacher Association, or it could be a more loosely organized school-based organization. The district also hires school-parent liaison officers to help coordinate the work of all the different groups. Detroit Parent Network operates separately but has been hired by some of the school-based groups to do training.
Kemp-Jarrett believes the system of parent-related groups works effectively most of the time, but acknowledges that there can be confusion at times. There aren't enough parents involved, and the lines can be muddled because "everybody wants that pot of money" — referring to the Title I funds.
Buckman says Detroit Parent Network's approach is to meet parents where they are and teach them how to help their children achieve without being insulting or condescending to parents who themselves may not have finished high school.
"We believe that parents can solve their own problems with support," she says. "They do have solutions. Parents are powerful together. Every parent has something to offer."
Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org.