‘Our children are in jeopardy’: Detroit schools open, but is it too late?
DETROIT, Michigan — Shoniqua Kemp took her 15-year-old and 18-year-old to the museum on Tuesday morning. It wasn’t a weekend and there was no school trip. In fact, there was no school at all.
It was the second day in a row that 47,000 students in the Detroit Public School District found themselves at home because of a teacher sickout in protest about concerns educators would go unpaid due to the city’s financially ailing school district.
But she had to do something. Her kids had to learn — even if it wasn’t the school system doing it. So the museum became their classroom. Call it a “teachable moment,” she says.
If it came down to it, Kemp says she’d do anything asked of her to help ensure her kids education was the best it could as well as those of their classmates.
“I’m willing to step in to a classroom if I have to and assist, however needed,” she says.
Kemp was among a group of parents and students gathered at the Detroit Parents Network to meet about the problems facing the school district. The teacher’s pay issue was only one of a laundry list that’s grown over the years.
The school district has $500 million of operating debt. Many buildings are crumbling. Classrooms are overcrowded. Supplies are hard to come by. National surveys show Detroit’s math and reading scores have fallen to the lowest ranking among the nation’s largest cities. There’s also a bribery scandal.
The school system repeatedly said this year they sympathize with frustrations about the overall problems and the financial restraints impacting students, parents and teachers.
Michigan lawmakers have been working on a long-term solution for the district’s debt, overcrowding and low student performance. Kemp wants those platitudes to translate into real action. Now.
“I make a personal request that they have some compassion and not carry on with what a lot of us know as abuse,” she says about the state of the school system, letting out a heavy sigh. “The back and forth and the dangling of our funds, our kids not only deserve it, it’s a right. Its a right that they be educated.”
And so while parents and students were happy to learn teachers will return to work Wednesday after assurances they will be paid for the full school year, they are slow to celebrate. There’s still more to fix than cheer about. They wonder if the cracks in the façade are just too much. They have hope, and they will shoulder as much of the burden as they can. They’ll do anything they can to help support the educators.
But they have a message for the legislature: The kids aren’t all right.
“I feel like they are giving them a good education, but I also feel like its time to shoot for excellence,” Kemp says.
House Speaker Kevin Cotter blamed teachers for what he called a “cheap political stunt.”
“Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves,” Cotter said.
School ‘my key out of the hood’
Alleae McCants will be honest. At first, the thought of having a few days off was fun. But then she thought about how it was “cutting into her education.”
At 15-years-old, this eighth grader knows the importance of every day in the classroom. She looks up to her teachers and they inspire her to become something special. More, perhaps, than where she is from.
“I should be learning and looking at the teachers and seeing how confident they are just to teach a full class of students,” she says of what she’s missing during the sickouts. “It just puts a smile on my face that somebody else just wants to teach someone else’s kids.”
But even more than that, she feels she might be missing out on key moments to help her create the future she wants. McCants would like to play basketball, but also wants to become an entrepreneur when she’s older
“To do that, I have to get the education,” she says. “Because that’s my key out of the hood.”
‘Our children are in jeopardy’
William Bailey has three kids in Detroit Public Schools. He’s doing all he can to help supplement his kids education: computer work, outside tutoring, reading whenever possible.
Bailey was a product of the school system and he knows what it can be at its best. But he fears his children won’t get the same quality of education without those extra steps. During sickouts he gave his kids, aged 7, 12 and 14, assignments and would call and check on them. He works close enough that he came home to check on them on breaks to make sure they were doing schoolwork. Bailey knows that’s a luxury most parents don’t have.
But he wishes the legislature would take the same approach to the school children. The back-and-forth over funding money over the past year has been exhausting he says.
“Its like we get built up and all the sudden we get our legs knocked out from underneath us with these stories of they’re going to do this and they’re going to do that,” Bailey says. “Our kids are at jeopardy here. We’re trying to compete on a global scale and on education we’re not even nowhere near the top. We need to go ahead and focus on our children. Our children are our future, we need to invest in them.”
His strong words for the legislature: “Stop being comfortable in your office, come and see these schools, check the education and see what’s going on. I know if they were in this school system and in this district they would want to do something and have something done.”
He plans to continue shouting from the rooftop alongside other parent advocates for the children of Detroit. In part, he says, because he has such hope for the city he loves and keeps returning to throughout his life.
Despite all the city has faced “when I come back here I just see so much hope,” he says. “We have the brightness of our kids… and I have the utmost confidence that if we get the support that we need this city this school system everything within this city will be great.”
‘I need my education’
16-year-old LaRone Johnson is already worried about his future. He’s in tenth grade and he knows he’d like to be a video game designer or a musician and has his sights set on a college degree, and hopefully a masters.
But missing school? It is stressing him out.
“Missing one or two days of school is bad enough. It’s affecting my education. I need my education,” he says.
He supported the teachers that took a stand “so they can provide for their families and so they can come to school and teach the students what they need to know.”
He blames the “higher ups” for what’s gone on and for the games he feels they are playing with his education.
“I’m doing nothing right now, I’m playing video games and talking to my friends,” he says of the days out of school. “Usually I’m doing my homework or trying to study.”
He worries about the long-term impact and what he might be missing out on.
“I feel that I’m not going to be able to get my education, what am I supposed to do?” he asks. “How am I supposed to get a job in the future?”
‘A bunch of egos’ versus kids education
LaMethia Champion isn’t mad. But she sure is disappointed in a lot of elected officials.
“I’m disappointed in our legislature, and our government for allowing the Detroit public school system to get in the situation they are in,” she says. “I think it’s a bunch of egos and it’s about money. And nobody other than the parents and the teachers, is taking [into account] the most important aspect of this, which is the education of our children.”
She is thankful her 15 and 16-year-old children have teachers who gave extra assignments so they could still learn during the sickouts. And Champion collects as many resources as possible to have at home so her children always have an option and aren’t just sitting around, lazily wasting the day.
“So in the event these types of things happen, their learning never stops,” she says.
As the legislature debates options for long-term solutions for the school system, Champion says one simple guideline should be kept in mind: “Take the politics out, put our students first and everything else will fall into place.”
For her and so many other parents, this isn’t just about a bill being passed. This isn’t about the bureaucratic steps that it will take to get schools back to where parents want them to be. It’s about ensuring the generation is not lost. About bringing pride back to the schools and this city.
“Please put our students first and take the politics out,” Champion begs. “Its essential to the survivorship of the city of Detroit and our students.”