Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts knows his is a thankless job and yet, above all else, it is delicate.
He must at once try and undo decades of mismanagement and deficit spending while at the same time shore up the educational system and keep the system’s remaining parents from revolt. Today he gave his best effort on all fronts. He closed nine schools, made consolidations at others, he will Charter four and will set apart seven schools ranking among the state’s worst. Instead of placing them in the state’s new separate EAA district for the poorest performing schools he will put them in a separate section of DPS to keep those dollars in the District. He said he wants to see if DPS can help get the scores up on its own over the next two years. Roberts explained the move as coming because the EAA system is really for schools showing three consecutive years of poor performance and these schools have only been graded for one.
In a nod to calming frayed nerves, while doing all of this, Roberts visited with each and every school earlier this week. He alerted the students, faculty and staff in advance of his scheduled press conference this afternoon so it wasn’t a shock to them while watching Local Four News. This was a vastly different thought process and presentation than the ones we’ve been used to seeing on the Fisher Building’s 14th floor where the Emergency Manager operates.
Robert Bobb spent most of his time trying to sort out the good guys from the bad. He went after those who he admitted openly used DPS as their own personal ATM. That was a full time job. Yes he would announce school closings at press conferences. Bobb left and a lot of people don’t think he did all that good a job considering the debt that remained as he left the system.
Roy Roberts took over nine months ago and has kept a much lower profile. Today we saw the fruit of his labor. He opened his remarks by saying DPS must lead Detroit’s comeback. He said it is time to discard the old system. Yes there are still thieves among the children, while in Federal Court earlier this week I saw a mother daughter team arraigned for stealing half a million dollars from DPS, so that work continues. But the program Roberts unveiled today carried with it much more academic effort than we have previously seen. Yes the headline and the press release you find here on this page are the stuff of great concern. In the past, just uttering the words Charter Schools and closing buildings sparked angry and furious protest. Not this time. Roberts is implementing a decidedly un-Detroit like program of individualized student learning plans. He says this will all be fact-based; computer managed and will assist the student and the parent in seeing where work is needed and where the student is doing well. He also spelled all of this out in a letter that will go to every student’s home this week. He also announced next year’s changes months earlier than last year as a way to help parents plan for the next school year. The enrollment period now will run from March 15th to April 15th. These are just one some of the different forward looking strategies the district will use in trying to move itself genuinely upward for the first time in at least a generation. Roberts admitted this is a very difficult undertaking but an important one in that Detroit once was considered among the nation’s best public school systems. It needs to start aspiring to that as a way to get back.
Now let’s be clear here, DPS is coming from a long way back. It’s nice to aspire to be first when you are the worst; it’s a long and difficult path to get there and good intentions only get you out the door. Making certain there is continual progress is going to be the real challenge for many years to come. One of the biggest is right sizing the district. Roberts talked about some staggering numbers that let you know just how high the mountain is he needs to climb. There are 69,616 students in DPS today. There are school seats for 110,660! 38% of the available seats are empty. Roberts says if there were students for each of those seats it would be the second largest district in the state! Thus you understand why there are going to be a lot of closed schools this year and likely more in the years to come.
Yes these closures are wrenching to say the least. The first school to be closed will be the Detroit Day School for the Deaf. It was founded in the 1800’s. Its 40 students will get “mainstreamed” as we used to call it today it’s called “inclusion”. The parents I spoke with there at dismissal today are outraged at that notion because they believe their children will be largely excluded. They believe their children will be left at the back of the classroom or left out completely because their teachers will not know how to sign and their classmates won’t either. It will leave them feeling alone and parents fear they will end up uneducated. You feel for these parents who have enjoyed sending their children to a school they need that meets their needs. But, DPS is beyond broke and programs where the principal and the assistants and the students all sign is expensive. Quite sadly when your children account for a minute percentage of the total population, you are going to have to make very tough and in this case life altering decisions. The parents will end up picking up a lot of slack here or they will try and bring their children elsewhere. It’s an absolute mess with no easy answers and difficult ramifications. Roberts is obviously trying to touch all the bases, make parents feel like he is with them, not against. I asked him when he might leave and he said as soon as he can. But he also said he has much work to do and will be around for a while. His is truly a thankless job, but one he is giving a new look and different approach. Everyone watching hopes he is getting it right.