Dear Governor Snyder, This Is How Detroit Parents Feel About School Closures

Dear Governor Snyder,

The Detroit Parent Network is a membership organization of thousands of parents across Southeast Michigan. As parents, we are asking you and the State School Reform Office (SRO) to approach the life-altering and community-changing issue of school closures with more consideration for the children and families impacted by your actions. We would also like to work with you to create strategies that will help students in high concentrations of poverty across Michigan so they can be successful in school.

We agree with State Senator Phil Pavlov that the “failing schools” law (Section 1280c of the Revised School Code) is “deeply flawed” and that the process has been “chaotic.” The recent letter from Natasha Baker to parents in failing schools is but one example of the chaotic process. She recommends school districts that are so far away from Detroit and unlikely to open their doors that one wonders what her motive was in sending it. Her timing in sending this letter six years after the State SRO was created but only 20 days after the Emergency Manager left the Detroit Public Schools Community District created unnecessary tension and unanswered questions. This exacerbated by a 30-45 day review process that is shrouded in mystery. Certainly, the state can do better than that for the parents in Detroit, as we believe a much more thoughtful process would have taken place if the students lived in West Bloomfield, Grosse Pointe or Ann Arbor.

Schools serving the highest concentration of children in the lowest five percent of socioeconomic inputs are likely to often end up on the lowest five percent of academic outputs. That is not an excuse for failure; it is an acknowledgement of the obvious so we can serve schools better rather than put them on the “failing schools” merry-go-round.

While we do not believe that one’s zip code should determine one’s destiny, we do know and believe that the forced disruption of schools in the lowest quartile of socio-economic indicators every few years does more harm than good, despite whatever intentions lie behind it.

In a recent school closures survey we conducted engaging over 1,000 parents across Detroit, the preliminary findings indicate that the majority of our parents have “low” or “very low” trust and confidence that any strategy from the State will improve conditions for their child. Additional findings include:

  • Seventy-seven percent of parents would be “angry” or “upset” if they have to move their child, as compared to 12 percent who would be “ok” with the change and 11 percent who would be “hopeful” or “excited.”
  • More than half of parents believe their children will be less safe, that their attendance will suffer, and that they will not be accepted in a new school.
  • Parents still have more “confidence and trust” in the Detroit Public Schools Community District than they have in charter schools, the Education Achievement Authority, or suburban public schools.

Therefore, we are asking you, the State SRO and the State Legislature, to consider and embrace the following steps to help restore trust, repair the social fabric and renew the physical conditions in our most vulnerable communities. We believe these conditions represent the pathway for our children and families to be healthier and in a stronger position to thrive.

From a practical level, we ask that the state:

1. Share what it has learned.

Of the 25 schools in Detroit on the state’s list for possible closure, 24 have been under the control of the state for the last eight years. When the EAA was created in 2012, the state had every opportunity to do what the State SRO now has the power to do, yet 8 of the 15 schools in the EAA are still on the lowest five percent list—despite having virtually all new leaders and new teachers and no collective bargaining agreement in place.

2. Stop the proposed school tours.

A half day visit from state officials to determine the fate of a school and the future of its students is too little time to be useful to officials and too much time away from the classroom to information already available through the 5 Essentials Survey, a research-based school improvement tool with decades of data behind it, and which our parents and community partners helped to conduct at most schools in not to penalize them. For more information, see: www.excellentschoolsdetroit.org.

3. Celebrate what’s working.

Within the lowest quartile of schools, we know that many are safe and engaging places buzzing with energy and learning. We also know that others can be dreary and devoid of the much-needed oxygen of hope. Instead of conducting trust-destroying tours to close schools, the SRO should conducting trust-building tours at successful schools to showcase what others can learn from them.

On a deeper level, we are asking you and state educational leaders to adopt the following policy and practice recommendations:

Repeal the existing “failing schools” law.

Schools serving the highest concentrations of children in poverty are fighting socio-economic conditions that are decades, indeed generations in the making. The current law presumes that schools must produce transformative results within five years, or must start over, when in fact working a good plan can take five years or longer to have a transformative and sustainable impact. As it stands, the school closing law forces change when tenacity and trust that comes with time would bear better results.

Renovate abandoned schools.

Detroit has closed 100 schools in the last 10 years, and many of those structures stand as dangerous monstrosities diminishing property values and other investments in the surrounding community. Since ultimate ownership of schools reverts to the state, we encourage you to exercise your ownership through tax credits to generate investments in school buildings for whatever commercial, residential or industrial use would best complement the specific plans and assets of each community.

Attract great teachers through additional compensation.

Teachers in the lowest quartile of schools will invariably and consistently confront the most difficult challenges in their profession—from the social and emotional issues that children bring to school to the physical conditions of the surrounding community. Teachers who choose to work in these schools should receive a $5,000 bonus for signing on, compared to the average salary for teachers in the highest quartile of schools, and they should receive an additional reward of $10,000 at the end of the school year if 75 percent or more of their students exceed their target goals in reading and math as measured by the MAP, a nationally norm-referenced assessment currently used by most schools in Detroit.

Incentivize School Partnerships.

The biggest challenge in the lowest quartile of schools is not that teachers aren’t doing enough, it’s that there aren’t enough people in the schools to be a consistent, positive influence and help in student’s lives. When these schools flourish, two critical components are usually active; an engaged core of parents, and the commitment of people from a local community organization, company, church or university as a long-term school partner. The state should provide grants to establish parent resource centers and to help community organizations partnering with schools in the lowest quartile to serve their students better. The state should also explore ways that it can use tax incentives for companies to support them in this effort.

Develop new public funding streams for youth development.

Giving their students safe and nurturing environments after school can diminish the challenges faced by the 38 schools on the lowest five percent list.

In communities such as Flint and Detroit, where a preponderance of schools in the lowest quartile are located, the demands on philanthropy are so great that youth development programs are vastly under-resourced to assist the thousands of children who need safe places and caring adults after school each day to guide them and help them with their studies. A creative public funding stream for youth development could give students much needed support to help them succeed in school.

I, and the thousands of parents that make up Detroit Parent Network, look forward to working with you to make conditions better for children in our state who need help the most.

Sharlonda Buckman, CEO
Detroit Parent Network

Let us know how you feel about Sharlonda’s comments on Facebook at Detroit School Talk or on Twitter @DetroitSchlTalk. Parents are the power of any community and our children are a community’s valued treasure. #Voices4Ed #DPNDetroit #SchoolClosures

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