Community turns out to resist Detroit school closings

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Parents, school staff and students rallied on Feb. 3 to protest the planned closure of two dozen Detroit schools.

The main rally at Osborn College Preparatory Academy, along with rallies and actions at a dozen other schools, came as community leaders objected to a Michigan School Reform Office decision to close public schools in Detroit and around the state. As many as 24 of 119 city schools could be closed as soon as this summer, with another 25 to be shut down in 2018.

Protesting possible school closings in Detroit

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey stood with demonstrators waving signs that read "Enough is Enough" and "Our Fight for Detroit Kids." She pointed out that closing schools does nothing to improve student achievement.

"This is shameful," Bailey told the crowd. "It is shocking to me that the same state government that refused to give us control of our schools, now, after finally giving us control, wants to shut down schools we are working tirelessly to improve."

For more than a decade, Detroit schools have been under the control of the governor and an emergency manager, resulting in deplorable school buildings and under-resourced classrooms. During this regime, the city saw the proliferation of for-profit charter schools and a sapping of resources from public schools.

It was only last month that a federal judge ordered a new process for work orders to repair blighted school facilities, observes Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president. This new process provides deadlines and oversight to make sure school buildings are "fixed and conducive to learning," she says.

But now that the community has finally wrested local control of its schools back from the state, the reform office responds with this "slap in the face," Newbold adds. "It's not fair to students, and it's not fair to staff. Our kids have been disrupted enough."

Bailey agrees that because the new district was launched only last year, it needs time to work. "The state said we were a new school district, and if we are a new school district, we should have the opportunity to do new things for our kids," Bailey told the Detroit Free Press. "We just got our elected school board back. Any decisions about school openings or closings need to be made by the school board in conjunction with staff and parents and the community."

With new school board members inducted only last month, and the search on for a new superintendent, Detroit citizens saw a "ray of hope" for getting their schools back on track, says Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals. But the state officials' plan to close schools is a tacit admission that "they haven’t fixed anything," she adds. Along with the steady erosion of funding and staff—including paraprofessionals who serve as an important classroom resource—closing schools is not the answer.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says he's told Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder that true reform requires working with school staff and keeping schools open until you have better alternatives, neither of which has been done. Calling the closures wrong, immoral and reckless, Duggan promises to fight them, vowing on Feb. 4 to work with the school board in opposing the state's decision.

"If it does nothing else, the state should start off the new school district with additional funding, not cut it," Newbold adds. "We take two steps forward, and they push us four steps back. How do you revitalize the city without a school system? That's why the mayor is so adamant about this." AFT Detroit plans to join a community rally on the planned closures Feb. 17.

[Annette Licitra]