Detroit schools set to open, despite closure threat

In a victory for community control of education, 24 Detroit schools threatened with closure have been removed from the chopping block after Michigan and the Detroit school board signed a three-year "partnership agreement" that will give schools some flexibility in goal-setting, reporting and spending.

The partnership gives schools leeway to form their own leadership teams and get help from local universities, says Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president.

Members in Detroit, for their part, are breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare to go back to school, and AFT President Randi Weingarten is giving them credit for exerting the muscle to keep their schools open. Speaking recently to PSRPs in Detroit, Weingarten praised them for keeping the faith and not giving up the fight. "A year ago," she said, "it was not clear if you would even have a school system."

That threat isn't lost on Detroit's paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, who know that state "reformers" are still gunning for their schools.

Laura Jackson

"When I was growing up, it did not matter what was going on—you went to school," says Laura Jackson, a school secretary at Detroit Collegiate Prep High School (pictured above). "The school was your safe haven." But after wave upon wave of school closures over more than a decade, Jackson thinks students don't feel as rooted in one place anymore. When she started working for the district and joined the union in 1996, "we were like family," she remembers, "really cohesive." Moving out of a shuttered school, she says, is demoralizing.

Andella White's school is one of those saved from closing. Kids already come from all over to Edison Elementary School in Rosedale Park. "It's the only school that's around in this area," says the Title I paraprofessional, "so why would you close it? But we were on the list." Like Jackson, she has worked at schools that were closed and has seen the damage. It's a mystery to her why you'd close a school that has 35-40 students per class.

White's lips close tightly when the subject comes up of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. "She doesn't even recognize us," says White (pictured below). "How can you speak about us when you don't even see us?"

Andella White

Detroit's new partnership agreement is proof that top-down reform doesn't work, and gives Detroiters a chance to take back control of their schools from state "reformers" led by DeVos, a longtime privatizer and now the most anti-public education secretary since the U.S. Education Department was founded in 1980.

Meanwhile, a U.S. district court judge in Detroit heard arguments Aug. 10 from an attorney representing seven students who are suing the state over a lack of access to education. AFT leaders noted in a joint statement that we stand with the families bringing this suit.

As Weingarten told Salon magazine this month, "In Michigan, DeVos and her husband did serious harm to that state's schools by pushing for privatization. Their so-called reforms bankrupted the Detroit public schools. DeVos also made money off the bottled water in Flint and established for-profit charters that have done terribly for kids. This is not what a secretary of education should be doing."

Early this year, Detroit members rallied their community to protest the planned closings—protests that yielded the new partnership. They remain wary about renewed attempts to seize control of their schools, but they do plan to keep the faith.

Sandra Barbee has worked as a secretary at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School for five years, since two of her previous schools were closed. She notes that Detroit used to have more than 200 schools: "Now you can put them in the palm of your hand."

School is only part of what's going on in children's lives, Barbee says, but it doesn't help when students are displaced. She feels that a generation ago, school employees had more of a chance to mold a child's character, and that the change is not with children but with society. Nevertheless, "You do what you can with what you're given. I remain positive for the kids."

"There's a lot of hope here," Jackson adds.

[Annette Licitra]