Detroit: A Stronger Voice for Parents

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Maria Navarrete and Randi WeingartenRandi Weingarten and Maria Navarrete, president of "Our Kids Come First."

Parents in Detroit are seeking a stronger voice in reforms that both the state and school district want to implement in the city's public schools, and AFT president Randi Weingarten saw that firsthand when she visited Maybury Elementary School during her "Making a Difference Every Day" back-to-school tour. On the first day of school at Maybury, Weingarten was greeted by Maria Navarrete, president of Our Kids Come First, an organization that for the past two years has been working to establish a citywide network of parents. "We believe that's the only way to ensure that every parent's voice is heard," Navarette said.

The presence of Navarrete and other parents at Maybury that morning was helping to bring stability to an often hectic first day of school, Weingarten said, adding that "parent involvement is critical" to the success of schools.

Mom walks daughter to schoolParent and student arrive for the first day of school at Maybury E.S. in Detroit.

To help parents leap over any first-day-of-school hurdles, Our Kids Come First gave parents throughout Detroit a checklist to use to determine whether their child's school was fully staffed and ready to open. Navarrete, whose daughter is a third-grader at Maybury, pointed out that the school, which has a large Spanish-speaking student population, has a shortage of bilingual teachers.

Maybury teacher Mark Crowley, who was wearing an AFT "I Make a Difference Every Day" T-shirt, told Weingarten that he was concerned about the district's last-minute decision-making. "I just found out about two weeks ago where I was going to be teaching this year," said Crowley, who has taught science in Detroit public schools for 26 years and has worked at Maybury since 1997.

In addition, he said, the school's staff was told only three weeks ago that Maybury's fourth- and fifth-graders were being moved to another school and that Maybury would become a preK-3 school.

"The kids like being here, and I like being here"

Next, Weingarten headed across town to Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School where Detroit Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Keith Johnson was on hand to welcome her. Greenfield Union's preK-4 students attend classes in the school's new building, while its middle school (grades 5-8) students are housed a few feet away in the original building.

Beverly Campbell, who is principal of both the elementary and middle schools, took Weingarten and Johnson to the classroom of first-grade teacher Clora Smith. "I'm here from Washington, D.C., Weingarten told the excited first-graders, "because I wanted to say hello to you and see how your school year has started."

Detroit video

Watch video: Parents and teachers work together in Detroit.

Now in her 20th year as a teacher, Smith shared the approach she uses to educate her young charges: "I believe you treat them like you would treat your own children, and we all want the best for our own children."

A few doors down from Smith's classroom, Judy Wormser was going over some rules on classroom behavior with her students. The kindergarten teacher said she had spent the past few days "getting my classroom ready for my kids."

Principal Campbell's leadership has fostered a palatable spirit of teamwork and collaboration at Greenfield Union, third-grade teacher Lucetta Edwards told Weingarten. "The kids like being here, and I like being here."

Despite frustration with some of the district's treatment of teachers and other school staff, Edwards said providing her students a high-quality education remains her top priority. "We can't let what happens to us as teachers affect what happens in our classrooms."

Middle school teacher Masha ShahidWeingarten speaks with student in middle school teacher Masha Shahid's classroom.

Weingarten, Johnson and the other visitors then took the short walk to the middle school building where Masha Shahid was preparing her all-boys homeroom for the new school year. She's teaching seventh- and eighth-graders this year (the same boys she taught last year as fifth- and sixth-graders). "I have nothing but the highest expectations for all of the kids here at Greenfield, but especially for this group since I've known them for so long," Shahid said.

One thing she likes most about being at Greenfield Union, Shahid said, is that the school's administration does everything it can to make sure the staff gets the training and professional development it wants and needs.

New high school shows values of partnerships

The first day of school in Detroit marked the opening of Detroit Collegiate Prep Academy, a new high school launched by a partnership that includes the AFT's Detroit affiliates, the Detroit Public Schools, Diplomas Now, Communities in Schools and City Year.

Following her school visits, Weingarten attended a roundtable discussion at the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which was led by Diplomas Now founder Robert Balfanz. Other participants included David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan and an AFT vice president; Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals; Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president; and DFT president Johnson.

The discussion centered on how the groups can continue to come together to support Detroit Collegiate Prep and what can be done to implement the Diplomas Now model of whole-school reform and community partnerships in more city schools. Weingarten called the proven model a potential "game-changer in Detroit."

"This is a real evidence-based process that respects educators and other staff," the AFT president said of the Diplomas Now model. One of its strengths is that it takes into account all of the needs of high-poverty students. [Roger Glass/photos by John R. Lewis/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

September 7, 2011