Detroit education reform ‘not a bad thing,’ leaders say

Pancakes and Politcs R opt

ROY ROBERTS (left), DPS emergency manager, and John Covington, Education Achievement Authority chancellor. — Monica Morgan photo


Detroit’s social and economical resurgence hangs in the balance of public education. Poorly performing schools scare off current and potential residents, which in turn shrinks the tax base, spelling hard times for the city at large.

But after years of mismanagement and financial pitfalls, a new day is dawning for Detroit Public Schools. That was the message leaders spearheading education reform in Detroit were spreading at the Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes & Politics forum at the Detroit Athletic Club on Thursday, June 14.

The forum, titled “Education 911,” hosted two panelists who are arguably the most influential of the “Pancakes” speaker series when it comes to Detroit: Roy Roberts, DPS emergency manager, and Dr. John Covington, chancellor of Michigan’s new Education Achievement Authority (EAA).

The event concluded the annual four-part Pancakes & Politics series for 2012 with a theme of transformation.

During the lively and frank discussion, the team shared their vision for the future of public schools in Detroit, informing the over 300 attendees of their plans. The message was clear: it’s time for change. Roberts and Covington are heading up a massive turnaround for Detroit Public Schools. They’re not talking minor policy shifts, they’re geared to reset major functions in the system.

Most of the focus of the forum was on the EAA, a new public school system in Michigan with a mission to transform the lowest achieving schools into the highest. Because 38 of the 100 worst performing schools in the state were in DPS, the program is launching in Detroit. And for that kind of turnaround, schools can expect big changes.

“There’s a misunderstanding that the EAA is going to come in and close a bunch of schools. That’s not the case. It’s making these schools better,” said Covington.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Roberts, who Gov. Rick Snyder appointed to chair the executive committee for the organization, giving him the authority to make the decisions on which schools enter the EAA. Still, out of the 38 lowest performing schools, Roberts has only transferred 15 of these into the EAA so far, including some charter schools.

“There is no war between DPS and charter schools. The war is over. It’s law: If we have a charter school, a DPS or an EAA school that is not performing, we will take them out of here,” Roberts said.

EAA schools will be different. For instance, they will assign 95 percent of their total funding to classrooms instead of administrative posts. And there will be no grade system. Students will move up based on the classes they passed, not their age. The new independent entity is a public/private partnership between Detroit Public Schools, the State of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.

“We meet with parents on a regular basis so they understand this is not a bad thing,” Covington said about the EAA. “We’re going to transform how we teach and deliver services.”

Another change parents will notice in the new school system is the number of required instruction hours increasing. That is to make sure students have to keep up with global learning. In some countries, students are in school seven days a week, all year long.

According to Covington, Michigan has the lowest number of required instruction hours for its students in the entire nation. He said Michigan schools require 170 days of instruction per year for students, a number he bumped up to 210 for students in EAA schools.

Between Roberts and Covington, it was clear their passion for education is strong and genuine, and the changes they are making they believe are the best for the most important stakeholders — the children.

“Kids can’t vote and kids don’t have money so I’m speaking for the kids,” said Roberts, recalling when he was a young student in a family that struggled to make ends meet. “I’m gonna keep the conversation on the kids.”

Covington remembered a time when he worked in a correctional facility and noticed the young people inside were very smart and had great potential but were, sadly, products of a failing system. Since then he said he has committed his life to bettering education to keep as many youths as possible outside of bars.

“When test scores are low, we always want to start with the kids and don’t stop to think that it might not be the kids, it’s the adults in the system,” he said.

Roberts looked back on his first year as emergency manager and said he learned a lot.

“I was foolish last year. I’m wise this year. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “The people you try to help the most are the ones toughest on you.”

As far as unions go, Roberts said he hopes everyone will do what’s right for the children and is optimistic that there will not be a strike. The EAA system is not yet unionized.

“Right now we’re starting the EAA without being hamstrung by collective bargaining agreements,” he said.

Looking forward, Roberts said he plans to better his communication with parents and students.

“All parents want their children to do well. We need to do a better job of customer service,” he said. “We have to forge relationships with parents and treat them in a way we believe the parents and kids are most important.”

But Roberts and Covington insist that they cannot transform schools without the support of stakeholders from all backgrounds. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have schools that provide the best education for students now and generations to come.

“This is something we can’t do by ourselves,” Covington said, calling on people to get involved in the process. “We need the general community to get actively involved.”

The sponsors who made this discussion possible include Buick, Comcast Business Class, Strategic Staffing Solutions, HAP, Honigman, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, PNC, Quicken Loans and UHY.


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