On Friday, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D–Flint) and Secretary of Education John King Jr. spoke at Northwestern High School in Flint to discuss the impact of the Flint water crisis on the city’s public schools and announce a $480,000 grant to help schools provide health care services to their students.

“Today, we are announcing a government grant that is intended to help support Flint’s schools respond to the challenges that were brought about by the Flint water crisis,” King said. “This is designed to give schools necessary aid so that despite these challenges, the education of students will remain the primary focus.”

The event was attended by about 50 people, including many current and former Flint public school teachers, two current students and current administrators, including the superintendent.

Derryl Evans, a retired principal at the now-closed Merrill Elementary School in Flint, said he thinks children’s access to health care is an integral part of their wellbeing and educational success.

“I think the grant is a very good thing because when students don’t feel comfortable or safe in their schools, then that makes learning hard,” Evans said. “As a former educator, I see the importance student health and wellbeing has on literacy and numeracy.”

During the panel discussion, King said schools will play a key role in providing necessary services to students as the city recovers from the water crisis.

“Schools all over the country, and in Flint, are a main driver for people to have access to quality health care,” King said. “In fact, (the Department of Education) worked very closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, not just in the response to the crisis in Flint, but also to make sure that schools are providing these important social services to help students’ education.”

The services provided by the money from the grant are designed to meet basic health care needs. In the past year, Flint schools have begun to address these concerns by hiring more school nurses and social workers.

Bilal Tawwab, the superintendent of Flint’s public schools, highlighted the improvements made since the Flint water crisis and said the state and federal governments are working with Flint to meet the community’s needs

“Nobody knows what the full impact of the FWC will be, but we are working to be proactive to address any potential consequence of this crisis,” Tawwab said. “A year ago, it was widely publicized that there was only one school nurse in Flint schools. Well now she is joined by nine other nurses.”

Tawwab also highlighted the resilience of the community and students during the past year, telling the audience that the students have been undeterred by the challenges brought about by the Flint water crisis. He added that despite projections of dramatically reduced enrollment in Flint public schools in the past year, like in previous years, enrollment has increased.

Flint students Brianna McDonald and Jordan Shock, Northwestern High School seniors, reaffirmed Tawwab’s sentiments.

“The crisis made people come together; it was a problem for all of us,” Shock said.

Amid praise for community unity during the water crisis, the panel also focused on the improvements the schools and city still need.

Ridgway H. White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, said future federal government investment in the Flint public school system needs to focus on renovations and school upgrades.

“The Flint water crisis has been a drain on public money and resources,” White said. “Flint schools need new buildings and supplies to demonstrate that they care about the future of their students. Instead, public money mostly has to go to managing the crisis. To accomplish this, Flint will need the help of the federal government.”

White noted that the C.S. Mott Foundation has been a significant financial benefactor to the Flint public school system, giving about $35 million to the district since 2013, including recent efforts to address academic and health concerns following the crisis.

Kildee, whose first elected position was to the school board in Flint, said the federal government has a large stake in Flint public schools.

“We have to be honest about inequities built into the system,” Kildee said. “In Michigan, in particular, the public schools have obligations to their constituencies but there are deep economic inequities that make it difficult for people of Flint … Going forward, the role of the federal government will be, in part, to help close the gap in inequality.”

Many event attendees supported the grant, but like White, Kildee and others, they also called upon the federal government to follow up with more aid.  

Nancy Rozier, a retired Flint public schools teacher, said she thinks the poor quality of facilities is a contributing factor to Flint’s struggling public school system. She expressed concerns that the grant money would only address a small part of the larger problems Flint’s schools face.

“Because of the Flint water crisis, there is a need for an upgrade,” Rozier said. “Everyone should have access to good facilities … This grant, while helpful to Flint, is like using a Band-Aid when you really need a tourniquet.”

In an interview following the event, Tim Green, principal of Northwestern High School, said he was hopeful for future financial investment.

“Water is the most important necessity,” Green said. “Without it, people can’t cook, drink or bathe themselves without worry. The Flint public schools and people of Flint don’t have a lot. While this grant is a blessing, we need more — anything else we can get it is important.”

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