Sickouts, debt and underfunding prevalent at Detroit Public Schools
LSA junior Maura Drabik was walking through Festifall during her sophomore year when she came across a table advertising the Detroit Partnership Program. Drabik stopped — she had taught a religious education class in high school and knew she wanted to work with children in some way.
The Detroit Partnership is a student-run organization that aims to foster partnerships between the University of Michigan and Detroit. Many of the program’s volunteers are placed in Detroit Public Schools’ elementary schools to help teachers by grading papers, working with students and supervising the class. Drabik quickly joined the organization and was placed in Bennett Elementary school, located in southwest Detroit. Since then, she has been working in a third grade classroom.
“A lot of the time I’m just there to take the load off (the teacher),” she said. “I’ll grade papers, I’ll work with them on art projects, sometimes I’ll help them with their individual work.”
Drabik has been paired with the same teacher for two years and has watched the classroom change as the city, and the public school system, have struggled to cope with debt. Detroit Public Schools is nearing $3.5 billion in debt, according to a report released by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan early January, and many building and teaching conditions are falling far below the state average. Of the $7,400 allocated per student per year in Detroit, over $1,100 per student is being spent to service debt in the city school system rather than heading into the classroom.
“It’s a really, really tough environment,” Drabik said. “Three or four of the students in the classroom I work in should’ve been held back, but they didn’t have the money to support that. You come into this classroom and there are kids at such different levels.”
That disparity in ability, she added, is often extreme.
“Some kids can’t even read,” she said. “I had one kid that just moved from Mexico, should not have been in the third grade classroom, does not speak a word of English.”
Drabik said her school, however, has fared well compared to others in the area. Some schools have reported rodents running around the classrooms, cockroaches, ceilings falling down and water leakages.
Conditions like those, that Drabik and many other involved with the school system have noted, didn’t form overnight. For many, the deterioration is largely tied to the district’s now-crippling accumulation of debt, which has resulted in a number of efforts to reduce costs and boost the struggling district over the years.
In October 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder announced his overhaul of DPS. The initiative aimed to create a new school system, transition the board and students to the new school district and require the existing district to pay off its debt.
— Kaitlin Popielarz (@KaitPopielarz) February 18, 2016
The overhaul is estimated to cost the state $715 million dollars by its completion, or about $70 million dollars a year for the next 10 years.
Synder’s plan garnered negative reactions from multiple units within DPS. Beginning in November, seven instructional days were cancelled in select schools shortly after Snyder’s announcement. The reason: too many teachers called in sick and refused to come to work. These types of protests, called a “sickout," were in direct response to the building conditions, pay cuts — teachers have faced multiple cuts over the last five years, including 10 percent cuts in both 2011 and 2014 — and Snyder’s plans.
Drabik, who only volunteers on Friday afternoons, said though none of the sickouts were on a Friday, her school, Bennett Elementary was one of the many schools affected by the sickouts. She added that though she was not directly impacted by the protest, she was saddened by the worsening conditions at the school.
“It worries me to see these teachers taking sick days,” Drabik said. “These students need to be in school, they need to be there.”
On Jan. 19, 2016, following the most recent sickouts, Snyder called on legislature to relieve the school district of $515 million of its debt. He said by April, DPS was in danger of running out of money.
For teachers, students and others invested in DPS, the problems Snyder has identified aren’t new, and stretch back much further than that January call to action or the sickouts, back through the past decades of the district’s history.
A teacher working for Detroit Public Schools, who requested anonymity due to fear of losing his job, said the conditions within his school have declined drastically over the decade he has worked for the district. He said his school participated in one of the district-wide sickouts in protest of the pay cuts and conditions of other schools.
“We didn’t want to get our principal in trouble for having a sickout, but we wanted to call attention to everything else and those people who have these chronic problems with lack of textbooks, lack of supplies and deterioration of buildings,” he said.
— Detroitteach (@teachDetroit) February 20, 2016
The teacher said his students don’t get a recess during the day due to understaffing. Instead, they have lunch in the cafeteria and have 20 minutes to play in the gym.
“Usually it’s chaos because you have so many children in there and there’s only one or two adults so it’s easier for them to have the kids sit in lines than it is for them to play,” the teacher said.
A lack of recess or recreational time is not abnormal for DPS students. According to the teacher, students are often given time inside a gym or a walk around the building in replacement.
He said he loves teaching and considers being in the classroom a passion of his, but he worries for the future of his students and others at DPS.
“My fear is that students aren’t going to get that good of an education,” he said. “My own children get a great education in another district. The kids in Detroit are just as smart, but they have a bad (reputation). The schools aren’t that great. The teachers are good, but they don’t have the other stuff. The last 10 years I’ve taught, none of my children have had art, music or gym. The children get computers two times a week.”
Overall, the numbers bear the teacher’s concern out — DPS falls far below national averages on many metrics of student performance. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit students rank last in all U.S. cities. Most notably, only 27 percent of fourth graders in the NEAP were found to be proficient in reading and only 36 percent proficient in math.
The DPS teacher said working every day against the harsh conditions and seeing numbers like that dishearten teachers in Detroit.
“It’s hard for Detroit teachers, seeing that we tap out our salaries at $55,000,” he said. "Out of that we have to pay 1.25 percent to the city of Detroit, we have other things that come out. A Utica teacher makes almost $90,000, a Farmington teacher makes $82,000, Walled Lake makes $88,000. It’s difficult to say that we are so poor and Detroit teachers are the ones who are bankrupting the district, when we make $20,000 less than suburban schools. We constantly see how we’re failing.”
At the University, which has multiple partnerships, programs and internships in Detroit for students, some linked to teaching, the overall impact of the current climate has been mixed.
Elizabeth Moje, associate dean for research and community engagement for the School of Education, said the University hasn’t had many problems with the sickouts affecting interns. However, she said allowing interns to experience these conditions is a learning opportunity for students in the School of Education.
“It’s really had quite a minimal direct effect on their experience,” Moje said. “We’re able to discuss the action both of the district and of the teachers as a teaching moment. It becomes a conversation with our interns about both the challenges and conditions that they might face and the decisions that teachers often have to make about how they’re going to work within those challenges and conditions.”
For some students, the impact is more personal. LSA junior Micah Griggs, who graduated from DPS Renaissance High School before enrolling at the University, said she thought the conditions in her old school were unacceptable.
“It’s really unfortunate that some of the schools have mold and a lack of supplies,” Griggs said. “That’s not conducive to learning at all so it’s unfortunate, students can’t go to those schools. Teachers have to have a sickout because they’re beginning to protest about the state. It’s not as if (just) the power went out. There’s rodents, there’s mold on the walls, there’s no heat.”
Griggs said she was fortunate to have attended one of DPS’ newer schools, so there was little decay or deterioration at the time. Renaissance High School, however, closed on multiple occasions for sickouts in January.
“It makes me feel as if the students are abandoned,” Griggs said. “I really think that education is so important and it’s key to a lot of success. It’s just being ripped away from them.”
Griggs’s siblings currently attend a private school in Detroit. Her brother will be starting Renaissance High School in the fall, and she said she worries about the quality of education he could receive.
“I’m concerned about the substance of programs for him,” Griggs said. “I’m hoping that the band, dance and arts aren’t cut. Those things are important for a holistic education.”
She added that it's important for University students to know what is happening in Detroit, Ann Arbor’s neighboring city.
“A lot of people don’t know. Just being aware that these things happen — and they happen because we don’t have funding and our funding is used for other sectors.” She said. “This is our neighboring city 30 minutes away.”
LSA junior Tishanna Taylor, a DPS Renaissance High School alum, echoed Griggs’ concerns. Taylor’s mother was a teacher at DPS and moved out of the district because of the conditions.
“It’s sad to see that teachers are not getting as much recognition they deserve,” Taylor said. “They do such hard work for those who do quality work and they care for their students. To not get compensated appropriately is kind of sad and they resort to leaving the district that they want to help.”
She said she hopes people don’t give up on DPS and the many assets and capabilities it still has.
“Right now, it just looks very bad with the schools and sickouts and the showcasing of the buildings, things like that,” she said. “I guess sometimes throughout that, we lose sight of what’s important, which is the education for the children.”
She said the future of DPS lies in the hands of more than just the people on top.
“People should just pay attention or even try to learn more, or watch and see what’s happening with the school system,” Taylor said. “It’s more than just the administration that has to be changed.”