By John Telford
Detroit Public Schools—once recognized as one of the finest school districts in the nation—has been both numerically and academically decimated during the past fifteen years. These tragic decimations, which have become painfully common knowledge locally and nationally, have occurred for reasons that include an unwarranted and abjectly unsuccessful state takeover in 1999 followed by Lansing’s imposition of Public Act 4, the detested “emergency management” legislation which was rightfully rejected by Detroit’s and Michigan’s voters in 2012. It had been hoped that Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature would then desist from planning to devise any further disenfranchising laws to undermine the will of the people. Despite DPS’ devastating numeric decimation, it remains the largest school district in Michigan, and pockets of excellence also remain. The district has a highly diverse and mostly impoverished student population, and approximately 90 percent has been low-performing, although many bright, often college-bound honor students have also attended those schools, most of which have an overwhelming percentage of minority students. In Michigan, the already wide achievement gap between minority students in urban environments and majority students in suburban environments continues to widen further.
Because in recent years the city of Detroit in particular has been so challenged, it is now time for all of us Detroiters who care about our children’s very survival to set our differences aside and work determinedly and with a single mind on behalf of all of the city’s children. My one pledge to this city, to its good elected school board-“in-exile,” to its needful schoolchildren, and to their parents, grandparents, and guardians is that even though like the DPS Board that appointed me to be its interim Superintendent I remain also “in exile,” I will continue to work faithfully with the Board on behalf of our children and their education, and I will continue to do it without seeking any form of remuneration.
The only constant for the Detroit Public Schools has been the paradoxical inconstancy of constant change. Since the 1999 state takeover, DPS has had three CEO’s, four emergency managers including the current one, and four superintendents, including me. When PA 436—the unconstitutional law that replaced PA 4—is overturned in Federal Appeals Court and I regain the Superintendency, I intend to militate to bring the fifteen stolen schools in the failed “Educational Achievement” Authority (EAA) back into their rightful DPS fold and refocus DPS entirely on the needs of the children. Refocusing this beleaguered school district on our children has now actually become almost like challenging Yusain Bolt to race the Olympic 100-meter dash all over again—this time in a further record-breaking nine seconds flat. Nonetheless, I’m on official record as having outrun even Olympic champions in the past, and with a united grass-roots community and this good democratically elected school board behind me, I pledge to accomplish that feat (metaphorically) one last time and then turn the district over to a knowledgeable, Detroit-bred successor duly-appointed by the elected Board. Far from intending to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” my curricular goal will once more be to build on the few remaining successful programs, jettison all that don’t work, and establish an aligned and coherent instructional and staff-evaluative framework and a reduced central administration relocated to a closed middle school.
It’s not “rocket science” for us to recognize that the overweening task before us is to prepare all of our students to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To achieve this goal in Detroit, our most imposing objectives are to make all schools safe and get all students to behave and ensure that they can read and are computer-literate, and to arm our teachers and administrators with new techniques as well as time-proven methods, so all DPS staff will be prepared to enable students to succeed in an international society.
This paradigm shift will require changing some of the ways we deliver instruction, and it will refocus the district from what’s good for adults to a system that focuses on what’s good for children. I pray that then we may all join hands and make it happen.
Longtime Detroit-area activist/educator and former world-ranked sprinter John Telford served pro bono as the interim Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012-2013. Get his books at www.ALifeontheRUN.com, contact him at DrJohnTelford@gmail.com or (313) 460-8272, and hear him Sunday afternoons at 4:30 on WCHB NewsTalk 1200.