Panel calls for fixes to Detroit Public Schools

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Public School system is broken, but it can be fixed, a panel of five education stakeholders agreed Thursday.

“I have hope that Detroit Public Schools can be better than it is,” said interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who was on a panel at the Detroit Athletic Club. “Let’s stop talking about it and let’s do something about it that is a long-term, permanent fix.”

DPS, the largest school district in the state, is battling financial woes that could lead to payless paydays without quick action by the state Legislature, poor building conditions and low performing schools, among other challenges.

Panelists presented ideas ranging from returning the district to local control and dedicating more resources to academic achievement to targeting chronic absenteeism.

The roughly 300 audience members in attendance were polled on solutions to restore Detroit schools. The majority of those who voted said they would have the most trust in a locally elected school board overseeing the district. They were also in favor of saving the school district as opposed to breaking it down into charter schools.

Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation and who was on the panel, dismissed the notion that charter schools were a remedy, saying many of them were performing at the same level as public schools. She said the community needed to focus on improving education at all schools.

“Let’s stop believing that one is the better solution than the other,” she said at the Pancakes & Politics event sponsored by the Michigan Chronicle. “The first choice a family oughta have is a good, high quality school in their neighborhood.”

John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge, a Detroit-based construction company, said he was concerned about chronic absenteeism in Detroit schools, district funds going to the classrooms and empowering a superintendent and elected school board to run the district.

The district is led by state-appointed emergency manager Steven Rhodes, a retired U.S. bankruptcy judge. He is the district’s fifth state-appointed leader. The district has an elected school board, but it is essentially powerless under the emergency manager.

“Society has lost its moral compass when it comes to these children,” said Rakolta, who was involved in the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of local leaders that made recommendations to improve the city’s school system.

Rakolta also said the state will have no choice but to fund DPS so it continues to operate.

“They are responsible,” he said.

Meriweather said it is critical for the district to come up with an academic plan to boost achievement and ensure classrooms have all the resources. She also advised the public to include DPS officials in conversations about donating or helping students.

“Everything is under review,” she said. “There is no stone that will be unturned.”

Also on the panel were Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park.

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