DPS parents expect to ‘take power back’ in new year

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Next year is a big year for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation and founder of the Detroit Parent Network, speaks during the14th Annual Detroit Parent Network breakfast Saturday.

But for the year to meet and exceed its potential, though, parents and those who care for Detroit's children must "take back their power" by being fully engaged, said Tonya Allen, founder of the Detroit Parent Network and keynote speaker at its 14th annual breakfast on Saturday at the Renaissance Center Marriott in downtown Detroit.

Allen, now the CEO of the Skillman Foundation who said she had to miss her 10-year-old daughter's basketball game to participate in the breakfast, called her founding of the Detroit Parent Network was "one of my greatest accomplishments in life."

"Power is what you use it for," Allen said. "If you love, power is going to be loving. But for too long, we've allowed people to usurp our power," through state control and emergency management.

And she said power starts at home.

"Read to your babies," said Allen. "I don't care if you can't read; let them read to you," was one piece of advice.

Allen joined a panel with interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and four elected members of the new school board: Iris Taylor, Sonya Mays, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, and Misha Stallworth.

"The school system was great to me," said Meriweather, a Renaissance High School graduate and lifelong Detroiter. She said her "ultimate vision" is for the district to become the "first educational choice" for children in the city.

"I don't think of it as having 50,000 kids," Meriweather said, a rounding-up of the district's enrollment. "I think of it as having 127,000 kids," referring to those who attend charter schools, private schools or school-choice schools in the suburbs but call the city home. Meriweather said she hopes to attract suburban students as well.

A crowd of families attends the 14th annual Detroit parent network breakfast at the Marriott Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit on Saturday.

The Detroit Board of Education will meet Jan. 11 at 5 p.m., said Hunter-Harvill. She encouraged members of the network to make themselves seen and heard at the meeting, whose location is to be determined.

Misha Stallworth, the youngest member of the board at 27, hopes to offer "holistic education" in the district, one that leaves graduates "prepared for life" after high school.

Iris Taylor said she wants the district to be able to "quickly intervene" when a child is headed down the wrong path educationally.

Sonya Mays, founder and owner of real estate firm Develop Detroit, said her focus is on career pathways, particularly vocational education.

Allen, who graduated from Detroit Public Schools in 1990, said that people who graduated in 1980 or 1970 had "two to three times more opportunity " than she did, and that kids now, almost 27 years later, have even less.

"Talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not," Allen said.

When responding to a question from the mother of a deaf child about how the district will work to better reach challenged student populations, Meriweather was brought to tears, which inspired many in audience to stand up and applaud.

"We are in a time right now of looking in the mirror," Meriweather said. "If that is your truth, we can't ignore that. It's time for this city to get emotional about our kids."

jdickson@detroitnews.com