A prescription to fix Detroit schools

Kevin Chavous

It is time to build a national obsession around learning in America.

For this to happen, we must face head on our K-12 education shortfalls, but we also need to excite what is possible in education. This cultural pivot will inspire our citizens to take personal and national pride in learning. A new culture of learning will save education in America. And we should begin building this new approach to learning in Detroit, Michigan.

I know about the history and challenges associated with education in the Motor City. I am also well aware of the toxic nature of its politics, the intransigence of the education establishment, and the ongoing tension between state and local leaders.

But if we make education work in Detroit, we can make it work everywhere in America.

First, Detroit needs an identifiable, home-grown education leader and change agent. This person should embody a new mindset, a new energy for Detroit. One that champions children’s learning ahead of any and all adult-related interests. This new leader must be strong enough to take on the status quo with tough love. The new leader should not be tied to any particular group and may or may not be from the education or education reform world.

But this person must be highly respected, be able to navigate Michigan’s dicey politics and have no other interest or focus other than making Detroit the pre-eminent learning center in America — by any means necessary.

Second, significant community and civic attention must be devoted to changing how Detroit citizens view education — not just as a means to an end, but, rather, as an integral part of the lifelong learning journey of life. All stakeholders and residents need to be cultivated to embrace creativity and innovation to help propel positive outcomes for children. And there must be a willingness to borrow the best unique practices from others that may work in Detroit.

For instance, adopting Indianapolis’ Innovation Network Schools concept could work beautifully in Detroit. Innovation Network Schools are public schools made possible by Indiana state laws which allow school districts to convert, open or restart schools into new, autonomous schools with their own nonprofit boards. These schools are exempt from most district practices and have “full operational autonomy.” The new leaders for the reconstituted schools are trained through a fellowship program administered by the Mind Trust, a highly regarded education nonprofit group. Indy parents and students love the new and improved schools.

Detroit Public Schools should also consider the personalized learning model implemented by the Lindsay Unified School District in California. This largely poor, mainly migrant farming community once had the worst performing school district in the state. After a tedious process driven by grass-roots community meetings lasting over a year, Lindsay completely redesigned its schools. Nine years later, test scores are up, as are college admissions for Lindsay high school graduates.

Finally, Detroit must grow its school choice offerings. As is evidenced in Florida, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., we now know that quality-based school choice programs lead to improvements in traditional public schools. Detroit has a significant number of charter schools, but there should be more emphasis on quality and accountability. And other forms of school choice should be considered.

For far too many years, the mention of Detroit’s education woes has led to collective head-shaking. But this can be turned around if state and local officials commit to the right leadership and a grassroots community driven process for change that also provides more options for parents.

Kevin Chavous, author of “Building a Learning Culture in America,” is a founding board member of the American Federation for Children and Democrats for Education Reform.