Opinion: Detroit can be the best place to raise your children

Jack Elsey
University Prep Science and Math Middle School science class in Detroit, Michigan on October 5, 2017.

It’s not difficult to find people who will agree that Detroit cannot make any real progress until we repair the educational system in the city. Most people believe that, and they are right. What has proved much more challenging is getting people to believe that we actually can repair the education system in the city of Detroit.

After decades of mismanagement, there is a cynicism that plagues the region. One that leads to subjective opinions and finger-pointing: at teachers, at parents, at administrators, at government. What gets lost in this frustration is the fundamental principle that every child in the city of Detroit deserves a quality education, and, as a community, it is our duty to ensure that they get one.

Today, only 1 in 10 children in the city are receiving a quality education. The lack of quality non-profit schools – both public and charter – has created educational deserts across the city.

With the backing of public and private support, Detroit Children’s Fund has created a plan informed by data to make long-term investments in proven school models, high potential talent, and equitable policies that have the highest likelihood of creating effective change. The goal is to eliminate those deserts and give every child in the city of Detroit access to high quality schools.

The first step is investing in quality teachers and school leaders. Better schools come from better teachers and leaders, and, for far too long, investing in our people hasn’t been a priority.

The recent announcement of the Teach 313 effort is a massive step in the right direction. This cornerstone training and recruiting program, along with others like Leaders Institute and Team Fellows, is focused on training and developing a pipeline of quality teachers, principals and school leadership. These are the kinds of proven efforts that Detroit Children’s Fund and our partners are investing in.

Through Teach 313, we are incentivizing the best and the brightest educators to come to Detroit. Companies like General Motors and Quicken Loans are providing financial incentives on vehicles and mortgages to help make Detroit an attractive and affordable place for teachers to live and work.

We are demonstrating through these incentives, along with training and development programs, that Detroit values its teachers. It’s efforts like Teach 313 that will help schools recruit a full force of teachers who set a high-performance bar for student achievement.

Second, we need to invest in quality schools, giving them the opportunity to serve more children, while, at the same time, ensuring that we take their successful approach to education and apply it to lower-performing schools. Investments in New Paradigm for Education (NPFE) are a great example of how to grow and develop high-performing schools throughout the city.

NPFE is the highest-performing charter school network in Detroit and has fueled positive outcomes for their staff retention efforts and student achievement. By replicating and repeating their successful processes to other schools, we can greatly increase access to quality education. Another way we are spreading success is by funding the upcoming School Collaboration Collective. This program will select four schools in the city that are showing promise to receive full long-term financial support to help improve student outcomes.

Third, creating the kind of education system our children deserve requires accountability. This means not only benchmarking and reporting on investments to ensure that programs are driving change, but also creating transparency for parents.

Detroit Children’s Fund has invested in the Community Education Commission to generate the first-ever standardized quality rating system for public school district and charter schools in the city of Detroit to help guide parents and school leadership on where their school stands. Having a singular standardized rating will help us all understand how best to improve schools moving forward.

More quality options are the key to Detroit’s future. Today, only 22 schools meet the criteria for providing a high-quality education, a shockingly low number. And while the task is daunting and complicated, we believe that a data-informed, long-term investment can fill the critical gap in school improvement efforts. Meaningful capital investments designed to achieve the greatest, widespread improvement of Detroit’s non-profit district and charter schools are the key our children’s future.

It is not unreasonable to expect that every family in Detroit should have equal opportunity to attend a school that allows their children to reach their full potential and give them access to the full range of possibilities that a quality, caring education provides.

It is not unreasonable to expect that a plan built on targeted, accountable, data-driven, long-term investment in specific initiatives to attract, train and develop great teachers and identify and spread high-performing school initiatives can produce results.

It is not, in fact, unreasonable to believe that with a long-term investment strategy, we can – in one generation – make Detroit the best place to raise your family.

We believe that one day, every child in Detroit will sit in a classroom surrounded by talented students of all backgrounds and dispositions with a teacher at the helm that empowers them to pursue their greatest ambitions.

If the residents, parents, children, leaders, educators and politicians in this region can support focused investment strategies that spread the best education practices from neighborhood to neighborhood, then, Detroit can become the envy of the nation in one generation. That is a comeback that we can all believe in, because it will last.

Jack Elsey is executive director of the Detroit Children’s Fund.