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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Islands of Success at DPS


Nov. 29, 2007
Tracy Samilton
Detroit students score far below the state average in reading and math. But within Michigan's largest school district, a few schools are providing a high-quality education, despite the odds. 

ANN ARBOR, MI (Michigan Radio) - Michigan's largest school district is in trouble. Detroit students score far below the state average in reading and math. Many schools lack enough textbooks and qualified teachers. Some estimates say only 25% of the students graduate with a high school diploma.

But within the district, there are some islands of success. A few schools are providing a high-quality education for students, despite the odds.

Principal Vivian Hughes Norday is not in her office today. Most days, she's not in her office.

"Did you get your keys?" she asks a student. "I'll help you get them later.

Every day, Norday walks miles and miles throughout this old, stately building, checking up on students, helping teachers, talking to parents. John R. King Elementary is a gem in the Detroit Public school system, and Norday is determined to keep it that way. The halls, classrooms and bathrooms are spotless.

"I'm a real finicky person when it comes to cleanliness, I joke that I'll be here for a long time, I'll be here in my walker, telling everyone, get off my walls! (laughs heartily.) But I think this should be a clean safe environment for children when they come here."

It's no particular mystery what makes a school successful. Everyone agrees that good schools are safe and nurturing places. The teachers are highly qualified. There's a team approach to teaching. Parents are highly involved. And good schools have a strong principal. For 22 years, Vivian Norday has been that strong principal. But she says she faced a lot of resistance at first.

"The first five years here were really hard. There were days I just sat at my desk at the end of the day and cried. I had about 99% turnover in teachers back then. There were teachers who had been here a long time, and they thought they were going to run me out, or get me to change. They'd say, we don't do it that way. So I just persevered and they left."

Today, the school boasts MEAP math and English scores above the state average and near 100% proficiency in science. Norday says that's because it's a priority at the school to have specialized math, English and science teachers starting in first grade.

The school has also kept its performing arts program intact despite years of budget cuts. She says there's a reason she has cut other programs rather than performing arts.

"I have seen the change in the children, there are children who have behavior problems, and the same thing with the vocal music, and when they come up here you can see a transformation in the children."

Norday says the school has aggressively courted federal and private grants to maintain its quality. John R. King is a school of choice within DPS. Children from anywhere in the city can come here. Some are homeless. Some have drug-addicted parents. Many are reading below grade level. But by the time they leave the school, most are doing well academically. Norday credits dedicated teachers and highly involved parents for the transformation. For her part,

"I have a long day, I start at 5:30, and sometimes I don't go home until 6 or 7. But I love my job!"

Most of the parents here know they have a good thing. They're really worried about what will happen after their kids graduate from the school. Parent Sylvia Roland says she's visited other schools in the district -

"(I) walked into the school and I said, Oh, my God. So I said, okay. Let me still proceed to go to the office . Chaos. Kids running around everywhere."

Roland's views on the school system are not isolated. The district's image among Detroit parents is very poor. Experts say the poor image is mostly earned. Sharif Shakrani is a Professor of Education at Michigan State University. He says the district should be very worried about its students' fourth grade reading scores -- because low scores highly predict dropping out of school later.

"More than 50% of fourth graders can't read very well. What expectations do you have for kids when they have to read to do math, and science and social studies and history and all of these things? They can't read!"

Math scores at 8th grade, another predictor of graduation, are also very low. Shakrani says major reforms are needed. David Plank is an education expert at Berkeley who has studied Detroit schools. He agrees. But he says the reforms would need to be radical.

"From time to time and from school to school, an inspired principal or cohesive group of teachers will pull this together and achieve magnificent things in very difficult circumstances, but moving schools from low performance to high performance is a daunting problem in any circumstances and the challenge in Detroit is compounded by the structural problems that the district faces."

Those structural problems include too little revenue from the state, and too many expenses. Plank says Detroit's teachers union has fought proposed layoffs and school closings over the years. Those steps might have freed up resources to help the remaining schools. The teachers union says their middle class jobs are crucial to Detroit's economy. But Plank says well-educated children are the only hope the city has for a middle class in the future.

"Detroit still has too many schools for the number of kids it's educating and what they've elected to do is bleed slowly and close schools basically as a last resort.

If there's hope for Detroit, it might lie in Chicago's example. Ten years ago, it was called the worst public school district in the country. After the mayor took it over, the district began setting up its own charter schools. Public universities were invited to start schools. Principals were held strictly accountable for their school's performance. And the reforms were driven by research. Plank says Chicago Public Schools are by no means good yet, but,

"The trajectory has changed. We see a district that is on the road to improvement."

Another glimmer of hope may be Detroit Public School's new CEO. Connie Calloway. Through a spokesperson, she declined to be interviewed for this story. Many people say they have hopes her leadership will usher change. But MSU Professor Sharif Shakrani says that's up to others - including the Union, the School Board, and the Mayor.

"No CEO, no district Superintendent in Detroit in all their history have ever been able to do anything without the support of those other groups."

Back at King Elementary, students are rehearsing for their upcoming Christmas concert. It will likely be years before they understand how lucky they were to land on this island of success. Parent Sylvia Roland says every day she tries to convince more parents to enroll their children here. She says children in other schools will unfortunately have to wait for the leaders of the city and the school system to get it right.

"Until they get off their - and come down to earth and get involved in these schools - Ms. Norday is outside at 7:00 in the morning - bringing the children off the streets - and until those superintendents and people at the top get actively involved and see what's going on, where they should be putting the dollars, instead of thinkin', we're gonna be in trouble."

Education researchers are planning a meeting in January in Detroit, to discuss new data about the district's performance, and to propose solutions to its decline. They say they hope those whom they've invited, from the mayor's office to local parents, will use the meeting as a catalyst for change.
© Copyright 2012, Michigan Radio