DETROIT: Having an educated workforce and citizenry will play a crucial role in driving Detroit’s comeback forward. What’s more, the depth of the needed turnaround could serve as a beacon of hope for other challenged urban communities in Michigan and across the country.
Recent reports of a positive bump in scores on the M-STEP, the state test, from Detroit’s district and charter schools provided just the kind of encouraging news city residents and leaders were waiting to applaud. Under both local and state control, the school district has spent a long time falling flat in its most basic mission, to help prepare young people with the academic skills and other tools needed for success in college, career and community service. In 2016, the Michigan Legislature rescued the sinking ship with millions of extra dollars and a plan to give it a fresh start as the newly remade Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD).
For more than two decades, charter schools have filled some of the gap, adding real measurable value that families have voted for with their feet. As a rule, these charter schools are giving kids from the same neighborhoods as their district peers a better chance to gain needed reading and math skills, to graduate on time and to qualify for college or a skilled vocation Yet still, the overall level of achievement and opportunity for children growing up in the Motor City leaves a lot to be desired.
Interview with Conservative talk-show host and education advocate Brandon Brice
I interviewed a native Detroiter, Brandon Brice, who graduated with two university degrees and got a leg up on the American Dream. He gained valuable experience working on education policy for then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Since then, Brandon has brought his experience advocating for better educational opportunities back home to Detroit, where he works as a nonprofit executive and is an advocate for early career workforce programs for Detroit kids. He has lived and observed up close what might be possible to accelerate the city’s pursuit of quality education for a rising generation.
Ben DeGrow (BD) What did your own formative education experiences look like?
Brandon Brice (BB): I grew up in southwest Detroit in a blue-collar, law enforcement and union family. My parents sacrificed to put me into a private school. That learning environment opened doors for me to head out east and earn degrees at Howard University in D.C., and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Many of my friends and family members were not privileged to receive the same educational opportunities. Their stories, typifying many others in Detroit, have turned out differently.
BD: What do you make of what’s going on in the new Detroit Public Schools Community District?
BB: Growing up, we saw the struggles, we saw families leaving the city. We heard the stories of corruption and financial mismanagement at the old school district. The reality of the situation wasn’t pretty. Lots of schools were being shut down. Real kids and families suffered from all that.
It’s no secret that when it comes to academics, the Detroit school district has achieved poor results for too long. Every other year since 2009, we’ve seen the district’s fourth- and eighth-graders finish last time and time again in math and English achievement. That’s among more than 20 urban districts in the nation on the best kind of test we have. It’s sad that we have never seen even 10% shown solid academic performance on any one of those tests, while most Detroit kids miss even the lowest threshold of basic mastery.
When you look at the state tests, the results haven’t been much better. But we must give credit to [DPSCD superintendent] Dr. [Nikolai] Vitti for doing some work to clean up the district administration, to get a new curriculum, and then focusing on filling many of those classroom vacancies. This year’s test scores are significantly better across the board. Not world-beating scores by any means, mind you, but they’ve given a renewed glimmer of hope for Detroit’s kids.
BD: In some circles, public charter schools have grown into a contentious topic. The controversy is heightened in the Detroit area by the other challenges of a shrinking student population and overcoming a long economic downturn. What role do charters play in all this?
You have to start with the fact that most of the charter schools exist because many families have not been satisfied with what their kids were getting, or not getting, from their neighborhood schools. In many cases, the system just failed them. They weren’t learning basic math and reading skills, and other important skills to be competitive in the real world. Some just had to get out because they knew it wasn’t safe in some of the old district schools.
Look, the research shows real advantages for Detroit students attending a charter school. Two extra months of learning each year on average. And the charters improved on the new M-STEP test results, just not by as much as the district did. But they also started out well ahead of the district and are still raising achievement overall. Hundreds more Detroit students this year met the mark the state has set for them, but many, many more are falling short.
BD: How have your experiences working on education policy helped shape your perceptions of the challenges facing students in Detroit?
BB: First, I have to say that a typical child growing up in Detroit has just as much raw potential as his or her counterparts around Michigan and the rest of the country. The kids here are just far more likely to have been shortchanged by the education system that has been left for them.
But look at the amazing records of some schools I’ve seen and others, like New York City’s Success Academy. It has a proven formula that includes high standards and not taking parents for granted. Schools like that shatter the myth that poor minority children can’t achieve at the level of their peers in other communities. We can help turn that myth on its head. Detroit can be part of that, too. I’m a living testimony.
BD: How can we help encourage Detroit schools to build on the small success and get to the next level?
BB: Let’s start by being realistic. The new M-STEP results are better than last year. But Detroit children still face a long road to catch up to their peers across the state, much less to reach the greater heights we all know they can reach if given a chance. One year’s test score gains should not take city and state leaders’ eyes off the goal of student success. We need to look ahead, not back if schools are going to sustain this positive momentum.
I’ll go back to charter schools. They’re not the answer for everyone, but they are working well for a lot of kids and families. Look at a place like the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Center, which has been providing a quality education for a long time. That charter school serves the same type of students in poverty as DPSCD does, but it’s getting far more kids to achieve.
The ones that do it well are focused, and they respect parents as true partners. We need to foster that kind of attitude in all the schools in Detroit. Encourage students and parents to keep their eyes on the prize. But also give them the tools they need, like help with transportation if they need it to get to the right school. Or like good information, to make the best possible choices. A new citywide system of school letter grades is supposed to come out soon. That could be very helpful. But it’s going to take a lot of people working together, listening and learning, raising expectations for all students, and respecting one another’s decisions.
BD: How does Detroit do a better job at getting its older students across the high school finish line with the best chance to have a fulfilling life and career?
BB: People in Detroit are right to be proud of the district’s high school gems: Renaissance and Cass Tech. They’re tops in the city at preparing students for college-level work, though they also can select the brightest and best. We all know the picture is a lot different at places like Cody and Denby. Here again, charters are setting the pace. They can’t turn away students but are clearly doing a better job getting them ready with college-level skills and sending them on to two-year or four-year colleges. I’m talking about places like DEPSA [Detroit Edison Public School Academy], Jalen Rose [Leadership Academy], and University Prep.
But it certainly can’t just be about getting to college, and some charters recognize that. The district needs to catch up, though, too. The new school at Marygrove is worth keeping an eye on. Getting more young people exposure to quality skilled trades programs has to be a top priority.
As the state and region depend more on skilled jobs, career and technical education should play both a larger and more strategic role. New research shows there’s a significant mismatch between the focus of school CTE programs and the specific skills employers are seeking. That’s a real opportunity for education officials and business leaders to cooperate more closely with one another for the benefit of students. In fact, the skilled trade conversation and curriculum should begin at middle school, not when a student is preparing to graduate from high-school.
BD: You have a private school background, but there are definitely fewer of these options around for families if they’re even able to afford them. What role do you see these schools playing in helping a Detroit comeback along?
BB: Like charters and other options, private school isn’t the answer for everyone. But for some students and families, specifically single-parent households, it would help tremendously. The question is how we help families afford it. We have special places like Detroit Cristo Rey in the southwest part of the city, doing remarkable work with students from poorer families, giving them both vital corporate work experience and preparing them for college success. That’s really hard to replicate, though, and there need to be other models available that might better fit other kids.
There are a couple of developments on the horizon that people in Detroit ought to pay attention to. One is a U.S. Supreme Court case called Espinoza, which could break down legal barriers and lead to more financial help for families seeking a private school. Another one could happen if Congress decides to pass Education Freedom Scholarships. If that happens and Michigan joins in, we could be talking about many millions of dollars to help families pay not only for private school but also for things like tutoring, vocational programs, textbooks and learning technology, lots of things to break the educational divide between the haves and the have-nots.
BD: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on improving educational opportunities for Detroit students. What are the most important means of fixing education for Detroit kids?
BB: First, thank you for the conversation. There’s a lot of work ahead. It starts by motivating parents, by giving them more power to hold their schools accountable, and not taking their educational decisions for granted. The parents are the keys to getting our children the support they need to be great when dealing with the ills of poverty and public safety.