new day

On a superintendent’s first day, just another Tuesday for 37 Detroit first-graders with no music or art or gym

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Detroit schools have been buzzing these last two weeks with what feels like a fresh start.

A new superintendent —  Nikolai Vitti — has landed in the city and started his job as the first new leader of what is officially a new district.

He uses words like “transformation” and “vision” and “hope” to describe a future when Detroit schools will begin to address the intensive challenges that have contributed to some of the lowest test scores in the nation. He sees Detroit becoming “a mecca of improvement” that will draw young teachers from around the country who will want to be part of a city’s metamorphosis.

But spend a morning in a Detroit classroom and it quickly becomes clear exactly how much will have to change in this city before it looks anything like the “mecca” that Vitti imagines.

Spend a morning in Room 106 at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side.

That’s the room where first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey arrived on the morning of May 23rd — Vitti’s first full day on the job — to discover that another teacher was out on jury duty. Since substitute teachers are rarely available, Sturkey would — again — have to double up. That morning, she’d have 37 kids.

A teaching shortage has prevented the school from hiring for non-academic classes such as music, art and gym. So Sturkey and her students will be crowded together in their cluttered classroom for seven hours, with only a break for lunch and recess. She and her colleagues get none of the prep periods that are standard for teachers in schools with more resources.

“They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said. “We make the best of what we’ve got. We work together as a team here. We support each other. But we’re exhausted.”

In addition to the crowded conditions, Sturkey says her curriculum didn’t arrive until March. Her kids are tested on computers they don’t know how to use and key supports such as social workers and counselors are hard to come by.

Sturkey has heard Vitti’s hopeful message, she said, but teachers in this city have heard a lot promises over the years and have seen the painful effects of disappointment on the city and its most vulnerable children.

“I’m keeping an open mind,” said Sturkey, a 17-year veteran of the Detroit district who grew up in the city and attended its schools. “I have to. I care about this city. I care about these kids.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
With 37 students in her class, first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey is unable to gather her students on the floor for story time as she prefers. “You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

On the morning of May 23, Sturkey started her day moving desks around to accommodate an additional class of 20 kids. Soon, it would be difficult to walk between the packed-in desks. Some were jammed against the blackboard, others clustered near the door.

When storytime arrived, Sturkey had to lean against a wall to read to her students instead of sitting on the floor as she prefers.

“You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them as she opened “The Garden” story from the Frog and Toad series. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

Sturkey read loudly and clearly to be heard over the tapping pencils, squeaking chairs and shuffling feet of more than three dozen 6- and 7-year-olds. Some kids listened to the story. Others, unable to see the pictures in the book, gazed out the window. One boy had his head down on his desk, apparently asleep.

“Heads down! Mouths closed!” Sturkey snapped when the noise level got too high. “What is all this noise? I hear a lot of talking!”

The noise level in the class is a direct result of a district-wide teacher shortage. Across the city last month, more than 200 teaching positions were unfilled, including two at Robeson.

Principal Jeffrey Robinson says his openings are not a priority because they’re not in core subjects like reading or math. And low salaries make hiring difficult. First-year teachers earn $35,683 a year in Detroit according to the current contract with the city teachers union. Many suburban districts pay thousands of dollars more.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson said.

The absence of those teachers is compounded by the lack of substitutes, he said.

When the school’s seventh-grade teacher was out for an eight-week medical leave this year, the district sent a substitute for only one day, Robinson said.

Help didn’t arrive until the seventh-grade teacher returned last month from her leave.

The rest of the time “we had to make do,” Robinson said. “My teachers and I, we switched around. We did the best we could given the situation but my children’s achievement suffered.”

The doubling up in Sturkey’s classroom, which happens roughly three or four days a month, she said, is one way the teachers at Robeson make do.

It’s difficult, she said, but not as difficult as last year when she had 38 students enrolled in her classroom every day.

With that many kids, “it’s like you’re literally going into survival mode,” she said. “You’re constantly stopping for behavior or emotional needs or not knowing what’s coming in through the door that morning. For the most part, we’re able to teach, but some days it can be challenging.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side, said she didn’t get the workbooks she’s required to use to teach math until March this year.

 

Working with too many kids is only one of the challenges Sturkey has faced this year. Another was a math curriculum that didn’t arrive until March.

The textbook arrived on time, she said. But the workbooks that are a key part of the district’s math program were missing through the fall and winter.

“They just kept saying it was coming,” she said. But months passed without anything arriving.

“I supplemented with whatever materials that I had on my own, whatever research materials I could find online to use for the children,” she said. “But if you require that we use it and you’re expecting for us to use it, it should be here for us to use.”

The lack of materials have affected her students’ performance on the tracking tests the district requires her students to take, she said. But the fact that the tests are administered online makes it difficult to really evaluate their skills.

That’s because the school only has one computer lab, and that lab is dedicated almost exclusively to online testing.

When Sturkey’s students come into the lab for testing, they spend most of their time trying to figure out how to use a mouse, she said.

The lack of computer time also affects older kids in the school, including those in grades 3-8 who take the high-stakes exams that state officials use to determine which schools should be closed for poor performance.

The state exams require older kids to write short essays but Robeson students struggle with using a keyboard, Robinson said..

They’re “in there all day because they’re hunting and pecking,” Robinson said. “So on top of the challenges that the test itself presents, they have a tactile, a physical challenge because they’re not able to do the test.”

The Detroit district has some of the lowest-performing schools in Michigan. Just a fraction of students in grades 3-8 — 4.1 percent — were reading and doing math at grade level last year.

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent leaders Aliya Moore, left, and Stephanie Beal have organized protests at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy to protest a teacher shortage that has left kids without needed instruction.

Paul Robeson Malcolm X claims to be the first public school program in the United States to provide an African-centered curriculum.

The school “still produces greatness. It really does,” said parent leader Aliya Moore, 36. “Despite the shortcomings, the staff that is here finds creative ways to let a child, you know draw, or do the music part, but it’s hard now because their creativity is smothered.”

The Detroit district she attended as a child was “full of resources,” Moore said. “I had art. I had music. I had gym. I had free drivers’ training. Supplies were plentiful.”

Moore puts the blame for the district’s current lack of resources squarely on intervention by the state of Michigan.

She graduated in 1998. The following year, state lawmakers led by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, removed the elected school board and replaced it with a seven-person reform board, appointed largely by the mayor, that ran the schools for six years.

A decade later, another governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, named the first of a series of emergency managers who ran the district — and presided over skyrocketing debt and plunging enrollment.

Last year, state lawmakers created a plan to address the district’s crippling debt by forming the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new debt-free district that replaced the the Detroit Public Schools.

A newly elected school board took over the new district in January. It chose Vitti in April, hiring him away from the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

At an event last week, Vitti told a gathering of business and political leaders that he recognizes that Detroit teachers have experienced “trauma” from the “chaos” of recent events.

“We have to recognize the past and understand the pain that’s connected to that past because it’s real,” he said at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. “You hear it from teachers on a daily basis, but you also see the beauty of what’s happening in the school system.”

Vitti has vowed to address the teacher shortage and to do what he can to raise teacher pay. During his job interview, he boasted of expanding music and arts in Florida. He talked of better technology for schools and says he’s listening to teachers and administrators.

The parents and educators at Robeson remain skeptical. They know that despite the district’s status as a new, debt-free entity, it still faces severe financial constraints.

But they’re hopeful that some things, somehow, will change — and that students in the district will someday have the same opportunities as their peers across the state and nation.

“Our kids come to school because they want to learn,” Sturkey said. “We need for them to have a level playing field.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job, May 23, 2017

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s now been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30-45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,”McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do so … when we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list Detroit district schools that offer music and art. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

Music and power

This Detroit teacher uses music to expose students to history, politics and power. ‘They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.’

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School teacher Quincy Stewart uses music to teach African-American history to his students. "These children have been robbed by this system. ... They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused," he said.

As soon as Quincy Stewart started teaching music, he realized that harmonies and melodies would never be enough — not nearly enough for a man determined to connect his students with their history and culture.

“I’m a black man and these are black children,” said Stewart, 59, a music teacher, band leader and choir director at Detroit’s Central High School. “These children have been robbed by this system, from the cradle until right now. They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused …. They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.”

So Stewart’s music classes — whether he’s teaching music theory, music appreciation or the fundamentals of playing piano — take kids on a tour through black history, from the nations of Africa to Black Power and Civil Rights.  

At a time when music classes are seen as a luxury in many schools, with districts cutting arts instruction in favor of math and reading, Stewart’s approach to teaching music demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  The arts can be deeply integrated into core subjects.

Stewart teaches math by walking music theory students through the mathematical details of musical scoring.

He teaches writing by insisting that students write several papers a year on themes covered in class. He cuts them no break on grammar or format, marking up papers with a red pen in a manner more typical of English teachers than of those whose certifications are in instrumental music.

“Some of your papers look like a blood transfusion when I get done,” Stewart told a group of students on a recent morning. “That’s because y’all can’t write.”

But it’s history, power and politics that get the most attention in his classes.

“I found that a majority of my students didn’t know anything about … their own history,” he said.

Students knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — but hadn’t gotten the full story.

“They were slaveholders and racists and white supremacists,” Stewart said. “So once we debunk all of the myths … then we get to open up that can of worms about uncovering black history and we use music to do it.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart incorporates math, writing and history in his music classes at Detroit’s Central High School

He starts his class with Africa, playing students the music of the Akan and the Ashanti people, the music of Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu.

“We’ve traveled all the way from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica and the islands to Virginia,” Stewart said. “We moved through slavery up until the first part of the 20th century and we get into Rosewood, to Oklahoma, into all those so-called race riots where blacks were slaughtered because they had towns of their own and the corresponding music that goes with it. This is the time of Louis Armstrong. This is the time of Freddie Keppard. This is the time of Bessie Smith. So we play the music from there.”

On a recent morning, he peppered his students with questions about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. He drilled them on Hampton’s background, the details of the 1969 Chicago police raid that killed him and the FBI COINTELPRO operation that targeted him and other leaders of 1960s-era social movements.

“And what were some of the songs that were playing at the time of the Black Power movement?” he asked his students. “Give me some songs!”

Stewart questioned his class about the ethics of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders who worked as FBI informants and pressed them to say if, during slavery, they would have considered informing on other slaves in a bid to secure their own freedom. (One student volunteered that he’d gladly choose freedom regardless of the consequences to others).

Stewart even used the arrival of a mouse that came scurrying across his classroom as a teaching moment, comparing the rodent’s struggle to the history of African Americans in the United States.

“I’ve tried to kill him but he’s an elusive mouse,” Stewart said. “He knows his rat history. He knows that down through history, human beings don’t like him. He knows that down through history, people have set traps for him. He knows that down through history, people are out to get him. He’s become very crafty at getting away, waiting until my back is turned and then he runs.”

Stewart’s students say the history lessons have been eye-opening.

“When I signed up for this class, I thought I’d be going over Beethoven and classical artists and stuff but I found information about myself, my history,” said student Lamont Hogan. “This class gave me more information about myself than I could even imagine. Things that I never would have known and never would have imagined without Mr. Stewart teaching.”

Teaching at Central hasn’t been easy, Stewart said.

The state-run Education Achievement Authority, which took over Central and 14 other low-performing Detroit schools in 2012, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is going through another transition now as its schools return to the main Detroit district next week.

The changes have taken a toll on teachers and students, said Stewart, who came to the school in 2012, the first year of the EAA.

“It’s kind of like being … at the bottom of a latrine,” Stewart said. “The biggest thud from what comes into a latrine lands at the bottom … Us teachers have really felt the thud of the crap.”

He hasn’t been able to get the resources he felt he needed for his classroom. When he took over a music program that had lost most of its musical equipment to theft before he arrived, he used his own money to buy things like drums, keyboards and guitars for his students to use, he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart said he used his own money to buy many of the musical instruments his students use at Detroit’s Central High School.

Attendance has also been an issue. His first-hour class on a morning in early June had just eight students — a fraction of the 24 enrolled.

“A lot of kids don’t have transportation,” he said. “Some are catching three and four buses to get here and, I hate to say it, but … some of it is just lack of parental support telling them to get their ass up and get to school. They have the liberty of coming to school, in many cases, when they feel like it.”

Now the latest challenge Stewart is facing is a likely cut to his salary.

He is among EAA teachers bracing for dramatic pay cuts when their schools return to the main district.

But Stewart says he’s looking forward to his first summer off in years. Since EAA teachers were required to work through the summer, the school’s return to the Detroit Public Schools Community District will mean a chance for Stewart to spend the summer playing music and performing. He is a professional musician who says he toured the world before going into teaching in his 40s.

Stewart doesn’t know what will happen next year as Central gets a new principal and as that principal responds to changes from the new Detroit superintendent. He said he plans to keep teaching this way as long as he is permitted to do so.

“I have what I can give them and I’m going to give it to them,” he said. “And if a principal comes in here and tells me I can’t do it, then that’s the day I quit. I leave. Period. Because I’m not here for the money. There is no money.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School music teacher Quincy Stewart is a professional musician who got into teaching in his 40s. He played guitar during a choir rehearsal on a recent morning.