Future of Schools

Six hours, eight buses: The extreme sacrifice Detroit parents make to access better schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Dawn Wilson stands outside one of the many neighborhood schools in Detroit that has been shut down.

For thousands of Detroit families, the daily trek begins in darkness, before dawn.

Myesha Williams, a mother of eight on Detroit’s west side, sets out at 7 a.m. to deliver her three school-aged sons to three different schools on opposite ends of the city – and she considers herself lucky. She has a car and a large family that can help share the driving.

Total daily journey: Up to 93.5 miles, 3 hours.

Monique Johnson starts her trek even earlier, just after 6 a.m. when she and son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader, catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. There are closer stops, Johnson said, but they’re pitch black at that hour — and dangerous.

They wait for the bus in the glow of a nearby gas station, huddling together under blankets on frigid winter mornings. The No. 43 bus comes around 6:20 a.m., Johnson said.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

“It’s pretty dark on that side of the street,” Johnson said. Shownn knows to stay alert. “I teach him to pay attention to his surroundings so he’ll be able to react if he feels something is not right.”

"If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike"

Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50. She then makes her way back home — another No. 53, another No. 43 – until reaching Brightmoor around 9:30 a.m. That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.

Total daily journey: 52 miles, 5-6 hours.

Like many big cities, Detroit has shuttered scores of traditional neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools and public school magnet programs. Detroit kids can also attend schools in suburban districts.

But many of the city’s new options do not provide transportation, and new schools are often far from where kids live – a serious challenge in a city where a quarter of families have no access to a car and where the public transit system is woefully insufficient.

That means some families, like Williams’ and Johnson’s, make extreme sacrifices to access quality schools. Work gets neglected; personal obligations go unmet; children miss sleep and lose ground in class by too often showing up late.

Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

Other families, those without cars or the time and resources to make long commutes to school, are stuck with the few schools left in their neighborhoods. And the nearby option is often a school with a long track record of poor performance: Just 10 Detroit schools posted test scores high enough to rank above average on the state’s last top-to bottom ranking in 2014 — six selective public schools and four charter schools.

And with the families who can leave choosing to do so, many local schools have lost the engaged parents who once led the PTA. They’ve lost connections to community leaders who are less likely to advocate for a school their children do not attend. And their neighborhoods have lost the community anchors that once brought them together.

“One of the outcomes of schools closing and kids having to go farther and farther away from home is it’s much more difficult for the school to create bonds with families that would serve to support school improvements,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an education professor at Wayne State University. “The neighborhood around the school may not feel as strong a connection to it if none of their children are going to that school.”

School choice

The schools that once gathered the families of Johnson’s neighborhood, Brightmoor, are largely gone now – Vetal, Burt, Harding, Hubert, Houghten, Redford High.

It’s the same in Williams’ neighborhood on the city’s near west side. Robeson burned down. Hancock was shuttered. Longfellow became Detroit City High School, then closed its doors.

They were among 195 Detroit public schools that closed between 2000 and 2015 as the district’s enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959. More than 100 new public and charter schools opened during the same time period, but the new schools weren’t placed around the city based on neighborhood need.

Any college or university in Michigan can authorize a charter school and charter schools can open anywhere they find an appropriate building. So schools open where real estate is available, there is a perception of safety, and teachers want to work.

The result is a mismatch between where students live and where schools are located.

The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

A calculation by Data Driven Detroit and the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit shows that Detroit’s affluent downtown and midtown neighborhoods have 17,039 more school seats than children who need them.

The struggling neighborhoods in northeast Detroit, in contrast, have 2,130 more children than seats.

Williams’ neighborhood, around the center of the city, has 1,694 more children than seats.

The prominent city leaders behind the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren last year flagged this imbalance in a report that issued a series of recommendations for turning around the city’s schools.

"It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel."

The coalition called for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would have oversight authority over public and charter schools to better distribute school options around the city. The idea is now the subject of heated debate in Lansing where the Senate version of a $715 million rescue and reform plan for Detroit Public Schools would create the education commission. The idea is opposed by charter school leaders who fear the commission would favor public schools over charters and are lobbying to keep the DEC out of the final legislation.

Even if the DEC is created, however, it would primarily have control over future schools — not current ones — so it would likely take years for it to have an impact on neighborhoods that need quality schools.

In Johnson’s Brightmoor neighborhood, there are technically enough school seats, but none of the nearby options meet Johnson’s standards for Shownn, she said.

Of the five public and charter schools in Brightmoor that were listed on the state’s most recent top-to-bottom rankings in 2014, four had test scores that placed them in the bottom 6 percent of Michigan schools. The only Brightmoor school not at the very bottom was a charter high school that Shownn is still too young to attend.

So when Shownn came home from a field trip to the Science Center and told Johnson there was a school he wanted to go to inside the center, she agreed to bring him there on the bus every day. His charter school was ranked in the 59th percentile on the state ranking.

The schedule has taken a toll on Johnson and her family, she said. With so much of her day devoted to transporting Shownn to and from school, it took her years longer than it should have to graduate with a journalism degree last year from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Now, as she looks for work that will pay enough to buy her a car, the schedule interferes with her job search, too.

Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

But this was the best way to help Shownn achieve his goal of going to college, Johnson said. “I have to do this to make his dreams happen. If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike. I’m going to make it happen.”

Williams said she initially sent her son Elijah, now a 17-year-old sophomore, to the nearby high school, Central Collegiate Academy. It’s close enough that Elijah could walk home. But he struggled there.

“I was getting in trouble,” Elijah said. “The environment at Central is not good.”

So when his basketball coach at Central got a job at the Cornerstone Health and Technology charter school in northwest Detroit, Elijah followed him.

Williams initially enrolled 14-year-old Edmond at the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit because she worked there and could bring him with her when she went to work. She enrolled another son in Southwest Detroit’s WAY Academy because it was close to Phoenix and would let 15-year-old Emmanuel, who has fallen behind academically, quickly make up his lost credits by taking online classes.

Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

But when she lost her job at Phoenix, which has been struggling and might close this year, the drive to Southwest Detroit became much more of a challenge. Now, if her husband can’t take Elijah to Cornerstone in northwest Detroit, she makes a half-hour trip to drop Elijah at that school and then comes back for Edmond. It takes 50 minutes to make the round-trip drive to drop Edmond at Phoenix, then another 50 minutes a few hours later to take Emmanuel to his school, which starts at noon.

Williams’ daughter-in-law and other family members often help with the driving, but someone in the family has to drive back to Southwest Detroit in the afternoon to pick up Emmanuel at 3 p.m., then sit in the car for over an hour, waiting for Edmond to get out of school at 4:15 p.m.

“It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel,” Williams said. “But I’ve been blessed with my car … I just really thank God for me and my husband because we just had to go above and beyond for the kids.”

“A sin and a shame”

Dawn Wilson, Johnson’s neighbor in Brightmoor, knows what it’s like to go to a nearby school. Her daughters attended a small pay-what-you-can religious school around the corner from her home when they were younger.

“I loved it. It was like family,” said Wilson, a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s schools. “We would walk there and the teachers lived in the neighborhood. There were a lot of community events and everyone would come.”

Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

The closure of that school kicked off a decade of bouncing her five children around to a motley mix of public, charter, and parochial schools that, one by one, disappointed Wilson and her kids. One school was too violent, Wilson said. Another had five principals in four years. One charter school changed management companies in the middle of the school year.

Every year, she drives a different route, taking kids to different schools, while watching as schools in her own neighborhood have emptied out and become vacant and derelict.

“Look at this! This is a sin and shame,” Wilson said as she gave a reporter a tour of her neighborhood’s abandoned schools.

Hubert has been open to trespassers and scrappers. At Houghten, which the city began to demolish this week, a roof collapse makes the building look like it has been bombed.

“If you ever want to break a community, just start by breaking down the school system and eventually you’re just going to have deserts and graveyards,” said Arlyssa Heard, the policy director 482Forward, a parent advocacy organization.

“If you have a good school in a community, people will start moving into that community and goods and services flow to where the people are,” Heard said. “When you have kids in a neighborhood, people are more apt to have a neighborhood watch. Police respond better. People can fight for playgrounds and safe spaces … But when you eliminate schools, tear them down, rip them out of neighborhoods and shut them down without even consulting the neighborhood, then you end up with these [school] deserts and you have parents who can’t afford to move or uproot their families. You have them driving all over town trying to take five kids to five different places. It’s completely insane.”

That has left the institutions that serve the neighborhood’s children scrambling to hunt them down.

Cherie Bandrowski has operated a tutoring and mentoring program for kids in Brightmoor since 1986.

The Wellspring youth development center she runs with her husband Dan is across the street from the broken and vandalized building that used to be Houghten school.

“Kids would come across the street to our program,” Bandrowski said. “The elementary school kids came from there, the high school kids came from Redford High … Now they’re all over the place — charter schools, open districts, DPS.”

Instead of serving kids from the neighborhood, Wellspring now sends a bus to pick up students from Cody High School, six miles away. Other students get a ride from their parents — at least on days when the family car is in working order.

“It’s not community,” Bandrowski said. “Back in the day, we would know the whole family and we knew that so-and-so’s parents were crack users … Today, we still know the families but there isn’t quite that intimacy anymore.”

A new path

Detroit schools have intensive needs. The city’s students have some of the lowest test scores in the nation and the district has a long-term debt that, by some estimates, tops $3.5 billion. Both the House and Senate in Lansing seem poised to pass some kind of rescue plan to at least address DPS debt.

Whether the Detroit Education Commission is included in the legislation will be determined over the next few weeks as lawmakers return from spring recess and resume negotiations. The DPS legislation passed by the Senate last month would give the city’s mayor the power to appoint the seven members of the DEC. They would be charged with creating an annual school needs assessment based on community input and data. The DEC would then have the power to steer new schools to neighborhoods that need them most.

“It’s not going to fix everything,” said Heard, who was a member of the coalition that recommended the DEC. “But the DEC will be able to at least bring some level of sanity to what we have now. What we have now is completely unacceptable.”

Charter school supporters don’t dispute that the current situation is difficult for many families, but they say giving the mayor power over charter schools would stifle school choice. They have instead advocated for a system of incentives to lure charter schools to the neighborhoods that most need new schools.

“There are things that can be done to make parent access to choice easier, and those things should be done,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the pro-charter Great Lakes Education Project. “We just want them all to be opt-in and voluntary” for schools.

It’s true that many charter schools have clustered in neighborhoods like downtown and midtown, he said, but he asserted that those schools are popular with parents who work in the city center and drop off their children on the way to their jobs.

“It is also commonly believed that that area of the city is a safer area in which to locate a school than some other areas of the city,” Naeyaert said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to put a school where it can’t get enrollment.”

School choice options are so popular with parents that less than 40 percent of the city’s 119,000 school-aged children are enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to school but for some parents, the journey is much longer.

“Everything I do is to make things better for him,” Johnson said of her son. “I told him ‘We’re going through these extra steps and it’s a lot to get you to school, but if this is going to help better prepare you, not only for high school and for college, but for life, then it’s what we’re going to do.’”

Next year, for high school, Johnson has a highly ranked charter school in Dearborn in mind for Shownn. It’s a 15-minute car ride but about an hour away on the bus.

“My plan is that I’ll have a car before he gets to high school,” Johnson said. “But even if I don’t, we’ll catch the bus if we have to. He did it for three years in middle school. He’s a trooper.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”