A new day?

Months after symbolizing Detroit’s troubles, a once-decrepit school gets a chance to show off

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Months after the buckling gym floor at Spain Elementary-Middle school became a symbol of problems in Detroit schools, the school invited the media to tour its newly refurbished facilities.

Three weeks into the school year at Spain Elementary-Middle School, the teachers are starting to get used to their new classes. Students are starting to get back into the swing of things.

And now it’s time for something unexpected: A PR blitz.

The school in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood last year became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Detroit Public Schools.

Photos of its dangerously buckling gym floors ricocheted around the world when teachers throughout the district started calling in sick to protest deteriorating conditions, freezing classrooms and filthy bathrooms.

Major news outlets like CNN came to document Spain’s shuttered gym, its unsafe playground, and its musty smells. And when Mayor Mike Duggan took a tour, he spotted a dead mouse on the floor.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Just as the school started getting some good news, just as it got a shoutout from comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who partnered with Lowe’s to lavish the school with $500,000 to repair the leaky roof and damaged floors in the gym, the school’s beloved and dynamic principal, Ronald Alexander, was hit with bribery charges.

Spain Elementary-Middle School
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

He was among 12 Detroit Public Schools principals charged with taking bribes from a corrupt school supply vendor. He was ordered this month to spend a year in prison after pleading guilty to pocketing $23,000 in bribes.

It was devastating for everyone, said fifth-grader Antonio Overstreet, 11.

“I thought the school was going to close because we didn’t have a principal.”

But now, it’s a new year.

It’s also a new district. The Detroit Public Schools Community District was created by state lawmakers over the summer to give Detroit schools a chance to recover without the burden of paying off years of crippling debt.

And in some ways, Spain is a new school, transformed by a $1.2 million renovation, partly funded by The “Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Lowe’s.

“It was a bad year last year and not just for Spain. It was a bad year for the district,” said the school’s new principal, Frederick Cannon. “But this is a new year.”

That’s why, on Monday, Cannon opened his school doors to the news media and spent the morning giving TV interviews, showing off his school’s sparkling new gym, its renovated playground, and its brightly lit hallways that smell like fresh paint.

Principal Frederick Cannon wants Spain to become the "jewel of midtown"
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Principal Frederick Cannon wants Spain to become the “jewel of midtown”

And that’s why the school plans to open its doors again on Wednesday to the business community to show people who work at nearby Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center how much the school has changed.

Spain still faces tremendous challenges — starting with just getting enough students to be able to pay the bills.

Enrollment is down this year, in part because of last year’s turmoil but also because of dramatic change in the neighborhood, Cannon said.

Midtown has transformed in recent years as new shops and restaurants have sprouted up. The new Whole Foods market is just a few blocks from the school and hundreds of new condos are being built, not only in midtown but in nearby neighborhoods like Brush Park and Eastern Market.

Rising prices means longtime Spain families have scattered to more affordable parts of the city while new residents moving in are mostly young adults without children.

But while that’s concerning and is hurting enrollment this year, Cannon says it’s also an opportunity for a school that was once known across Detroit as a top performing arts school.

“Everyone who played an instrument or danced, they went to Spain,” Cannon said. “I have rooms full of orchestra equipment and band equipment. This was serious business and these rooms were just sitting there. My vision is bring that back and once again become the performing arts school for Detroit.”

Spain’s building is not fully occupied. It has an entire floor that’s not being used. Cannon sees that as potential to add programs and rebuild the school, both for the families who attend today and for the new residents moving in who may not have kids yet but may someday be looking for a local public school.

“We want to reestablish ourselves as the jewel of midtown and give them the educational option when it’s time,” Cannon said.

Lowe's and the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" put $500,000 into renovating the Spain Elementary school gym.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Lowe’s and the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” put $500,000 into renovating the Spain Elementary school gym.

Spain is one of three district schools that is now offering Montessori classes to kids in preschool and kindergarten — a program that is one of the district’s key initiatives to attract middle-class families.

In addition to rebuilding the performing arts programs, Cannon says he created new computer labs and is adding resources to help bring up test scores, which have been low in recent years.

In most grades, fewer than 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficient in math on the state’s M-STEP exam last year.

By inviting parents who work at the bustling neighborhood to tour the school on Wednesday, Cannon says he hopes some will appreciate the convenience of a school near where they work.

But, until he can bring test scores up, convincing middle-class families to take a gamble on the school could take some work.

Though Spain may have gotten a makeover, the federal civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this month alleged horrendous conditions that continue in other schools throughout the city.

The news of the lawsuit — broadcast widely — was yet another public relations stain for a district that was already being shunned by families with other options.

But Cannon says he’s convinced that things are turning around — and he’s hoping that by showing off his sparkling new school, he can help change some opinions about the district.

“This is a place where kids can come and be comfortable and be happy,” he said. “It’s a clean, safe environment.”

Montessori teacher Kellie Stevens says she sees a big difference in the school this year.

“Our school looks like a school now,” Stevens said. “It smells like a school now and we’re just very excited about the school year.”

Students, too, say they’re excited.

Overstreet was dribbling a basketball in the gym Monday morning, right by the spot where the gym’s bulging floor used to trip him and his classmates and send their ball flying off in the wrong direction.

Now, he said he loves playing basketball in gym class. The school now even has a certified gym teacher, which it didn’t have last year.

“We have a new principal. We have a new fresh gym and now everything is brand new,” Overstreet said. “Last year, we started out pretty lopsided. This year, we’re starting out nice and straight.”

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.