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

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 Jeffery 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

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.

 

Detroit's future

Reading, writing and soap suds: The unusual new program that teaches kids while their parents do the wash

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit"s Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

The days of bored kids hanging out in front of the TV at Detroit’s Fit and Fold laundromat could be over.

Now, there are books for kids to read — and take home — near the washing machines. There are computers stocked with educational software. And, a few times a week, there’s a picnic table in the parking lot where instructors read to children and work with them on their writing skills.

“This is good for everyone,” said Aaron Eley, 31, who was washing clothes inside the Fit and Fold in the city’s North End neighborhood on a recent evening as his children — Christian, 10, Ma’Kayla, 6 and Aaliyah, 2 — sat with instructors at the table outside.

“It’s good for the parents. They get to wash the clothes,” he said as his children played a matching game that involved finding words in books and writing them on index cards. “And it’s good for the kids. They get to learn some stuff.”

The books, the computers and the picnic table are part of a program called Wash and Learn that’s taking place this summer at three Detroit laundromats through an organization called Libraries Without Borders.

As educators increasingly recognize that teaching children during traditional school hours is simply not enough, Libraries Without Borders and its local partners have been experimenting with bringing literacy programs into people’s lives.  

That includes people whose lives are too complicated to allow them to attend classes or tutoring programs at libraries or community centers. And it includes the kids from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely to lose academic ground over the summer than their more affluent peers.

“The folks who would benefit most from library programs often don’t know they exist, don’t know they’re eligible for a library card or don’t have a consistent enough schedule to go to a Tuesday 6 p.m. program every week,” said Allister Chang, Libraries Without Borders’ executive director.

Chang’s organization offers programs that help children and adults with reading, computers and other skills. It has brought pop up literacy programs to places such as train stations, hospitals, parks and street corners, testing different times and locations in different cities to see what works.

Those experiments proved that some locations were problematic, Chang said.

At the park, “you’re competing against nature at all times,” Chang said. People couldn’t see the computers if it was too bright. If it rained, the park would empty out.

At train stations or on street corners, people don’t usually hang around. “Everyone’s rushing to go somewhere else,” Chang said.

But at laundromats, people have time, they have shelter and they’re often looking for something to do.

“At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” Chang said. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

So Libraries Without Borders started piloting Wash and Learn this summer, testing out child literacy programs at the Fit and Fold and two other Detroit laundromats — the Sunshine Laundry Center in Southwest Detroit and the Coinless Laundromat on the city’s west side.

In New York City, the organization piloted an adult Wash and Learn program, helping people create digital resumes and apply for jobs online at a laundromat in the Bronx.

“We’re talking about equal opportunity here,” Chang said. “After school and over summer vacations, we find in the data that wealthier families are able to send their kids to continue doing more literacy-developing activities than children from low-income families.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Stacy Lorne of Libraries Without Borders reads a book with children at the Fit and Fold laundromat in Detroit.

Some studies show that households in low-income neighborhoods have just one book for every 300 children — far less than in wealthier neighborhoods.

“Isn’t that terrifying?” Chang asked. “We know how just having access to reading materials outside of school can help make sure that you develop a vocabulary over the year and we know how much that affects graduation rates and job employability.”

Wash and Learn aims to change that, which is why books are available at the laundromats for children to take home, whether or not the instructors are present. It’s why the computers are available whenever the laundromats are open.

And when the program is in session, instructors work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, helping them with whatever they need. On a recent night, that included a one-year-old who was just learning to connect with books, older children who were practicing their writing skills and several kids who wanted to spend time on the computers.

So far, the program has been a big hit at the Fit and Fold, said Justin Johanon, who manages the laundromat.

The Fit and Fold has always had exercise equipment available for adults to use while they wait for their clothes to get clean, but there wasn’t much for kids, Johanon said.

“Their parents would plop them down and they would hang around, doing nothing,” he said.

Now, he said, kids are taking the free books and using the computers even on days when the the instructors aren’t there. “It’s awesome,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Wash & Learn program has been in three Detroit laundromats this summer, offering kids instruction in reading, writing and computers.

The North End neighborhood has been surrounded by dramatic change in Detroit. Less than a mile to the south is the New Center neighborhood, where developers are building expensive new condo buildings and where the new QLINE train picks up commuters to deliver them downtown.

Nearby to the north, the price of historic mansions in the Boston Edison neighborhood has been climbing.

But the blocks around the laundromat are filled with families who have struggled for years, Johanon said. Right next to the laundromat is an apartment building that’s home to many children whose parents have trouble making ends meet.

“No one in there has internet. No one has a computer,” Johanon said. “There’s a bunch of apartments, a bunch of kids, and no one in there has anything. A lot of people can’t afford even to do laundry.”

Johanon said he’s tried to let the neighborhood know that kids can come to the reading program even if their parents aren’t washing clothes.

“I just care about what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said.

It is that enthusiasm from laundromat owners and employees that has been the best part of the program so far, said Stacy Lorne, the Wash and Learn Detroit program coordinator.

“They take such pride in this program and such excitement,” Lorne said. “They’re bringing the kids to the computers when we’re not there and they’re making sure they know how to use the technology to get the kids logged on.”

One Detroit laundromat owner gave her $150 to buy snacks for kids, she said. Another printed flyers to help spread the word.

The Wash and Learn pilot program will end later this month but Libraries Without Borders has signaled that it plans to extend and expand the program, serving kids after school and on weekends once the school year begins. Local community partners say they, too, are invested for the long haul.

Wash and Learn “was their idea but we see the benefit so we’re going to keep this here,” said Cindy Eggleton, whose Brilliant Detroit organization is the local partner at the Fit and Fold and Sunshine laundromats.

Brilliant Detroit has family centers focused on families with kids aged 0-8 in several Detroit neighborhoods including one a block from the Fit and Fold. The organization sees the laundromat program as a great way to spread the word about its other programs, including a free all-day “Kids Club,” parenting classes, financial literacy classes and a teen gardening and nutrition program, Eggleton said. “It serves as a place for us to meet neighbors and if they want to come for more, they can come to the Brilliant Detroit house.”

Eggleton notes that programs that promote early childhood literacy are especially important in Michigan now that a new state law will soon require kids who can’t pass a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade.

Libraries Without Borders is encouraged by the early results from the pilot program this summer. The number of kids who have been served so far is relatively low — more than 80 children and their parents have worked with instructors at the three Detroit laundromats. Almost 100 books have been distributed, including children’s books and books geared for young adults.

But the organization sees this pilot program as a first step to possibly someday turning laundromats into places where people know they can go for help.

“This is something we are planning to take nationally,” Chang said, noting that the group soon hopes to have Wash and Learn programs in four other cities.

It just makes sense, he said. “Laundromat workers are in the local community. They care about the local families and this is also a way for them to get more business. This laundromat has programs and computers that others don’t.”