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 been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30 to 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 … 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 of Detroit district schools that offered music and art last year. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

What's in a name?

Detroit has schools named for a slaveholder, a convicted former politician, and a Trump cabinet member. Here’s how that might change.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

Despite the passion fueling the debate over renaming schools like the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine, members of the Detroit district school board proposed a deliberate, and slow, approach to changing any school names.

Just charting the path toward stripping names from district schools won’t begin until the second week of June at the earliest, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at a special meeting Tuesday.

Last year board member LaMar Lemmons recommended removing the names of living people from district schools.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” said Lemmons, a former Democratic state representative, of his proposal to rename the the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

Carson, a Republican and neurosurgeon, is secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The district has identified a multistep process for renaming schools. First, at least one of six criteria must be met: the building must be newly built, the school would have been recently consolidated, the name no longer reflects the student population, the community where the school is located wants the name to reflect their culture and history, new negative information about the school’s namesake becomes known, or there is a change in district leadership.

The Carson high school could be eligible for renaming next fall when it will likely be consolidated with another school that has been operating separately in the same building. Vitti has recommended merging Carson with the Crockett Career and Technical Center.

Next, a recommendation to change a school’s name will have to come from at least 50 percent of the student body, a group of community members, the superintendent or board members.

Then the school board would vote whether to conduct a community survey. The results would be presented to the board, which would vote on changing a school’s name.

One of the city’s most popular schools, Cass Technical High School, is another school named after someone who no longer represents the values of the district, said Lemmons.

“Lewis Cass was a slaveholder,” Lemmons said. “But I would never recommend changing the name of Cass.” Cass Tech, an elite school that has long drawn some of the best and brightest students in the city, is beloved by the community.

Instead, Lemmons would like a plaque to be placed on the school “disavowing historic white supremacy.”

Bates Academy, named after former Councilman Alonzo Bates, who was found guilty in 2006 of fraud and theft from the city of Detroit, is another school name that may be reviewed, said Lemmons.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.