one year later

A year after superintendent’s arrival, a skeptical Detroit teacher has become a believer — almost

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Rynell Sturkey teaches first-grade at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy.

A year ago, it was hard for teacher Rynell Sturkey to believe that life in her overcrowded, understaffed, poorly equipped classroom would ever improve.

Sure, her school district, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, was taking what seemed like positive steps. It had a new locally elected school board — after years of state-appointed emergency managers. It had a new superintendent who’d arrived making bold promises about transforming city schools.

But veteran Detroit teachers like Sturkey had been disappointed by hopeful promises before.

This past school year, however, Sturkey has been pleasantly surprised by the improvements. Her first-grade class shrunk to 23 students from a high of 38 two years ago. The district now provides substitutes for absent teachers. Her school, the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, has given teachers time to plan lessons. She got a raise. And the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, is making a real difference, she said.

“He’s listened to the problems and concerns of the teachers, which has definitely made it better,” she said.

Chalkbeat first met Sturkey last year on May 23rd, Vitti’s first day on the job.

At the time she was dealing with 37 first-graders who never got a break for art or music or gym.

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

She didn’t have enough math workbooks for her classroom, and her students struggled on required exams because the tests were given on computers they didn’t know how to use.

Like many veteran Detroit teachers, Sturkey, who had been in the district for 17 years, viewed Vitti’s arrival with a wary eye.

“We have had people come in before saying the different things they were going to do, changes they were going to make … it was very depressing,” she said. “We had lost morale in the building. It seemed like everything was just getting worse.”

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Rynell Sturkey teaches first grade at Detroit’s Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy.

Now, a year later, Sturkey’s job is still difficult. Her students still have struggles at home that they bring with them to school.

Her classroom is still in poor repair, with a warped floor that she worries the children will trip over. A TV monitor bolted to the wall looks like it’s from the 1970s and the school’s spotty electricity means the clock on the wall rarely shows the right time. Since her room has just a single electrical outlet, she has to plug in projectors and other equipment using a thick yellow extension cord that snakes in from the hallway. Her room doesn’t have new equipment like the smart boards that are standard in many districts.

But there’s a lot more space in room 106 this year.

Sturkey has just 23 students. And unlike last year, when every teacher absence meant two first-grade classes had to double up, cramming students in close in together, this year, she said, the school has had plenty of substitutes.

“It’s more organized and less chaotic for them,” she said of her students. “They’re able to learn better. They’re able to get more one-on-one attention.”

Her students still don’t have art or music or gym. Even though the school has a budget for an art teacher, it has failed to hire one. The position is among nearly 200 teaching jobs across the district that have gone unfilled.

But Sturkey says she’s confident that’ll change soon. The school board has approved a budget that grants every school a gym teacher, an art or music teacher and a counselor, among other support staff, and Sturkey says she’s hopeful that the recent boost in teacher pay will make it easier for school to fill vacancies.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
The single electrical outlet in Rynell Sturkey’s first grade classroom at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy requires her to run an extension cord into the classroom from the hallway. She has aging technology. But, this year, her classroom isn’t crowded.

After years of pay cuts and wage freezes, Detroit teachers got a raise earlier this year and are expecting an additional pay increase in the fall. A new deal with the teachers union will give veteran teachers credit for all of their years in the classroom if they come from another district. Before, those teachers had to start near the bottom of Detroit’s pay scale.

“We still don’t have music or art or gym but it’s a promise that is coming for next year,” Sturkey said. “I’m staying positive.”

What the school does have, for the first time in years, is an Afro-centric cultural class.

An Afro-centric curriculum is the centerpiece of Paul Robeson Malcolm X, which was created by the merger of two Afro-centric schools. But in recent years, cultural programming has had to be squeezed in by classroom teachers in between core subjects like math and science.

This year, full-time teacher Reginald Tabron rotates among classrooms teaching culture and history.

“That’s important because we want to instill in our kids the struggles and the accomplishments of their ancestors so they can have some type of role model to look up to,” Tabron said.

It’s also helpful to teachers like Sturkey who get a prep period twice a week when students are with Tabron.

Last year, the prep periods that are standard in schools with better resources were rare at Paul Robeson Malcolm X, Sturkey said. This year, the addition of Tabron’s class and some other changes to the school schedule have enabled all teachers to get five prep periods a week.

That’s time, Sturkey said, when she can grade papers, call parents or plan field trips. She can work with her co-teacher, Carla Rotole, since the two team teach. That means one teaches math, the other teaches reading and their students split their time between the two.

Sturkey and Rotole use prep periods to discuss which students need extra help.

“It’s not just something where I get a break,” Sturkey said. “Granted, it is a breather and we do need breathers … Children require a lot of attention, especially our children, given some of the issues they come in with.”

But having that time to get organized has made a huge difference for Sturkey, giving her the chance to rest after school and on the weekends when she used to have to work, she said.

“It makes a big difference for our psyche,” she said.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Reginald Tabron teaches an Afro-centric cultural class at Detroit’s Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy.

While a stress-related illness last year forced her to take a short-term medical leave, this year she’s clamer and better rested.

“I’m feeling better,” she said. “It’s … small bits of stress that are coming off.”

That doesn’t mean she and her fellow teachers are taking it easy, she said.

Many Detroit teachers will be spending much of this summer getting trained on the new curriculum that will be introduced in the fall. Some are worried about the pressure to get students caught up to state standards after years of using instructional materials that fell far short of expectations.

But Sturkey said her students have computer skills now that they didn’t have before. Rotole has a classroom set of laptops that the students use regularly and Sturkey says she’s been told her classroom will soon have computers as well.

“I’m really hopeful,” Rotole said. “I believe in Vitti. I think he’s going to do good things. I really do. It was so bad, honestly [last year] but in my opinion, it’s just going to get better and better.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Rotole.

Parent leader Aliya Moore said she remains skeptical.

“Everything sounds good,” she said of promises Vitti has made, like art and gym teachers. “But it will be real when it actually happens. It’s kind of up in the air right now.”

Moore says the school still has some overcrowding. And she worries that the district’s new budgeting system — the changes that have made the art and gym teacher possible — have come at the expense of principals’ discretionary budgets.

But the school’s counselor has had help this year from a student teacher, which has made a difference she said. And for the first time in years, the school has an assistant principal, which Moore says has been helpful.

“Our school is a lot better than last year,” she said.

Principal Jeffrey Robinson said having an assistant principal frees him to spend more time working with teachers.

“It really duplicates me,” he said. “So instead of the stress that was on me to do parent conferences, do discipline and be an educational leader … it’s allowed me to push into the classroom more to improve instruction. I’m able to do a lot more.”

Academically, most Detroit students remain far behind their peers in Michigan and across the country. Many school buildings are in grave disrepair and a quirk of state law bars the school district from borrowing money for improvements.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Problems persist at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy including a damaged wood floor that teacher Rynell Sturkey worries her students will trip over.

That means it could be a while before Sturkey sees the hump in her warped floor addressed.

And it’ll be a while before she actually allows herself to truly get her hopes up.

She has not, for example, reclaimed the colorful rug that once brightened her classroom.

The rug had once been a classroom gathering place, where should could bring her first-graders together on the floor to read to them.

Then, two years ago, she had 38 students assigned to her class and so many desks in the room, she had no space for the rug. Last year, she had to double up her class so frequently, the rug would have been impractical.

This year, doubling up has been rare and a large area of her classroom has been cleared. There’s plenty of space for a colorful reading rug. But Sturkey, for now, is leaving her rug rolled up in a school storage space.

“I’m not ready to put the rug back yet,” she said. “I’m not totally convinced because, you know, anything could happen. President Trump can decide to cut the educational budget … and we have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On Nikolai Vitti’s first day as superintendent of Detroit schools, teacher Rynell Sturkey had to deal with 37 first-graders who got no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.