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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”