A bump in deliberations over Detroit schools

Simone Lightfoot, an Ann Arbor school board member, recently resigned from a committee that will make recommendations about reforming Detroit’s schools and in doing so unleashed a searing critique of the high-powered group.

Describing the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren as rudderless, Lightfoot said in an interview with Bridge that with two weeks left until the group releases its findings, it has not begun to formulate the policy changes that it will recommend. Instead, members of the group have been urged by coalition leadership to make “broad, overarching and non-specific recommendations subject to broad interpretation” that support Gov. Rick Snyder’s pet projects ‒ charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority reform district, Lightfoot said, repeating assertions she first made on a Facebook post announcing her resignation on Friday.

She excoriated the nonprofits leading the coalition ‒ the Skillman Foundation and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan ‒ as being less than qualified to lead reform efforts.

“If you really want reform, you would have people leading this who are expert educators,” Lightfoot said. “The very ones who are shocked by the realities are making the decisions shaping the policies. That is frustrating.”

William Hanson, chief of staff for the Skillman Foundation, said the organization has a history and mission of supporting public schools in the city.

"Over the past 20 years it would be hard for me to believe any outside organization has supported Detroit Public Schools more than Skillman has," he said.

"The work the coalition has taken on is incredibly difficult. We are under tremendous time constraints to deliver comprehensive recommendations by the end of March and we appreciate all the hard work from dozens and dozens of Detroiters who've contributed to fact finding and brainstorming."

Path forward unclear

Coalition co-chairs Tonya Allen, Skillman’s president and CEO, and John Rakolta, CEO of Walbridge construction, have held media conference calls and hosted hundreds of parents and experts to testify about the schools since the group was formed in December. But the coalition has been reluctant to publicly discuss specifics of its work or the recommendations it plans to make.

Lightfoot says that may be partly due to the fact that some members still are unclear as to the actual mission and the educational outcomes that the coalition is seeking.

The coalition, comprised of roughly three dozen Detroit civic leaders, is scheduled to make recommendations to city and state elected officials “for large-scale shifts in Detroit’s broken education landscape.” The report is due out at a news conference on March 31. Gov. Snyder is expected to consider the recommendations to inform legislation to reform the city’s troubled schools, which include charter schools, Detroit Public Schools, and the EAA reform district.

But according to Lightfoot, a critic of Snyder’s education policies, little in the way of education policy or goals that would change the academic trajectory of Detroit students was presented during her time in the group.

Does the coalition seek higher graduation rates? Higher test scores? A new funding formula? “I don’t know,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not dumb people, and for us still to not be clear on this nuanced, moving thing, it was just telling.”

Nobody’s puppet

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), co-chair of the policy subcommittee that Lightfoot served on, rejected the notion that the group is preordained to act as a cheerleader for the EAA and charter schools to appease the governor.

Gay-Dagnogo said she believes that recommendations will be more “conceptual” than specific, but will be impactful.

“There’s been real conversation, real debate, real experts,” she said. “The level of collaboration and the level of trust established by people who before this would not even sit in the same room but are now working...to have this difficult conversation, that gives me a level of confidence.”

Lightfoot posted her resignation on her Facebook page Friday. It quickly accumulated 450 shares and dozens of comments.

Lightfoot, a native of Detroit, was elected to the Ann Arbor school board in 2009, volunteers for the NAACP Detroit Branch on voter education issues and is head of regional urban initiatives for the National Wildlife Federation.

The policy subcommittee she served on was charged with using its weekly meetings for “evaluating the current education-related political and policy landscape while developing strategy and policy recommendations toward the goal of transforming education in Detroit.” However, with only four meetings left, the most significant action it handled was selecting a lobbyist to push for the coalition’s as-yet-formulated recommendations, according to Lightfoot.

“It got to the point that I didn’t want my name on it,” she said of the subcommittee’s work.

Lightfoot acknowledged that her recommendations ran counter to colleagues on the coalition, and certainly counter to Snyder’s vision of education reform. She has, for instance, urged a moratorium on allowing more charter schools to open and elimination of the controversial and academically troubled EAA.

Both Lightfoot and Dagnogo agreed that the coalition subcommittees are not privy to each other’s work, and the group’s 90-day time frame for making recommendations is challenging.

“As a former teacher, as a product of Detroit Public Schools, it is my desire that we maintain DPS and be able to move the academic achievement to a level they deserve,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “It is my desire that we look back on this and say we transformed our schools for our kids. We may not all agree, but the process has been meaningful and respectful and for that I’m optimistic.”

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Tue, 03/17/2015 - 9:26am
I'm so glad someone is telling the truth. Had a conversation with S.G.D. named in the article. I could tell from her comments to me that members on this coalition in state office will do whatever the Gov. says to secure their positions in the state legislature.
Dedra Downs
Tue, 03/17/2015 - 10:26am
So, so, sad. I've always said that the State is responsible for the failure of Detroit schools because they took them over 20 years ago and have been running the show for 18 of those 20 years. When will the State admit their failure and get out of the business of reforming Detroit schools?
Lewis M. Dickens
Tue, 03/17/2015 - 11:15am
Chastity it seems that you are highly skilled at the generalities, the bafflegab, the buzzwords and the inanities yet never realizing what really is at issue nor ever getting down to "brass tacks". We tried to tell you that the EFM had set up a corrupt and illegal scheme for handling the supposed school problem from the get go with the way the John Rakolta had set it up with FH Architects. You refused to listen then later commented, well into or near the end of their machinations, that the new buildings costing 2X the normal cost for new school buildings. Were they better? Absolutely not. So what was the net effect of the EFM? A Billion Dollar disaster dumped upon the people of Detroit with great force! Total disruption! And financial disaster far times worse than what they were accusing the Elected Board members of doing. As a journalist you failed to cover it. You failed to make things clear to the public in a timely fashion! Hence you are culpable. The boys that founded this country knew what they were setting up. And you betrayed their ideals. The fact that John Rakolta is one of the leading members of this group is unbelievable and ghastly. This now raises the issue as to whom is in on the take, how much have they received, as well as how stupid can we get?
Tue, 03/17/2015 - 1:06pm
People who are truly committed to improving the education of the children of Detroit do not resign over a "management" change. “If you really want reform, you would have people leading this who are expert educators,” Lightfoot said." --I am sorry, the educators have had 100 years to get it right and it is not working. Michigan test scores are not improving, remain in the bottom 25% nationally, and our teachers are the highest paid in the country. Also, if you are complaining about financial issues, then why not have the people who write the checks be involved so they can see what is going on. Robbing the kids of the best education possible is a crime.
Tue, 03/17/2015 - 11:36pm
The focus should be on what needs to be done to make DPS one of the best districts in the state and not what the district can presently afford. Here are some thoughts....http://lstrn.us/1th8KwQ
Wed, 03/18/2015 - 3:59am
I know Simone and respect her voice to push for specificity in lieu of an obvious agenda. I was disappointed in the Skillman Foundation for not inderstanding and detecting the work group's ulterior motives in re: the EAA AND Charters that have been mismanaged in the city of DETROIT. As an educator, you do not have to be anti chater-conceptually. Yet, you (the work group) should have been more critical of colossal failures in Detroit (Rev. Holy and Rev. Winan), especially with bankruptcy still leaving a bitter after taste. Simon's resignation is a signpost of the syncopation. All she demanded was pragmatism as opposed to time wasting pie in the sky. The work group seems mendacious if it fails to form poignant policy that stipulates what I called for in my bid for U.S. Congress as an active TEACHER running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: 1.) $50M for adult education 2.) Bridgecard recipients with childten in school who, in the main are unemployed and under educated, to be be required to volunteer either at a school as rotating hall monitors and be present at PTA meeting at their chold's building. Benchmarking better performing DISTRICTs. If the average abode in Detroit where a DPSD child lives does not have a high school diploma, hpw can that parent help a child with homework or be productively ready for President Obama's Comm. College programme. In reality, there is a finanancial cost FOR specifics not to mention a need for equitable pay for the elephantine mission of Title I teachers charged with demonstrating Measures of Academic Progress and keeping students who are SUFFERING from the Digital Divide aka the Technology Gap. The symtoms of the ailing DPSD are so obvious due to screening being f2fdone in the form of standardized testing amd an in depth indoctrination of DETROIT's demographics! Ergo, its easy to to become restive when you are passionate about future capital.Simone is right there is no time to waiver! This should have driven an Action Memorandum instead the work group has exacerbated both the mission and vision for Improving socio-economic metrics to prepare DETROIT for a globally competitive landscape!
Wed, 03/18/2015 - 7:57am
I'm trying to get a handle on what this is all about, they are running the schools with the current program and they don't have any specific objectives or understanding of what it is they are doing? Shouldn't this have been figured out long ago? It appears that everyone is so frustrated about the ongoing failure that they want to come up with some kind of vague policy objectives and goals that they can fall back on and point the finger at someone else if the failure continues.
Wed, 03/18/2015 - 8:36am
I would like to be wrong, but I'm afraid Detroit needs a Marshall Plan to improve. Detroit is in need of massive help, and the schools can not be fixed until Detroit is fixed. While the city is being championed as "on the rise" it is not. There are still thousands living in squalor with basic services nearly non-existent. The city's population is still on the decline yet its land mass is still enormous. The tax base is still inadequate to provide the influx of cash necessary to provide essentail services and attract more than just a few move-ins to certain desirable neighborhoods. Regarding the schools, talk to anyone who actually works in an EAA or DPS school. They can be a teacher or just a contractor doing construction in a building. They will tell you stories that sound unbelievable about the students, the neighborhoods, etc. The obstacles to learning are more than what a bunch of suits can fix with new theories, programs, etc. Hope and a few anecdotal improvements will not lift a city that had deep rooted problems during its heyday and has been declining for over 50 years.
Wed, 03/18/2015 - 6:14pm
"The obstacles to learning are more than what a bunch of suits can fix with new theories, programs, etc." Best comment on this thread.
Thu, 03/19/2015 - 4:14pm
This very troubling. Why are Detroit public schools always the target? Rob from the poor and keep them poor!
John S.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 12:03pm
The adults in charge of education don't seem able to focus on much of anything but the question of who should have authority and thus control over the money and where and how its spent. Isn't there research on K-12 education to help educators know what works and what doesn't? Perhaps there's a literature on best practices. Why not implement best practices?
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 1:47pm
John S. has it exactly right. Over the past 40 years, the history of Detroit Public Schools has been almost universally one of failure to educate the majority of Detroit students due to the malfeasance and greed of several different groups of adults in charge of the system. It isn't so much the teachers as their union officials and the Democratic Party functionaries who crave both power and the money that comes along with control of the city. They created a race-based spoils system that treated Detroit's coffers, including those of Detroit Public Schools as the rightful property of the well-connected Friends of Coleman and Kwame. The screams of anguish about the "diversion of resources" when charter schools were first permitted in Michigan was a dead give away that these folks viewed taxpayers' money for education as theirs by right. Now we have these same educrats and civic leaders, mostly people who make their living by providing tax-funded services, "volunteering" to tell state and city officials how to improve the education that Detroit's children receive. Many, if not all of the people and organizations involved in the Coalition for the Future of Detroit's School Children are or were deeply enmeshed in running the system that failed to adapt to the decreased population of Detroit since the riots of 1967. Nor do they seem to have learned any lessons from the failure, but rather are clinging desperately to a model of education that simply will not work in today's Detroit. Simone Lightfoot was living in a dream world if she thought that there was even a tiny chance of Gov. Snyder or the current legislature handing EAA schools and their students back to the control of an organization that has been failing for the past 40 years or more. I am familiar with her stance on social justice issues as an Ann Arbor school board member, where the effort to close the black-white achievement gap hasn't succeeded in over 15 years of that being the district's number 1 priority. How can Lightfoot believe that applying those same ineffective techniques in Detroit, a setting where the socio-economic gaps are even wider than in relatively-affluent Ann Arbor, could ever succeed? I applaud Governor Snyder's willingness to try things that haven't been done before in education, because it's obvious to anyone who's been paying attention that what DPS has been doing didn't work at those failing schools. Since the first approach tried by the EAA apparently didn't work, now Snyder's trying something else. Good for him! Shutting down or even delaying that effort, while possibly the goal of the adults who are heavily invested in the dysfunctional system of public education we have today, is not a desirable outcome for the Coalition for the Future of Detroit's School Children or for Detroit's families.