Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The New Black Migration: Suburbs or Bust.

A few years ago, I ran across a truly remarkable find while cleaning out my classroom and this little jewel completely captured the heart & soul of parents in urban America.

No, it was not a lottery ticket.

No, instead it was something much more powerful, much more sincere, and much more profound.

To understand the gravity of this item, you have understand the community in which I teach.

I work at a suburban high school that borders the city of Detroit. Eight Mile, the iconic, real and symbolic division between Detroit and its northern suburbs made famous by rap artist Eminem, is a mere 1 1/2 miles south from my high school. In fact, for Detroiters living just south of Eight Mile, my high school is closer to them than the nearest Detroit Public Schools' high school.

Also unique about my high school is that my district is one of only a small number of traditional public school districts that make themselves a multi-county school of choice. Many people think school of choice is a debate between traditional public schools and charter schools, but that only begins to scratch the surface of the Suq-like environment of school enrollment. The following paragraph is a primer on school choice in Michigan: If you know the dealio, feel free to skip.

In 1996, then Republican Governor John Engler successfully pushed for legislation that would allow school districts the option of enrolling non-resident students in their districts. Previously, parents had no choice but to enroll their children in their resident school district. Some districts even had strict policies limiting parents to one specific school within their resident district. The only other option for parents at the time was paying tuition at a private school or traditional school (usually in very affluent communities). Charter schools at this time were still relatively new and usually catered only urban residents.

Considered wildly progressive (ahem.... in conservative terms) for the time, this legislation modified Section 105 & 105c of the School Aid Act of 1979, allowing districts to enroll students in the same county ISD or in the contiguous neighboring county ISDs. It also gave districts the power to limit school of choice to a pre-defined number of seats, to a specific grade level, to a specific academic program or to prohibit students who had documented discipline problems. School districts that enrolled choice students received the lesser of their foundation allowance or the foundation allowance of the student's resident district.

The result is that, depending on where they live, parents have dozens of options for their children. For example, in Macomb County, a collection of working class and middle class communities, most school districts are county-wide schools of choice districts. That is to say if you live in St. Clair Shores, you can attend schools in Warren Consolidated, Sterling Heights, Fraser or Eastpointe, and many more. If you live in Oakland County, which has more affluent and exclusive communities, fewer districts are choice districts. However, because many of the schools in Oakland County are high performing schools, beating state averages on standardized tests, most families are satisfied with their resident districts. Indeed, inherent in an upscale neighborhood's exclusivity is of course the exclusivity of its schools. Non-residents not wanted.

But my school district is somewhat different. Oak Park is a small, mostly African American middle class suburb. It was once a strong hold of the Jewish community and still is home to many Orthodox Jews. The majority of its homes are modestly sized post-war brick bungalos and ranches. Oak Park, for the most part, is a bedrest community, lacking major industry or big box retail. The median family income in Oak Park is almost $55,000, which is above the national average and far above that of Detroit.

The Oak Park School District is unique among Oakland county schools because it is one of only a small number of districts that border Detroit that enroll students in six contiguous county ISDs, Macomb, Lapeer, Geneesee, Livingston, Washtenaw, and Wayne County. Nearly all of those counties I mentioned are much too far from Oak Park for any parent to make a twice daily school commute. But, not Wayne County. For residents of Wayne County, namely Detroit, Oak Park School District is an excellent choice. The Oak Park Schools outperform nearly all Detroit Public Schools, with the exception of Detroit's few examination schools and a sprinkle of charter schools.

It is not surprising then that because of Oak Park's proximity to Detroit and its performance record, an Oak Park administrator discovered several years ago that an astonishing 40 different zip codes were reflected in Oak Park's enrollment data, most from Detroit. The actual city of Oak Park only has 1 zip code. That means thousands of non-resident students are being educated in the 3,500 student Oak Park School District.

However, I must put things into perspective. Oak Park School District, particularly the High School, lags in performance compared to most other Oakland County schools. All of the districts that surround Oak Park in Oakland County, Southfield, Ferndale, & Berkley out perform Oak Park students. In fact, Oak Park High School, along with dozens of other schools, was identified as one of the worst performing schools in the state of Michigan.

So while Oak Park is a better option for Detroit Parents, it still is an option that presents some compromise.

This brings us to the artifact I found in my room.

As I was cleaning out my room a few years ago, I ran across a book of religious prayers and inspirational stories. It was not mine, and I thought it might belong to a parent, since parent teacher conferences were held the week prior. As I opened the cover in search of a name, a small piece of paper fell out. There was no name in the book. There was no name on the piece of paper. But, there was an earnest plea to God, scrawled in neat print handwriting. It read as follows:

"Dear God. Please bless me and my children with a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home in the Birmingham School District for around $800 [a month]. I know that through you, all things are possible. Thank you for everything you have done for me."

As a new parent, this simple 3 sentence prayer almost brings me to tears. I can fully identity with and appreciate this parent's quest to find a high performing school for her children. Though I don't know who that parent is, judging from the demographic of the school, it is likely to be a middle class, African American single mother from the city of Detroit. She has likely not even considered a Detroit Public School as an option for her child, and instead chosen Oak Park High Schools as the next best alternative. And still she wants more.

I dearly hope that God has delivered an answer to that woman and her children. Hers is a desire that all parents share; a desire to give their child the best education possible.

However, her dreams of Birmingham are far fetched and unlikely. The city of Birmingham is an ultra exclusive city of the region's most wealthy households. Median income for a family in Birmingham is over $110,000. The city's streets are finely dotted with homes that run well over $500,000 and $1,000,000. Scores of luxury vehicles line the city sidewalks, especially in Downtown Birmingham, where on a summer weekend, you are very likely to see Maserattis, Maybachs, and, Bentleys, oh my.

There is no home that she will be able to find in Birmingham for an $800 mortgage. At best she'll have to settle for an apartment style 800-900 sqft 2 bedroom, 1 bath rental condo for $850 and modify her prayers to ask God that the housing market remain in a recession and that the owner of the condo does not sell it at the conclusion of her lease. Short of that miracle scenario, there is very little possibility that that she will be a Birmingham resident. But, I do believe in miracles and I hope that as you read this, her family is enjoying a scoop of Kilwin's ice cream on Birmigham's prestigious Old Woodward Ave.

This is the essence of the American Dream, the constant struggle for upward mobility towards greater prosperity. Any school child enrolled in a civics class can tell you of the great migration of blacks from the south to the north in search of better civil rights, better economic opportunities, and better lives. Detroit's automotive industry is singularly credited as being the catalyst that brought large waves of blacks to the city. Because of prejudicial real estate laws and practices, Detroit was often the only city where blacks could live. Following the 1967 riots, the black population in Detroit exploded, while whites fled the city for surrounding suburbs.

For a number of years, blacks continued to gain greater economic & political power in Detroit. By the 1980s, blacks were running the city, running the schools, and were a dominant demographic in the private automotive sector.

But just as the Big 3 delivered increasing prosperity to the black community, it also tooketh away. Metro-Detroit's high concentration of auto industry jobs (and their dependent non-auto industry jobs) steadily withered away against the might of the new global economy. Cars were being made in Mexico. Parts were being fabricated in China. Call centers were being staffed in India. The simple manufacturing industry that built America and elevated the socio-economic status of millions of black families had dropped to historical lows. The local bakeries, barbershops, repair shops would be soon to follow.

Adding to the economic woes of the city of Detroit were the political and government corruption scandals that brought a feet-moving vote of no confidence in local government from its citizens. Starting with the schools system, the ouster of Superintendent Dr. David Snead (yes, there is a relation) in 1997 set in motion the precipitous demise of the Detroit Public Schools. After Dr. Snead successfully campaigned for Detroit's largest school bond initiative ($1.5 billion), political pressure was brought to bear to steer contracts to campaign supporters of the then elected school board. At the point of his departure, student enrollment and student performance were rising. But after Dr. Snead was forced to retire, two years later the state dismantled the school board, appointed a new reform board of "experts" and hired a new Schools Chief, Dr. Kenneth Burnley.

At the time, many left-wing Detroiters accused Governor Engler and the "sell-out" mayor Dennis Archer of colluding to destroy public education in Detroit. Their claims had always been dismissed as the rantings of a crazed political fringe croup. But, the ending result of the reform board and the old CEO leadership model certainly gave these groups some small shred of credibility. DPS had lost thousands of students, lagged in academic performance, and was millions of dollars in red.

In response, the newly elected school board, installed after the reform board's term ended, made a very questionable decision in selecting leadership. The first school leader they hired was William Coleman, who was the COO under Dr. Burnley. Under Coleman, DPS continued to struggle, though now Coleman had the political freedom to blame his former boss. Coleman would later be indicted on federal bribery charges. The elected school board then selected Dr. Connie Calloway as school superintendent, who previously managed a small 5,700 student district in Missouri. Many pointed to Calloway's lack of experience in a big city district as a recipe for disaster, but the Board gave her the job on the basis of good interviews.

To their credit Calloway & the elected board were slowly beginning to uncover the mismanagement, fraud, and outright criminal activity in central office under the reform board. But their own failure to manage DPS's current financial condition prompted the State Schools Chief, Michael Flanagan, to declare DPS insolvent and formally request that DPS be again taken over by the state and placed in the hands of an Emergency Financial Manager.

Enter Robert Bobb. Bobb, an experienced municipal manager, was given the mandate by the governor to fix DPS's financial problems. That was a huge task. He was given complete authority over all financial matters. Futhermore, Bobb interpreted this mandate to include power over academic matters, because no academic decision can me made in a school system without an impact on finances. Bobb was now the Czar of DPS. He arrived with great fanfare from parents and the media who said that he would once and for all make DPS whole. He ordered audits. He started investigations. He walked the streets like a modern day folk hero. He would make Detroit Public Schools whole.

And the result?

An even worse financial deficit and still dreadful student achievement, the lowest enrollment in decades. Oh, and a ongoing court battle resulting from his failure to communicate with the elected school board over academic actions continues to stall progress.

Adding to the unfortunate plight of the schools system are the troubles of city hall. Duly elected officials have witnessed the full force of the FBI and the local judicial system. Several have fallen under their investigative findings, most notoriously Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council President Pro-Tem Monica Conyers.

Detroit parents, like that mother yearning for the cheap house in upscale Birmingham, have had it with city life. They have seen the writing on the wall. They have found that living just enough for the city isn't a Stevie Wonder hit; it is a condition from which to be freed. They want out. Try as they might, Detroit parents have worked in, around, and through the system. They have fought to improve their schools, had that control taken from them, had it given back to them in worse condition, only to have it taken back again. They have fought like hell and emerged from the fights beaten and worn down. The Executive Director of the Detroit Parent Network, Sharlonda Buckman, barely able to hold back tears, once told a crowd of Detroit parents that someone needed to go to jail for the abysmal performance of Detroit students.

Many parents, like the one with her child in Oak Park and yearning for Birmingham, are tired of fighting.

Recall now the biblical phrase, "from whence comes my help?" It mentions looking up to the hills and Detroiters are doing just that.

They are looking to the Hills of Bloomfield, Auburn Hills, and Rochester Hills. They are looking to the rich green lawns of Troy, Sterling Heights, Farmington, and Gross Pointe. And yes, they are looking to their excellent schools too.

I have no doubt that this mother's prayers have been duplicated by thousands of Detroit parents. The results of the 2010 census will no doubt show that minority populations have increased in suburban cities and overall population in Detroit will yet again hit an all time low. It is well documented that Detroit's once massive 2 million population count has dithered to barely over 800,000, with consensus that the numbers are likely to get even smaller. So while they desperately scramble to enroll their children in charter schools and suburban schools of choice, parents still have their compass set due north. Way north.

This is the New Black Migration. And if school leaders cannot devise a way to make the city schools a viable option for parents who want the best for their children, it will be a migration whose tide will know no end.

Log on next Sunday for the next EduSpiel Blog: The Future of Teacher Unions in 21st Century Schools.

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