Schools become mayor's mission
For now, he shelves plans for charters
July 21, 2007
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick offered a major sacrifice on the altar of unity Friday, temporarily shelving his desire to open charter schools across the city while he and a cavalry of union leaders and community activists and Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Connie Calloway get the community to embrace a reinvention of the city's network of public, private and parochial schools.
Kilpatrick said the work group, some of whom have been meeting for more than a year, would announce a plan in late August that will address achievement, security and possibly alternatives.
"I've been asked to wait on that, but it's not thrown away," Kilpatrick said of the charter schools plan during an interview on "Am I Right?" on WTVS-TV (Channel 56).
"I've been asked to wait ... to figure out if we can come up with alternatives by the end of this school year. We've put a tight time line on ourselves. I'm not going to Lansing with any legislation until I see that we can work as a community to get things done."
But he left no doubt that he won't let the renaissance he's overseeing be derailed by a poor system of educating kids.
"I want to work within this group to make it happen ... but if we can't make it happen here locally, then I, as mayor, have to do something."
The mayor's increased attention comes as the district's leadership faces continuing woes. The district's student population could fall below 100,000 in the next two years, causing it to lose its status as a first-class district. It has struggled against budget deficits for four years in a row, and its graduation rate, a subject of national debate, is too low to even argue about -- whether it's 25% or 60%.
As the school district goes, so goes the city, which has seen its population drop even as its housing starts set records.
"We've had everybody visit here to do site visits, from Target to Wal-Mart to businesses that are interested in moving their business here," Kilpatrick said. "And the education level and training level of our city is something that is now suffering. Once upon a time, people moved their manufacturing businesses here because we had a trained workforce and a literate workforce. So it's not only educating our children so they don't go into crime or so they have an opportunity to be whatever they want to be. That's a given. It's also hurting our ability to grow as a city."
Kilpatrick said the plan will focus heavily on security.
"Security is a place that we're not arguing about," he said. "Principals, teachers throughout the district, they want gang squads. They want patrols. I expect in August, when we announce some of these things, you'll see our chief and school security personnel coordinating very well."
Saying he regrets not having taken the lead on schools sooner, Kilpatrick said he has spent the summer trying to get Calloway, who has said she opposes charter schools, and union leaders, historically the stiffest obstacle to change, onboard with his vision.
"We started by going into the belly of the beast ... and that's organized labor unions," he said.
"I've been talking to them more than I've been talking to anyone else in this debate because the political organization that comes around this issue comes from the unions. I want to help them understand: This is not about protectionism. It's not about salaries and wages. It's not about benefit packages. It's really about how we better educate our children in the city of Detroit."
Kilpatrick said his conversations with labor leaders about everything from male and female academies to boarding schools were positive. "I believe organized labor in this town is ready to lead a change," he said. "I believe they're tired of being put in the position of fighting change. ... I don't know if they're going to stand up and raise their hand up and say, 'We support charter schools,' although many unions have across this country."
Neither Calloway nor Detroit Federation of Teachers President Virginia Cantrell responded to requests for interviews.
The mayor said he has had numerous conversations with Calloway, who started as DPS chief July 1. He said Calloway supports change and improvement and is the right person for the city schools job. But he said the schools are his job, too.
The mayor was invited to "Am I Right?" which I cohost, to update plans he announced two months ago to bring more charter and private schools to the city, something he called part of his job as steward over Detroit kids.
"I have to work with Dr. Connie Calloway," Kilpatrick said. "I have to work with the charter school community. And I believe because of that things are coming together. It's not a money grab. I don't want to be in charge. I just want kids to be educated."
Kilpatrick said this massive education revolution would happen only if the community unites behind children and change.
If nothing else was clear about the mayor's conviction Friday, this was: To save Detroit, we must save the children. To save the children, we must save current schools, create schools and entice parents to stick with public education out of more than just guilt.
"We've got to let that go," the mayor said. "Parents don't care about politics, your assumptions or loyalty or how far away a school is. ... They care about their children, how they're educated and what quality is the school."
That sounds like a man on a mission in a city that needs one.
Contact ROCHELLE RILEY at 313- 223-4473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.