Detroit Public Schools System Emergency Manager Roy Roberts recently unveiled a new action plan for the district. He said the biggest challenge will be getting people to accept change.
“I don’t think we are proposing anything that’s beyond the talent of our people,” he said. “It’s new; none of us woke up this morning and said ‘let’s change today.’ So, it’s going to take some good leadership, some good thinking to make sure people stay on course.”
The plan has four components: citywide accountability, local school stability, a redesigned central office, and a focus on financial stewardship.
Citywide accountability involves agreeing to a common definition of school quality for all schools, whether DPS, charters or Education Assistance Authority (EAA).
Roberts said there has been an ongoing war between Detroit Public Schools and charter authorizers. He also said the state legislature has removed the cap on charter schools and that DPS itself has 16 charter schools.
Recently, he called together all the charter authorizers across the state for a meeting at the DPS and announced that the war was over. He said the various organizations should instead jointly agree on a common language and a common way to access schools and appraise them.
Roberts also pointed out that they should agree on the conditions in which a company can come into the city and under what said company would be taken out.
“We agreed on that,” he said, adding that he told the group that he was assuming responsibility for seeing that every young person in Detroit gets a quality education.
“I don’t care what school they go to,” he said. “It’s the only way you’re going to turn the city around.”
They agreed that Excellent Schools Detroit would be the arbiter.
“They’re going to be the people keeping the information and feeding it back to us,” he said. “So we’ve all agreed on that, and that’s the first time in history that you get that group of people. That’s EAA, that’s Detroit Public Schools;,and that’s all the charter authorizers agreeing on a common approach forward.”
The second element of the citywide accountability aspect is taking swift action where underperformance persists, including school closures.
The third aspect is adopting common assessments to give families “apples to apples” comparisons of all schools.
The local school stability aspect involves making 10 schools self-governing, with each having oversight by a local governing council authority with respect to budgeting, operations, hiring and curriculum. Roberts indicated that the 10 selected schools were already somewhat on a path toward self determination.
He also said principals at two of the 10 schools approached him and were elated about the opportunities.
In addition to these 10 schools, an additional 16 DPS-authorized charter schools will be managed by the Office of Self-Governing Schools. Chief Innovation Officer Doug Ross will lead the effort. Some 7,500 students will be educated within these 26 schools.
Asked how the funds going directly to the school would be utilized, Roberts said it would be up to the Local Governing Council Authority at each school to make that decision.
“They’ve got to place the funds and the resources where they get the greatest return for academic education for kids,” he said.
Ninety-seven percent of state funds (after debt service and fixed cost obligations) and 100 percent of school funds will go directly to the schools.
Roberts also said this will be the first time in a number of years that there will be an opportunity to infuse the school district with new teachers and new thinking. Ninety-eight percent of all teachers in DPS qualify for retirement.
“Some of them are tired,” he said. “We’re providing them an opportunity to retire. And it provides an opportunity for us to bring some new blood, some new thinking into Detroit Public Schools. Some new energy. We think that’s a pretty powerful motivation.”
Roberts noted that both he and the system need to be challenged, and that teachers need to be retooled.
“We’ve got to got to give them what they need,” he said. “In this, we’re going to put colleges in place for principals and teachers, where we’re continually giving them training.”
He added that it would be individualized training, because just as not every student needs the same thing, the same holds true for the teachers.
Roberts also said the leadership teams of the individual schools would decide things like class sizes. He added that top-down management is unsuccessful in urban education.
“We’re going to break out of that mold,” he said, adding that he won’t sit up in headquarters and tell the schools what to do.
The third element, the redesigned central office, involves a shift to a more customer-service focused organization to better serve the schools, students and families.
The focus on financial stewardship includes a deficit elimination plan. Roberts said if the district takes in $1, it should spend $1, not $1.50. Otherwise it will never get out of the deficit situation.
In addition he said the deficit has gone from $327 million to $83.9 million, and that there’s a plan in place to eliminate it in five years.
“We will manage the budget this year and every ensuing year,” he said.