Saving the best DPS schools

First do no harm.  It is a central tenet of medicine and one which would-be school reformers increasingly seem to forget in their haste to transform troubled school systems.

This week, the state of Michigan recognized a number of schools across the state “where students are succeeding academically compared to peer schools, despite such factors as poverty, low funding or having an urban or rural location.”  Three DPS schools made the “best of the best” list:  Thurgood Marshall, Pasteur and Vernor Elementaries.

I’ve tended to write off Detroit Public Schools in my posts on the system, and in that respect I have done a great disservice to a number of DPS schools which are performing well and which deserve to be saved one way or another.  One of these, Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, was profiled by one of its faculty in the Detroit News in early March.  The teacher, Ann Crowley, describes how Palmer Park has been

hailed as an innovator for its management model — teachers are not only in the classrooms, but in the administrative offices as well.

Palmer Park is the only teacher-led school in Detroit… The advantage our school has over traditional public schools is that teachers have the flexibility to practice their craft. They can approach children as individuals, building learning programs designed to meet individual needs.

In contrast to many other DPS schools, where there has been a high level of resentment against the state-appointed reform team,

Palmer Park grew out of meetings with Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, academic chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and a group of Detroit Federation of Teachers members hoping to bring to Detroit a school that fully empowers parents and teachers to make decisions in the best interest of children…

Crowley claims the school’s faculty “are doing things no other school in the district can do”:

For one thing, Palmer Park is a no excuses school… Teachers have Response Intervention Time built into their schedules to do intense instruction in reading and math for those students who are falling behind…

Our experience is that the larger class size matters less for older students, if the right instruction model is used…

Our teachers don’t have to wait for approval from the central office downtown to change an instructional plan.

Lead teachers fill some administrative functions and have the authority to adjust schedules and curriculum immediately.

For example, on the second day of implementing the new schedules a student in one of the math classes approached her teacher because she felt the class was a bit advanced for her.  She was in a different class the very next day…

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy is exactly what can be done when people are willing to put children, their learning, and their unique needs above all else.

It does not exist because of district mandates or union contracts. The school exists because a group of teachers wanted to really teach and a community accepted them in their neighborhood.

The progress the Bobb team has made in helping give birth to this school contrasts with the recent announcement that the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women is slated for closure.   There is so much excess capacity in the DPS system and enrollment is falling so rapidly that it is inevitable that a lot of schools have to close, but it is puzzling that Mr. Bobb selected Ferguson, which has a 90% graduation rate and is one of the few schools in the nation specifically designed for teen mothers.  A DetroitYes commenter pointed me toward a possible explanation:  according to a 2004 Metro Times story, Ferguson “somehow, every year, obtains about double the funding per student of the average Detroit public school.”  If that’s still the case seven years later, it seems conceivable that the school had just become too costly for the almost-bankrupt district to sustain.

I wonder if there is a solution for DPS like that employed for GM, where it can be split into an old sick half that is liquidated,and a healthy half consisting of the stronger assets.  There needs to be a way to save its strongest schools from the system’s cancer.

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