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Detroit Education Panel: See Yourself in Detroit’s Schoolchildren

A panel of leading voices in the effort to reform and improve Detroit’s public school system came together on Michigan’s Center Stage to give a holistic assessment of the school district’s most pressing needs, and the opportunities to create further buy-in and participation from the larger business and civic community.

The panel, which included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) Board Treasurer Sonya Mays, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, and DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, stressed that the challenges facing the district are both structural and societal. The panel was moderated by Detroit Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley.

As Vitti shared, during his first days on the job, the district’s lack of systems and processes was shocking. Mays, who also serves as the CEO of the real estate development company Develop Detroit Inc., was quick to mention that an extensive upgrade to the district’s real estate would be necessary to ensure that schools are safe for students.

However, the destructive effects of poverty and race can also not be ignored when discussing the issues facing DPSCD. The panel agreed that one of the driving explanations for lack of support for the district is that, whether intentional or not, Michigan’s white residents often don’t see themselves in Detroit’s schoolchildren.

“There is a racist element to what has happened. Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens. When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals that had no track record of education reform, no local governance structure, and year after year of low-performance … that would never happen in any white suburban school district in this country. That is a testament of race,” said Vitti.

Despite this, there are important collaborations and initiatives currently underway in Detroit’s schools that are providing a concrete, measurable, and scalable impact. One highlighted during the panel was the Detroit Promise, a program administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber that provides a tuition-free pathway to either an associate or bachelor’s degree for Detroit residents who graduate from any high school in the city.

Schlissel shared more about Wolverine Pathways and the Go Blue Guarantee, two programs that focus on helping students in underserved communities receive mentoring, support, and full scholarships to the University of Michigan.

Duggan announced a new pilot project that will provide parents in Northwest Detroit a choice of public and charter schools for their students to attend, as well as a shared, coordinated bus route and after-school activities among all participating institutions.

To end the session, Riley asked the panelists to do something unconventional: Answer as a third-grader, and tell the gathered Michigan business and civic community what you most want from them. Vitti’s response best exemplified the necessary cultural shift to ensure the sustainable success of Detroit’s school district.

“I want the same thing your child wants. I may not have your privilege, I may not have the color of your skin, I may live in a different zip code, but I want the exact same thing you want for your daughter, your grandchild, your niece, your nephew.”