Miracle on Mackinac Island: Business Community Gets Woke to RaceJune 3, 2018
Detroit Free Press
By: Rochelle Riley
Something miraculous happened at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
For the first time that I can recall, people in charge of changing people’s lives spent most of their time focused on those in the state who need their help the most.
From the announcement of a new program that will help former college students who didn’t finish their studies to complete their degrees …
… to a pilot program to train prison inmates so they leave correctional facilities with a job …
… to the first public pronouncement ever made before the mostly white, well-to-do crowd gathered at the majestic Grand Hotel that racism is, in part, responsible for Detroit children being treated like second-class citizens …
… it became clear that the meeting may have provided a watershed moment in Michigan history.
“There is a racist element to what has happened (to the city schools) — children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens,” Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said during a forum on Mackinac Island. “When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals … who had no track record of education … no local governance structure …and year after year of low performance, a lack of growth, drop in enrollment … facilities that are not kept up, that would never happen in any white suburban district in this country.”
His words drew loud and sustained applause. But Vitti also said something that drew tears. When I, as moderator of the forum, asked him to speak to the assembled crowd as an 8-year-old third-grader and tell them what he wants, he looked out and said:
“I want the same thing that your child wants,” he said to loud applause. “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 son, your daughter, your grandchild, your niece, your nephew. That’s what I want.”
The session, added to the agenda at Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s recommendation, was called Detroit’s New Era of Collaboration on Education. If that collaboration truly happens, if we truly begin working together to become a model for putting children first, we may one day look back on that moment last week as that time when metro Detroit’s business community “got woke.”
And that awakening could not come at a more urgent time. The Michigan Legislature has scared some parents and teachers to distraction with a new law banning schools from promoting third-graders who do not read at grade level. Nine of 10 third-graders in the city schools do not read at grade level. And some parents and teachers feel the law will exacerbate an existing third-grade-to-unemployment pipeline similar to the fourth-grade-to-prison pipeline that already exists.
The shame is this is yet another example of the state attempting to polish its reputation at the expense of our children. Rather than help districts find ways to improve, then raise standards, the Legislature keeps raising standards without any support to make meeting them possible. One would think that legislators are trying to make public schools fail to make it easier to increase the number of charters across Michigan, but nah, that couldn’t be it, right?
For instance, when legislators adopted Common Core standards before districts were prepared, to appear to be on equal footing nationally with other states, it set up districts across the state for failure.
“Listen to practitioners. We have not done that as a state,” Vitti said. “We have had, oftentimes, ideological-driven policy that is detached from the day to day work in schools. … Too often, it’s been imposed … top down, not from the bottom up. …”
For urban districts like Detroit, where children are plagued by toxic environments, violence and poverty, telling children to do better without help is like telling someone to take a bath without water.
Oh, wait, that’s Flint.
Detroit’s civic, business and education leaders know what needs to happen. The financial pill has been a bitter one to swallow since it requires trust that the district squandered when it was plundered by crooks.
But the crooks are in jail. A qualified superintendent is in place. And an elected school board is overseeing change, which school board member Sonya Mayes said takes time. She asked for patience from the leaders at the Mackinac conference.
It is now time to make education equitable, not equal. That means every child starts from the same starting line. Right now, Detroit kids, as Vitti outlined in an analogy, are at the starting line staring at the backs of other students 10 feet ahead of them. They can never compete fairly that way.
Equitable education means giving Detroit kids what they need to be equal to other kids in Michigan and in the country. And then watch them soar.
“Our kids know perseverance. Our kids know hard work. All they need is an opportunity,” Vitti said.
So do all Michigan kids, Mayor Duggan reminded, because the education challenges are not limited to his city. But in his city, much of the problems were caused by the state.
“We know the history. We had 10 years of state-appointed emergency managers,” Duggan said. “During that time, we lost half of the enrollment. … They eliminated career technical education, eliminated art, eliminated music … and all that happened was children continued to leave. … But this isn’t just Detroit.”
He cited National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that tell a larger story.
“For white students in the state of Michigan, fourth-grade math and reading level, in 2013 we were 14th in the country,” he said. “Last year — 46th in the country. Now, if you sat down in 2013 and said how can I sabotage Michigan’s future? … I’m not sure you could have accomplished it.”
Duggan said the state chose tax cuts over children, which was a mistake.
“You think about in our own lives, if a spouse loses a job, you get your hours cut back at work, the last thing you cut is your kids’ soccer or dance,” he said. “You sacrifice yourself and you preserve your kids.”
Duggan didn’t reject my suggestion to require companies that want to develop property to adopt a school, providing whatever is needed for those kids to succeed — including air conditioning, since Detroit students couldn’t attend school while we were all up at Mackinac Island because the buildings were too hot. Duggan recalled a voluntary program from the ’90s that worked until, he said, companies were chased away by emergency management.
It’s time to begin work discussions way before the job interviews. They need to happen way before kids are making decisions between career training or academia.
So here are the options: Business leaders can continue to talk about workforce development without developing a workforce. Or they can realize that the training for that workforce begins early.
Like in third grade.