A Tale of Two Cities’ School Systems

Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Hulett
Thursday, April 8, 2010

The schools in New Orleans were once considered among the worst in the country. Then Hurricane Katrina tore through, and the school system was rebuilt. It’s now considered a laboratory for urban education reform.

Michigan Radio’s Sarah Hulett and Jennifer Guerra have this look at what Detroit might learn from the Big Easy. Sarah starts our story in Detroit.

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DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb in the War Room, where he crafts a new vision for Detroit's schools (Photo by Sarah Hulett)

It’s about 8:30 a.m., and Robert Bobb is meeting with his finance team.

“OK, let’s get started,” says Bobb. “Let’s talk about the immediate decisions that have to be made.”

This is what Bobb calls the War Room. It’s where he and his staff pore over numbers at early-morning and late-night meetings. And it’s where he’s crafting a new vision for Detroit’s schools.

“I think Bill, we still have the New Orleans structure?” asks Bobb. “But I still want to come back with the NewCo with just this box here, and then build the New Orleans program around this box….”

You heard Bobb use the term “NewCo.” That’s lingo used in the business world. An example close to home is General Motors. The OldCo was General Motors Corporation. It had liabilities it wanted to get rid of. As part of the bankruptcy process, it created a new entity – the General Motors Company. The valuable assets went into the new company. Most of the debts and liabilities stayed with the old company. Bobb is looking to do something similar with Detroit’s schools.

“The very high-performing schools should be part of NewCo,” says Bobb, “and I would put Cass, Renaissance, Bates…”

Bobb lists the handful of Detroit schools with great reputations that would be part of the “new” Detroit Public Schools.

The rest of the district’s schools – and it would be the vast majority of them – would be left in the “OldCo,” along with the debt.

But a school system isn’t a car company. GM’s OldCo could sell off factories, and give shareholders and bondholders pennies on the dollar for their investments. The schools left in the OldCo created by Detroit Public Schools would have tens of thousands of students in need of an education.

So the OldCo in this case might do something like New Orleans did.

In that city, the OldCo is called the Recovery School District.

“It’s a school improvement arm. A physical school improvement arm,” explains Paul Vallas, the man in charge of the Recovery School District, also known as the RSD.

“Go in there, make changes, implement the best practices, recruit and incubate the best leadership team, monitor, provide technical support. I mean that’s the mission of the RSD.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit, the state decided to wipe the slate clean, declare the city’s school system defunct, and start all over again. The old school board took over a small number of the city’s best performing schools. The state took over the rest. The goal: To eventually turn most if not all of the RSD-run schools into charter schools, which are basically public schools with more autonomy.

Duke Bradley opened up Mays Prep last year. The charter school took over the pre-K through 2nd grade classes at Carver Elementary, one of the worst performing schools in the RSD.

“Our students scored in the lower 5th percentile of every content area that was tested area. So that’s math, science, ELA and social studies. That tells us that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do.” That means 9 hour school days, classes on Saturdays, and at least 1 hour of homework every night.

But not everyone thinks the New Orleans model is the way to go. Diane Ravitch is a professor of education at New York University. “Well, I think that New Orleans has limited lessons to teach,” says Ravitch. “For one thing, it’s a model that requires you wipe out public education and start out from scratch. I wouldn’t recommend that to any city in the country.”

And because charter schools compete with traditional schools for students, Ravitch says the charters cherry pick the best kids, leaving the public schools even worse off than they were before.

Back in Detroit, Robert Bobb is working on plans that would borrow directly from the New Orleans playbook, including more charter schools. But he says the political realities of Detroit demand that he also present some kind of hybrid concept.

“Because parts of our community will go ballistic if you say we’re going to become like a whole new charter district, which is not the case at all,” says Bobb. “Our goal is not to charterize [sic] the district, it’s to get it from where it is today, to make it better and stronger going into the future.”

Bobb says he expects to present his plans to the public in June.

Contact Sarah Hulett at sarahhu@umich.edu, or Jennifer Guerra at guerraj@umich.edu.

Support for “Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities” comes from The Skillman Foundation and from The Kresge Foundation.

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