Detroit's future

Reading, writing and soap suds: The unusual new program that teaches kids while their parents do the wash

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit"s Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

The days of bored kids hanging out in front of the TV at Detroit’s Fit and Fold laundromat could be over.

Now, there are books for kids to read — and take home — near the washing machines. There are computers stocked with educational software. And, a few times a week, there’s a picnic table in the parking lot where instructors read to children and work with them on their writing skills.

“This is good for everyone,” said Aaron Eley, 31, who was washing clothes inside the Fit and Fold in the city’s North End neighborhood on a recent evening as his children — Christian, 10, Ma’Kayla, 6 and Aaliyah, 2 — sat with instructors at the table outside.

“It’s good for the parents. They get to wash the clothes,” he said as his children played a matching game that involved finding words in books and writing them on index cards. “And it’s good for the kids. They get to learn some stuff.”

The books, the computers and the picnic table are part of a program called Wash and Learn that’s taking place this summer at three Detroit laundromats through an organization called Libraries Without Borders.

As educators increasingly recognize that teaching children during traditional school hours is simply not enough, Libraries Without Borders and its local partners have been experimenting with bringing literacy programs into people’s lives.  

That includes people whose lives are too complicated to allow them to attend classes or tutoring programs at libraries or community centers. And it includes the kids from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely to lose academic ground over the summer than their more affluent peers.

“The folks who would benefit most from library programs often don’t know they exist, don’t know they’re eligible for a library card or don’t have a consistent enough schedule to go to a Tuesday 6 p.m. program every week,” said Allister Chang, Libraries Without Borders’ executive director.

Chang’s organization offers programs that help children and adults with reading, computers and other skills. It has brought pop up literacy programs to places such as train stations, hospitals, parks and street corners, testing different times and locations in different cities to see what works.

Those experiments proved that some locations were problematic, Chang said.

At the park, “you’re competing against nature at all times,” Chang said. People couldn’t see the computers if it was too bright. If it rained, the park would empty out.

At train stations or on street corners, people don’t usually hang around. “Everyone’s rushing to go somewhere else,” Chang said.

But at laundromats, people have time, they have shelter and they’re often looking for something to do.

“At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” Chang said. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

So Libraries Without Borders started piloting Wash and Learn this summer, testing out child literacy programs at the Fit and Fold and two other Detroit laundromats — the Sunshine Laundry Center in Southwest Detroit and the Coinless Laundromat on the city’s west side.

In New York City, the organization piloted an adult Wash and Learn program, helping people create digital resumes and apply for jobs online at a laundromat in the Bronx.

“We’re talking about equal opportunity here,” Chang said. “After school and over summer vacations, we find in the data that wealthier families are able to send their kids to continue doing more literacy-developing activities than children from low-income families.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Stacy Lorne of Libraries Without Borders reads a book with children at the Fit and Fold laundromat in Detroit.

Some studies show that households in low-income neighborhoods have just one book for every 300 children — far less than in wealthier neighborhoods.

“Isn’t that terrifying?” Chang asked. “We know how just having access to reading materials outside of school can help make sure that you develop a vocabulary over the year and we know how much that affects graduation rates and job employability.”

Wash and Learn aims to change that, which is why books are available at the laundromats for children to take home, whether or not the instructors are present. It’s why the computers are available whenever the laundromats are open.

And when the program is in session, instructors work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, helping them with whatever they need. On a recent night, that included a one-year-old who was just learning to connect with books, older children who were practicing their writing skills and several kids who wanted to spend time on the computers.

So far, the program has been a big hit at the Fit and Fold, said Justin Johanon, who manages the laundromat.

The Fit and Fold has always had exercise equipment available for adults to use while they wait for their clothes to get clean, but there wasn’t much for kids, Johanon said.

“Their parents would plop them down and they would hang around, doing nothing,” he said.

Now, he said, kids are taking the free books and using the computers even on days when the the instructors aren’t there. “It’s awesome,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Wash & Learn program has been in three Detroit laundromats this summer, offering kids instruction in reading, writing and computers.

The North End neighborhood has been surrounded by dramatic change in Detroit. Less than a mile to the south is the New Center neighborhood, where developers are building expensive new condo buildings and where the new QLINE train picks up commuters to deliver them downtown.

Nearby to the north, the price of historic mansions in the Boston Edison neighborhood has been climbing.

But the blocks around the laundromat are filled with families who have struggled for years, Johanon said. Right next to the laundromat is an apartment building that’s home to many children whose parents have trouble making ends meet.

“No one in there has internet. No one has a computer,” Johanon said. “There’s a bunch of apartments, a bunch of kids, and no one in there has anything. A lot of people can’t afford even to do laundry.”

Johanon said he’s tried to let the neighborhood know that kids can come to the reading program even if their parents aren’t washing clothes.

“I just care about what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said.

It is that enthusiasm from laundromat owners and employees that has been the best part of the program so far, said Stacy Lorne, the Wash and Learn Detroit program coordinator.

“They take such pride in this program and such excitement,” Lorne said. “They’re bringing the kids to the computers when we’re not there and they’re making sure they know how to use the technology to get the kids logged on.”

One Detroit laundromat owner gave her $150 to buy snacks for kids, she said. Another printed flyers to help spread the word.

The Wash and Learn pilot program will end later this month but Libraries Without Borders has signaled that it plans to extend and expand the program, serving kids after school and on weekends once the school year begins. Local community partners say they, too, are invested for the long haul.

Wash and Learn “was their idea but we see the benefit so we’re going to keep this here,” said Cindy Eggleton, whose Brilliant Detroit organization is the local partner at the Fit and Fold and Sunshine laundromats.

Brilliant Detroit has family centers focused on families with kids aged 0-8 in several Detroit neighborhoods including one a block from the Fit and Fold. The organization sees the laundromat program as a great way to spread the word about its other programs, including a free all-day “Kids Club,” parenting classes, financial literacy classes and a teen gardening and nutrition program, Eggleton said. “It serves as a place for us to meet neighbors and if they want to come for more, they can come to the Brilliant Detroit house.”

Eggleton notes that programs that promote early childhood literacy are especially important in Michigan now that a new state law will soon require kids who can’t pass a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade.

Libraries Without Borders is encouraged by the early results from the pilot program this summer. The number of kids who have been served so far is relatively low — more than 80 children and their parents have worked with instructors at the three Detroit laundromats. Almost 100 books have been distributed, including children’s books and books geared for young adults.

But the organization sees this pilot program as a first step to possibly someday turning laundromats into places where people know they can go for help.

“This is something we are planning to take nationally,” Chang said, noting that the group soon hopes to have Wash and Learn programs in four other cities.

It just makes sense, he said. “Laundromat workers are in the local community. They care about the local families and this is also a way for them to get more business. This laundromat has programs and computers that others don’t.”

 

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.