a temporary home

These students lost their school to a mold problem. Here’s how they’re doing in their new temporary digs

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn

Five school buses line up outside the closed Palmer Park Preparatory Academy on Thursday morning. Hundreds of elementary students, in a flurry of backpacks and spring jackets, climb on board and embark on the six-mile ride from their school — which contained mold — to a temporary home at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women.

At the end of their journey across the city, they file off the bus and enter the building through a special entrance only for them — a bright blue banner indicates which door is for the 437 displaced children.

This the latest fallout from years of disinvestment in Detroit’s schools and could be a glimpse into the future of other buildings if the Detroit district is unable to make urgent repairs across the city. Two years ago, teachers shut down nearly every school in the district when they called out sick to protest school conditions. The protest made national headlines.

After losing their school building to mold contamination last month, students have an extra 15-minute commute across the city and back, and teachers had to pick up and move their classrooms. Now, students and teachers are jostling for space at another school.

“Some people are mad because the kids get dropped off later, and we have to leave earlier in the morning as well,” said Rosa Davenport, a grandmother of two children who attend the school. “Before we could leave the house at 8:40 in the morning, and now we have to leave at 8:15.”

Two classes of preschool Montessori students now have to share one space instead of working in separate classrooms, said Palmer Park parent Alaina Dawkins.

“It’s a large room, with one teacher on one side and one teacher on the other,” she said. “You can see and hear the other students.”

She said her daughter, Ariahn Dawkins, misses her old school and has asked when they’ll be returning. The district said students will be transitioned back in the fall of 2018 for the new school year, if all goes according to plan.

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations, but the state of Palmer Park was so dire it needed immediate action. Crews are repairing the roof, fixing the second floor that has been closed since 2011, repainting the walls, and replacing water-stained ceiling tiles.

“Under emergency management, there was gross neglect of all of our facilities, and of the children and their interests as a collective,” school board member LaMar Lemmons said. “Most of the buildings are not in satisfactory, safe, and healthy condition for our children.”

Principal Shirita Hightower did not respond to requests for comment. We will update the story when we hear from her.

Due to a leaky roof, many areas of the building have been affected by water damage. A report released late last month detailed widespread damage, but the district said airborne mold was not found in areas where children spend time. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti met with families last month to quell concerns about exposure to mold. 

Because of the health concerns over the building and the inconvenience of moving to a temporary home, some students have already left the school, though a district spokeswoman said she believes students will “return to the school in the fall.”

But Palmer Park parent Blake Bradley said he’s considering moving his preschooler to a school in the suburbs.

“I moved him here from another school one week before Palmer Park closed,” he said. “They were professional enough to let us know what was going on, and I understand things happen…but he might go to school in Southfield now. That was always a consideration.”

 

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.