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What Flint’s superintendent did to protect children from lead

August 1, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Flint, Michigan’s superintendent is leading a comprehensive effort to mitigate the effects of lead on his students. Since alarmingly high levels of lead were found two years ago, the school district taken several measures to ensure the crisis wouldn't stand in the way of their kids' education. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: an update on how schools in Flint, Michigan, are coping with lead problems, and what the city’s school superintendent did to protect children from exposure, while making sure their education wasn’t interrupted.

The district was already facing declining enrollment, financial problems and falling test scores. Lead is especially dangerous to young children, having the potential to impair brain development and cause behavioral changes.

The Flint School District began making changes even before other city officials.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, has this report. It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: It’s been two years since alarmingly high levels of lead were found in Flint children.

MARY JOHNS, Kindergarten Teacher, Eisenhower Elementary School: Everybody, what’s this word?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Mary Johns has taught kindergarten for 12 years. She’s now seeing the impact up of lead poisoning.

MARY JOHNS: I had a student in kindergarten last year. He wasn’t progressing like I thought he should physically, mentally. He just wasn’t. He tested highly positive for lead poisoning. Just from last year to this year, you just see the change in him completely.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Johns sees differences in behavior, too. Another symptom?

MARY JOHNS: Sometimes, they get agitated easily. Sometimes, they get angry easy, a lot easier than they used to.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Superintendent Bilal Tawwab is leading a comprehensive effort to mitigate the effects of lead on children.

BILAL TAWWAB, Superintendent, Flint Community Schools: We have been focusing on hiring support staff for our students, additional social workers, school psychologists, speech pathologists, behavior specialists.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Signs of the effort are everywhere.

Meditation classes calm students showing signs of anxiety. Swivel chairs have been added for fidgety kids. Hand wipes are available for those children who still can’t bathe at home. And along with free bottled water everywhere, there’s free breakfast.

BILAL TAWWAB: As you know, there are lead-mitigating foods that our children can consume, and so we have been very intentional in developing a diet for our children.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The problem began three years ago. Flint changed to a new water system, the Flint River, to save money. This water flowing through the aging pipes caused lead, a neurotoxin that affects brain development, to seep into the water system.

Health officials estimate tens of thousands were affected, many of them children. Bilal Tawwab had been named the new superintendent of Flint schools a few months earlier.

BILAL TAWWAB: I knew I was coming into a situation which was going to be a heavy lift. You have a district which some would say is failing academically. We had a huge decline in enrollment over the past few years, financial crises.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Then, things got worse. Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha conducted a study before and after Flint’s water source was changed. It showed the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels essentially doubled. This wasn’t an announcement state officials wanted to hear.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA, Pediatrician: I was being attacked by the state. So, the state was saying that, hey, you’re wrong. This research is not true. You’re causing near hysteria. The state’s numbers don’t match my numbers.

So my credibility, this data, this science was being attacked.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: But Tawwab took her warning seriously. He ignored possible political backlash, as well as concerns about costs, and turned off all school taps. He ordered schools to switch to bottled water.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: It was very brave and courageous of him to stand up for kids, and to use his power as a superintendent to say, hey, we don’t know what’s going on. There’s a potential of this going on. So let’s err on the side of caution, and let’s protect children.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Government funds and philanthropy pay for the school district’s programs to mitigate the effects of lead poisoning. All the bottled water is donated. Tawwab says working with partners is essential.

BILAL TAWWAB: It starts with a leader who’s willing to collaborate to bring everyone to the table. You can’t go in as the leader feeling as if you have all of the answers. No. You don’t want to do that. You want folks to come in and be able to collaborate, and come up with the solution together.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: He insists that the water crisis shouldn’t stand in the way of the district’s essential job, teaching.

BILAL TAWWAB: I can’t look at a child and say, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to educate you that year because we were dealing with a water crisis. That’s not a fair excuse.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: But the crisis is far from over.

WOMAN: Girls, do you want some water?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Most of the city is still without drinkable water. Health officials are facing criminal charges. And it’s unclear how long government aid will last.

Worst of all, pediatrician Hanna-Attisha expects to see signs of lead poisoning, especially among those who have not yet started school.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: This is an irreversible neurotoxin. There is no magic pill. There is no antidote for this exposure. But there is a lot that we can do to mitigate the impact of this exposure.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Through it all, though, the superintendent remains optimistic. During Tawwab’s tenure, the graduation rate has improved, though it’s still below the national average. Test scores have gone up slightly. Enrollment is up, and there are plans to open new schools.

BILAL TAWWAB: You have kids who are excited to be in school. You have teachers who are excited to be teaching. We do not want to let this crisis define this community. It’s not going to happen.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: I’m Kavitha Cardoza with Education Week for the PBS NewsHour.

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