Why Detroit’s teachers are ‘sick’ of their inadequate schools

Detroit's public schools have been in financial decline for more than a decade as their enrollment plummeted. Now on the brink of insolvency, the district is confronted with decrepit buildings, a chronic lack of resources and fed up teachers who have staged "sick-outs" in protest of the conditions. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports.

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    Next, to Detroit, and a city school system in turmoil, plagued with decrepit buildings, financial uncertainty, a chronic lack of resources, and now a recent wave of teacher sick-outs.

    All of it is fueling a growing anxiety that the system could run out of money in coming months.

    April Brown has our report. It's part of our Making the Grade series, which airs every Tuesday.

    Tonight's story is in partnership with the American Graduate Initiative.


    The playground at Detroit's Spain Elementary and Middle School sat empty for weeks. No children were allowed in because of this.

  • LAKIA WILSON, Counselor, Spain Elementary-Middle School:

    We started to call it a steam geyser, because we really don't know what it is, if you notice that there is steam coming out there. There is also some liquid that is spewing out from it. So it's very dangerous because it causes the temperatures on the playground to reach 110 degrees.


    Lakia Wilson is the counselor at Spain, a school with a century-long legacy in this Detroit neighborhood. But for the last two years, she says, steam and water, reportedly from the sewer system, have been seeping out of the concrete in the parking lot and shooting out of this pipe a few feet away.

    This is your only playground?


    This is our own only playground. We have lost our gym, and we have no playground now.


    What do your kids do for exercise now?


    Our children are limited to walking the hallway. They have become like mall walkers.


    The gym she referred to is now locked. But before that happened, a few cameras captured what is there.

    How would you describe what we see inside?


    A scary movie. The floor has been removed, the parquet. And now what you see is just a layer of blackness. We have been told that it was black mold. In fact, the city inspector said that it was mold.


    Teachers and staff say they have had building issues for years, including mold, water damage, and broken windows, some of which city inspectors recently cited as code violations.

    India Brimberry, the school's student health aide, is among those concerned these problems are affecting the health of those who work and study here.

  • INDIA BRIMBERRY, Student Health Aide, Spain Elementary-Middle School:

    I see a lot of nosebleeds, a lot of vomiting and stomach aches, a lot of headaches every day.


    The conditions at Spain, along with structural and maintenance problems at other schools in the Detroit Public School District, came to light last month, after more than 80 were closed because of the most recent in a series of teacher sick-outs over working conditions.

    Soon afterward, the mayor ordered nearly all the city's schools be inspected.

    This is one of the first schools city inspectors came to. Cody houses three separate high schools, and here the inspectors found 30 violations, including mold, mildew and evidence of rodents and insects.

    The Detroit Institute of Technology, a college prep school located at Cody, is where Christal Bonner teaches. She was among a group of teachers, parents and students who wanted to share their many experiences with issues including large class sizes and few resources in a district that may soon run out of money.

    CHRISTAL BONNER, Teacher, Detroit Institute of Technology: How can you call yourself Detroit Institute of Technology when your technology is nonexistent or very low? We just have some outdated regular desktop dells. And we have some old, outdated netbooks, and in a couple of rooms, you might have a smart board. That's it.


    Eighteen-year-old Lucas Beal is a senior at Communication and Media Arts High School a few miles away.

    LUCAS BEAL, Senior, Communication and Media Arts High School: In my math class, there are not enough textbooks. And some of the pages are missing, so we have to try to scramble around and find the books with that page, try to take a picture of the problems we have to do.


    At yet another high school, Cass Technical, senior Ashley Carson is among a group of students there who organized a walkout both to support teachers and protest the poor conditions.

    She says that, even though the physical conditions at Cass Tech aren't as bad as some others, having so few resources is demoralizing.

  • ASHLEY CARSON, Senior, Class Technical High School:

    It's kind of like you feel like you're the — like, the bottom of the barrel. You feel like we're not worth anything. We may know differently, but what they're showing us is not that we're worth something.


    Arlyssa Heard pulled her son out of a Detroit public school, but is still concerned about what's happening.

    ARLYSSA HEARD, Parent of Former Detroit Public Schools Student: How long can you go year after year with not getting what you need, without not having an assistant in the classroom, overcrowded classes, not enough supplies, no prep time?

  • WOMAN:

    I would love to ask the teacher in the room, how do you keep going in DPS?


    Well, good question. I guess I keep going because the students say, Ms. Bonner, are you coming back next year?


    Bonner has stayed in the classroom, but many other teachers have quit. And after January's large-scale teacher sick-out by many who remained, the district sued to stop similar protests in the future.

    The district's head of communications, Michelle Zdrodowski.

  • MICHELLE ZDRODOWSKI, Communications Director, Detroit Public Schools:

    We understand the teachers' frustration. We're all frustrated. We feel the same things that teachers feel. But, ultimately, the important thing is that teachers are in the classroom teaching. When you close 88 schools on one day, that doesn't help kids.

  • WOMAN:

    Educators have been snubbed.


    The teachers union next announced it was filing suit against the district, alleging it is not providing a minimally adequate education or properly maintaining the schools.

    Ivy Bailey is the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers:

    IVY BAILEY, Interim President, Detroit Federation of Teachers: You shouldn't have to worry about, if you're going to come to school, if water is going to be dripping on your head. You shouldn't have to worry about if you're breathing in mold spores. You shouldn't have to worry about if there's going to be a teacher sitting in front of you when you get to school.


    But district officials say they have been trying their best to solve the problems.


    When there are life and safety issues, we have done our best to address those as quickly as possible. Bigger picture issues like roofs that need — complete roofs that need replacing, we just don't have the funds for right now.


    The poor conditions have contributed to educational achievement which the mayor described last week as the worst-performing of any large city in America.

    The district's financial situation has been declining for more than a decade, along with its enrollment, which plummeted from more than 140,000 in 2005 to about 47,000 a decade later. At the same time, revenue has dropped from roughly $1.4 billion to less than $800 million. And now expenditures exceed revenue.

    The district is now on the brink of insolvency, with more than $500 million of debt. Emergency managers effectively took control away from the local school board in 2009.

    GOV. RICK SNYDER (R), Michigan: I think it's critically important we improve education in Detroit.


    Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed the most recent, Darnell Earley, a year ago to improve the district's financial footing.

    But Earley has recently been under fire for his tenure as the emergency manager in Flint, Michigan, when the city switched its water supply in a cost-cutting measure, which resulted in lead contamination and a public health crisis.

    Earley resigned last week, but is still in his post until the end of February.

    May I ask why Mr. Earley is not available?


    He's doing the work of the district.


    Detroit Public Schools head of communications Michelle Zdrodowski:


    Well, as an emergency manager, he was responsible for coming in and addressing the financial emergency. If you look at our audit report from fiscal year '15, it shows that, were it not for the $515 million in long-term debt, we would have had a $13 million surplus.


    But Earley has acknowledged the district will run out of cash in April. Governor Snyder says he plans to appoint a transitional leader for Detroit Public Schools before the end of the month.

    Pending legislation could take care of the $515 million debt and offer millions more for restructuring, but there are also concerns the district could file for bankruptcy instead.


    You could suspend me, but either way, though, I still walked out. You still heard me.


    Lucas Beal hopes the situation is addressed in time to benefit younger students, because he doesn't expect it will be in time to help him.


    I'm currently a senior, so I'm about to go off. And I might know half of the stuff that I need, and I might not because of the lack of resources.


    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm April Brown in Detroit.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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