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Battling for the fate of a school district

Three days had passed before I saw a police officer in Detroit. I’d covered miles of the city, by foot and by car. Twice I was advised not to bother calling the police in an emergency; they wouldn’t come. I only ever found them in one place: armed officers from the city’s police department and from Detroit Public Schools’ own security force were manning a gray metal detector at the door to Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, on East Lafayette Street. They were in position for a public meeting that night, in May, asking that everyone empty their pockets and bags. A line had formed: on the agenda was the presentation of a new financial plan for the city’s fraught public-school system, put forth by Steven Rhodes, a retired judge who had presided over Detroit’s bankruptcy and now serves as the fifth state-appointed emergency manager the district has seen in seven years.

Burton International Academy. All photographs with drawings from Detroit by Mischelle Moy

Burton International Academy. All photographs with drawings from Detroit by Mischelle Moy

When Rhodes came to office, this past March, the Detroit public-school system was contending with an operating debt of more than $500 million, and the Citizens Research Council of Michigan had estimated that the total debt topped $3.5 billion. For years, money intended for students has instead been paying off old loans, and academic achievement has consistently ranked among the worst in American cities. At many school buildings, much-needed repairs to walls and leaky roofs have gone unaddressed; in the worst cases, mice could be seen scampering across unheated classrooms. For thirteen of the past seventeen years, the state has controlled the city’s school district, and with the more recent addition of all-powerful emergency managers, Detroiters have had to pin their frustrations and hopes on a rotating cast of emissaries. At the meeting, Rhodes — who has adopted the title “transition manager” — would present his recommendations to the community.

In King’s atrium, district officials had set up a table piled with thick, stapled copies of the new forty-five-day financial and operating plan. Dozens of people streamed in — parents, pastors, and youth organizers, many of them public-school alumni. They picked up copies and greeted one another in the hallway. Some looked anxious, others moved like boxers gearing up for a rematch. Alongside them were teachers and school counselors who had left classrooms, coaching, and after-school club duties to be at the meeting. Several King students were there, too, chatting about the banalities of high-school life. As everyone entered the auditorium, they passed representatives of King’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, who were dressed in uniform.

First, some good news: Deborah Jenkins, King’s principal, gave a careful speech touting the school’s recent accomplishments. Last year, she said, her thin eyebrows raised, King was an exception to the district’s overall poor performance: one hundred percent of the graduating class had committed to college or the military, and the marching band had been invited to perform at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Greeting applause, Jenkins smiled. Then she shifted course. “Any individual not modeling the way for our students — meaning being disruptive — we may ask you to remove yourself or to calm yourself,” she said. “But if your behavior continues then you will have assistance from security to exit.” Groans of disapproval floated up from the front row.

Rhodes stood to take her place onstage. He wore metal-rimmed glasses and a navy sweater. When he stepped up to the podium, it dwarfed him. He looked past a silent audience and into the lenses of TV news cameras at the back of the room. Rhodes, who is white, was appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder to replace Darnell Earley, who had resigned after his performance was widely denounced; Earley, who is black, had previously been the emergency manager in Flint. African-Americans account for 80 percent of Detroit’s population, but only 14 percent of Michigan’s, and, as in Flint, the city’s crisis cannot be divorced from the realities of racial inequality. “I want to address why we are here,” Rhodes began. “We are here for two reasons. The first is that the law requires it.” He went on, “The second reason is I want to be here — I really do. I look for every opportunity that I can get to talk to people who are interested in the future of the Detroit Public Schools. I want to meet with parents; I want to meet with teachers; I want to meet with principals, educators.”

He turned to point out a member of Detroit’s city council. Voices from the crowd shouted back: “Elected board members are here!” “That we elected!” With the state in charge, the local school board has not had oversight of its own district, but a group of defrocked board members continues to meet, as a formality. A few were in the auditorium. Rhodes attempted to speak over interruptions — “Let me talk now about a financial update. We have two kinds of debt. There’s operational debt and there’s long-term, or legacy, debt” — but the noise rose to general commotion.

“We don’t know where the money went!” a woman cried out. “They looted it! They stole our money!”

Rhodes stopped. “Okay,” he said. “It’s time for a first warning.” A district employee jumped in to offer backup, reiterating the rules of meeting decorum. Someone began clapping loudly in defiance; the sound tore through the air. The cops held their position, their backs against a wall near the exit.

“That’s all garbage,” a woman said, full of contempt.

Rhodes pleaded that everyone listen to his plan, which would inform state legislation. “For D.P.S. to succeed, we need to have the legislation in Lansing enacted,” he said. “And we need to have it enacted soon.”

Eruptions continued until the floor was opened for questions. People sprang from their seats, jostling for spots around microphones. A digital timer set to two minutes ticked away on a large screen behind Rhodes. “How much money is needed to put our system back in order?” a woman asked. “I don’t want to be seeing this next year when you’re coming back and saying we have no school system.”

His answer didn’t impress her: “I’d like to have eight hundred million dollars, but two hundred million is the minimum amount we need.” She sulked back to her seat. “Don’t y’all fall for an okeydoke,” she said.

Elena Herrada, a member of the school board, stood to register her concerns; Rhodes didn’t recognize her. John Telford, who identified himself as the district’s “rightful superintendent” — he’d been the school board’s choice — said that the state’s approach to Detroit’s schools has been a disaster of genocidal proportions. “Overwhelmingly, it is African-American children who have been harmed,” he said. “We’ve got Jim Crow all over again.” The crowd cheered him on. Others pressed Rhodes on why he was earning a salary of $18,750 a month; one parent said that he and Governor Snyder belonged in jail. Nearly everyone demanded that Rhodes meet with the school board. He resisted until the seventy-five-minute mark. “The condition is, it has to be a civil meeting,” he said. “Are you willing to agree to that term?” The response: uproar, offense, despair. “ ‘Civil’ — what does that mean?” a woman called out. “We have to speak up for ourselves.”

Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:

I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?”

He went on, “There should not be any division. So for me, as a student, to see all our adults act a fool at a public meeting — it really hurts.”

Rhodes got the last word. “If you make me the issue, I can’t help you — your fight is not with me, your fight is with the legislature,” he said. “Please ask the legislature to give D.P.S. the resources that it needs to educate your children. Your children.” The meeting ended there. The crowd filtered out of the auditorium and into the hall. The police watched them leave. No one seemed satisfied.

The Detroit Board of Education has struggled to meet the needs of the city’s children since its inception, in 1842. Within a decade, the system was already so pressed for space that just two of its fifteen buildings were originally designed as schools. Researchers at Loveland Technologies, a local property-survey company, recently dug up the 1852–53 superintendent’s report, which describes 200 children crammed into a house on Seventh Street in the Eighth Ward, “literally upon one another.” By 1867 there were fewer than 6,000 available seats for more than 20,000 school-age children. The Board of Education tried to keep up, and constructed eighty-eight school buildings by the end of the century.

Beginning with the industrial boom of the 1880s and the rise of the automobile industry that followed, district enrollment surged to nearly 40,000 by 1900 and continued to grow by as much as 10 percent annually for several years. Deliberate housing discrimination — in the Forties, developers built a six-foot wall to separate a new whites-only subdivision from a black neighborhood — paired with aggressive gerrymandering of school zones, helped guarantee segregation in classrooms. By the early 1950s, major car companies began to move out of Detroit’s city limits, and white families — the city’s middle class — largely disappeared. The result was a blow to tax revenue, which led to deep and persistent school-funding disparities between Detroit schools, which became increasingly poor and black, and suburban districts, which were far wealthier and whiter. The suburbs actively kept black families out. In 1948, Orville Hubbard, the long-serving mayor of neighboring Dearborn, Michigan, sought to block the construction of a private development for upper-middle-class residents, for fear of some being black. He sent city employees into the streets with pamphlets that read:

keep negroes out of dearborn

protect your home and mine!

In April 1966, more than 2,000 students walked out of Detroit’s Northern High School in protest. Northern had gone from being predominantly white and high performing to having mostly black students and poor academic results — three quarters of the sophomore and senior classes scored below the national average on math, science, and reading tests. When an honor student wrote an editorial for Northern’s school newspaper, criticizing its practice of advancing students to the next grade regardless of skills mastered and lamenting the course catalogue’s lack of college prep, the principal refused to print the article. Soon after, white voters punitively struck down a proposed tax hike that would have offered some relief to the district’s ailing finances. Racial tensions in the city peaked a year later, when Detroit police raided a bar in a black neighborhood, sparking five days of riots, looting, and fires. The National Guard and paratroopers flooded the streets. Forty-three people were killed, and more than a thousand buildings were burned.

Spain Elementary-Middle School

Spain Elementary-Middle School

Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954, and while “separate but equal” schooling was being dismantled across the South, the fight didn’t arrive in Detroit until 1970, when a group of mostly black parents, with the help of the NAACP, took the state to court. A U.S. district-court judge, Stephen Roth, ruled that Detroit had been segregated by design, and ordered that the suburban districts to which many white Detroiters had fled must share the burden of fixing the problem. Detroit was placed under a court-mandated desegregation order that involved nearly 800,000 students and fifty-two suburban districts. This meant busing, and the backlash was swift and violent. In the suburb of Pontiac, the Ku Klux Klan set school buses on fire.

All the while, Detroit’s deficit rose to nearly $40 million. In 1974, the Supreme Court struck down the desegregation order — a landmark ruling that relieved suburban districts of their burden to help ease racial disparities in the city and set the stage for a long battle over whose responsibility it was to lift the Detroit school system out of its quagmire.

The state took over in 1999. A likely catalyst was the district’s finding that the four-year-graduation rate had fallen as low as 30 percent, combined with the results of a financial review, which made state officials suspicious of mismanagement. Some teachers and lawmakers have also claimed that John Engler, the governor, was eager to control the district as a way to tap into a $1.5 billion construction bond. Whatever the case, people who lived in Detroit saw the move as hostile overreach, an attempt by the statehouse to rob citizens of their right to elect a locally controlled school board. Municipal authority was briefly returned in 2005, but in late 2008, the state again declared a financial emergency in the district, and Lansing has held oversight ever since.

The renewed takeover kicked into effect the state’s emergency-manager law, which has been deployed disproportionately in black cities. Half of Michigan’s black population has lived under emergency management in recent years, compared with only 2 percent of white people. The law’s parameters give emergency managers nearly total authority over struggling communities. In 2012, the state’s residents voted by referendum to repeal the law, but Governor Snyder instead signed a slightly amended version, which included a provision that would prevent citizens from attempting to quash it again.

The first of the Detroit Public Schools’ emergency managers, Robert Bobb, arrived in 2009. He was tasked with reining in the unruly debt, but under his direction, the debt load grew — and after all the emergency managers since, the district still owes hundreds of millions. Detroiters lost what little trust in the system they’d had, especially after 2015, when one of Bobb’s most high-profile hires, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was brought down by corruption. Byrd-Bennett, a former employee of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, placed an order for $40 million worth of textbooks — the largest contract in district history — after which the company deposited more than $26,000 into her bank account. Months earlier, the emergency manager Darnell Earley had shut down the district’s Office of Inspector General, whose function was to investigate corrupt behavior among school officials.

Enrollment in Detroit Public Schools, which peaked in 1966 at around 300,000, has dropped steadily, and is now close to 50,000. For decades, teachers have walked out regularly, battling against pay cuts, driving exasperated parents to send their kids to charters. Today Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state. Competition for students, and state funding, is fierce. John Grover, who wrote a report on the district’s history for Loveland, the property-survey company, describes the recruitment practices of charter and suburban schools in the Detroit metropolitan area as “downright predatory.” Before Count Day, when the state determines how much money to send each school on the basis of that day’s attendance, schools around Detroit work aggressively to get their enrollment numbers up. Their arsenals include parties and prizes. D.P.S. has offered students who attend class on Count Day a chance to win a forty-two-inch plasma television, a laptop, iPods, and gift cards.

As public schools lose students, a trail of shuttered buildings is being left across the city. Hutchins Intermediate, in Virginia Park, sits decaying, its windows, doors, and lockers busted open; debris forms a thick carpet along the wide corridors; the spiral staircases that once linked twin gyms to an elevated track have been cut out and sold as scrap metal. Researchers at Loveland say a school’s closure can devastate a neighborhood, robbing its residents of their community center. In the six years since Hutchins was boarded up, the neighborhood around it seems to have shut down, too.

Ivy Bailey, who has served as the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers for the past year, has skinny salt-and-pepper dreadlocks that swing when she walks. On Saturday, April 30, she’d dedicated her morning to getting her hair done. She goes to a local natural salon, Locs of Excellence, where her stylist, Shelli, takes care to wash and gently sculpt her dreadlocks from the root with pomade and gel, so they’re neat and frizz-free. Bailey had just settled into Shelli’s chair when her phone rang.

There had been murmurs the day before about a problem with teachers’ pay. For months, the district had been pleading with legislators in Lansing to deliver additional funding; in March, Detroit received nearly $50 million in emergency money. But Bailey was hearing a new rumor that the bailout wasn’t enough, and teachers on a twenty-six-week pay cycle wouldn’t be paid past June 30 — losing out on salary that they’d already earned.

She asked Shelli to give her some time alone. Bailey was tired; a lot had happened in the past five months. Following the outrage in Flint, seventy miles north, which had gained momentum thanks to aggressive social-media activism, teachers in Detroit had begun tweeting photos of their deteriorating school buildings, also framing the district’s debt problem as a health threat. One of the most shocking examples was found at Spain Elementary-Middle, which reeked of mold and mildew. Lakia Wilson, a counselor who had worked at the school for nineteen years, wrote an op-ed for PBS in which she described exposed wires hanging from the ceiling like spiderwebs. Another teacher at Spain noticed that students had sore throats and other respiratory ailments, stomach pain, and chronic fatigue, which she attributed to mold exposure. Local news crews brought cameras to Spain, and found a badly warped gymnasium floor overrun with mold and water damage. A sewage pipe spewed hot steam near the lower elementary playground, rendering it unusable. In the dead of Michigan’s brutal winter, the heating system was broken. Photos and reports from across the district piled up: cockroach infestations, leaky pipes, collapsed ceilings, broken windows, even bullet holes in walls. Wilson asked, “How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?”

Western International High School

Western International High School

For two days in early January, teachers organized sick-outs, during which schools were forced to close because too many teachers had taken a sick day. (Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan.) The union was not explicitly involved, but Bailey appeared in TV interviews supporting the campaign. On January 11, sixty-four schools shut down, two thirds of the district total. Twenty-four schools closed the next day, and the mayor, Mike Duggan, was obliged to take a tour of the buildings alongside the city’s environmental officials. Disturbed by what he saw, he ordered health inspections. The results confirmed water damage, rodent infestations, and other problems that the teachers had been protesting. Members of the state legislature began trying to broker a reform bill for the district.

On January 20, teachers staged another round of sick-outs, this time to coincide with President Obama’s visit to the North American International Auto Show. Eighty-eight schools shut down as teachers demonstrated and marched across the city. Protest signs paired criticisms of Governor Snyder’s handling of Flint with the condition of Detroit school buildings. Republican lawmakers shot back. “These part-time educators want a handout,” Kevin Cotter, the Speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives, said, calling for protesting teachers to be fired. “Students are in situations of poverty and depend on the school districts for meals, for services, for a place to go during the day, and ultimately they need to be learning,” State Representative Daniela García, the Republican lead on Lansing’s response to the schools crisis, told me later. But her allies in the legislature balked at sending millions of dollars to Detroit. She added, “When folks looked at what was happening, they were saying, ‘Why aren’t there any consequences for these sick-outs?’ ” The district, still under Darnell Earley’s command, filed a temporary injunction to stop the sick-outs, naming twenty-four teachers and Bailey in the suit. Days afterward, the teachers union and several parents sued Detroit Public Schools, seeking to have the Wayne County Circuit Court compel the district to repair buildings and remove Earley from office.

Ellen DeGeneres became aware of the drama and sent a film crew to Detroit. She opened a segment of her show with photos of the damage at Spain Elementary-Middle. Ronald Alexander, the principal, was interviewed along with several teachers, who talked about a lack of books and music classes. The whole episode looked stagy, even fake: students had been corralled into the cafeteria to laugh and cheer on cue; the camera panned over ruin. The grand finale was an announcement from DeGeneres that Lowe’s had agreed to donate $500,000 in computers and repairs to the school, followed by the appearance of Justin Bieber, who promised to give a dollar to the school for every ticket sold to a concert outside Detroit. A GoFundMe crowdfunding account introduced on the show raised an additional $76,766 by the end of the school year.

But a month later, Alexander — and thirteen other current and former D.P.S. administrators — were brought up on federal corruption charges for their role in a bribery scandal that cost the district millions of dollars. Between 2002 and 2015, Norman Shy, a school-supplies vendor, had accepted $2.7 million in phony invoices, and principals like Alexander had collectively received some $900,000 in kickbacks. More news of corruption followed, when the U.S. Department of Education accused the district of collecting $30 million in employee-pension reimbursement funds for payments it did not make. Earley had resigned, and Snyder brought in Rhodes to replace him. When the mother of a Detroit Public Schools student begged for support at the Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Hillary Clinton suggested sending in “an education SWAT team.”

In late March, the state senate approved a $715 million reform package that would split D.P.S. in two. The first part would serve strictly as an entity through which the state could pay off debt; the second part would be a clean slate for teachers and students — a new academic district. The legislation was headed to the House, where it would meet resistance. In April, the bills were still awaiting a vote, and members of the Detroit school board filed a suit in federal court, seeking class-action status against Governor Snyder, two Republican lawmakers, and other officials. They claimed that the state had run the district so poorly that it amounted to a violation of students’ civil rights.

At the salon that Saturday, Bailey was attempting to escape the tumult, if only for a few hours. She usually scheduled appointments on Tuesday evenings, after work, but recently she’d been staying late at the office, sometimes until eight o’clock. She figured that the rumor about teachers not receiving earned pay was ridiculous. It couldn’t be possible — not after the state sent emergency funds in March. Not after all the conversations she’d had with state officials. “I’m sitting there saying, ‘That’s not true,’ because I was assured that people would get paid,” she recalled. “So then when he called me, oh my God.” It was Steven Rhodes on the phone, who told Bailey that it was true: there was no money in the budget to pay teachers past June 30. The call was brief and to the point. “I don’t think he was trying to be devious,” Bailey said. But she had to tell the teachers.

As Shelli returned to work on her hair, Bailey scrolled through her phone to prepare her list of painful calls. Shelli asked her what had happened. “You don’t even want to know,” she said. A union meeting was quickly arranged for that Sunday at Impact Church. Bailey estimates that more than 600 teachers showed up. She, along with other union officials, advised them to stay home on Monday — the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week. “I told them there was no way I could ask them to work,” she said. “We needed to rally and we needed to get the word out there.”

On May 2, more than 1,500 teachers called in sick, closing nearly every school in the city. Around 45,000 students stayed home, which attracted the national media’s attention. Bailey met with Rhodes that afternoon. He urged her to tell teachers to return to school, saying he was confident that both houses of the legislature would pass a reform bill before the summer. “I told him that you can have that assurance and trust, but I can’t trust that legislation is going to be passed in time for teachers to get their money,” Bailey said. “And then the next day, we were out again.”

The teachers returned on Wednesday, after Rhodes signed a letter promising that teachers would be paid what they were owed. From Lansing, politicians continued to spit criticism at the district over the corruption scandals and teachers’ protests, expressing doubt about whether Detroit was equipped to manage additional funding. In wealthier cities and towns — where constituents are more likely to be white — the negative attention on Detroit’s schools made any state rescue measure, however necessary, a hard sell. Detroit had declared bankruptcy only three years earlier, and, García told me, “A lot of people were concerned that we’re having to go to Detroit a second time, this time to deal with the school system.” Many suburbanites had grown weary of the city that needed so much saving.

As the legislative wrangling over Detroit dragged on, state senators and representatives debated whether the city’s public-school system was capable of managing itself. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Democratic member of the Michigan House and a former public-school teacher from Detroit, told me that the city’s teachers and parents have been painted as inept leaders, not to be trusted with running their own schools. When we spoke, she denounced the narrative in which “Detroiters created the problem for themselves,” used as ammunition against investment in the system. “This kind of controversy between Detroit and everywhere else sells in other districts,” she said. Speaker Kevin Cotter had been quoted in a daily capitol newsletter accusing Gay-Dagnogo of playing the “race card,” which she dismissed. “It’s not a race card, it’s a factual card,” she told me. “It’s unfortunate that we are denying our role in continuing to perpetuate institutional racism, but we need only look at the history of the laws that were shaped to restrict Detroiters.” Cycling through emergency managers and criticizing teachers have helped state legislators deflect blame, she said. “It wasn’t who we are as a people, it wasn’t our inability to lead. It wasn’t malfeasance from Detroit who stole or misappropriated the funds.” She added, “This is about black cities all across the United States and black districts all across the United States that could potentially deal with or have dealt with the same thing. And the blame has been on an inability of black leadership to lead themselves. And I reject that notion.”

The Michigan House finally approved a legislation package, in May, over unanimous Democratic opposition. It deviated dramatically from what the state senate had passed two months earlier. While it would also split the district in two and would provide $500 million to pay off existing debt, only $33 million would go to jump-starting the new district, far less than the $200 million Governor Snyder’s office thought was needed for the transition. The House version of the legislation also included sanctions against teachers who staged sick-outs, exempted Detroit from state teacher-certification requirements, and required that all teachers and staff reapply for their jobs in the coming school year.

The package was viewed by Detroiters as excessively punitive — antiteacher and antiunion. Notably, it was missing the Detroit Education Commission, conceived to regulate the number of charter schools. So many charters have opened in the city at such a rapid rate, with hardly any oversight, that many have begun to fear a total conversion to an all-charter district, similar to that of New Orleans. (Though the New Orleans schools are largely not-for-profit, the charter shift there, which began after Hurricane Katrina, was perceived as having been made behind the backs — and at the expense — of predominantly black, veteran teachers.) Some took added offense that the House had held its vote in the wee hours of the morning after a marathon fifteen-hour session, while Detroit slept.

Burton International Academy

Burton International Academy

Days later, soon after sunrise, a bus idled in front of Western International High School, loading parents who’d signed up to travel to the state capitol to protest the House legislation. Western International is in a stately brick building in Mexicantown, in southwest Detroit. It is one of the only public schools left in the area. There is a large, manicured park across the street, and a retail strip nearby, with Mexican bakeries and cafés. Mornings in the neighborhood are quiet; students wandered toward their first classes, sleep still in their eyes and in their steps.

Dana Dacres, who has four children attending public schools in Detroit, arrived early. She is a matter-of-fact woman, a copresident of the parent association at Burton International Academy. She is petite, and keeps her shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled back, away from her face. She walks and talks quickly, often thinking out loud, working through quotidian dilemmas as though she were narrating the story of her life. Dacres told me that she understood why Detroit’s teachers walked out, and she understood why they couldn’t do it again. “There was so much negative backlash from the government,” she told me. “The parents need to say that it isn’t right for children to miss school, but nor are these conditions. The parents need to back teachers up.”

Dacres had expected a yellow school bus, a “cheese bus,” as she calls them, and was surprised to find a comfortable black charter bus for the trip to Lansing. Along with about twenty other parents, she settled in for the ninety-minute ride, alternately studying a script she’d written for the speech she planned to deliver, and knitting, to calm her nerves. Burritos, chips, and water were passed out.

When the group arrived at the capitol, a crowd was gathered at the bottom of the steps, huddled under golf umbrellas in light rain. Clergy pooled together, praying and singing; reporters and cameramen swarmed. “There is a narrative that somehow our kids don’t eat if the school doesn’t open, that we’re not feeding them,” a parent-activist shouted into the microphone. “I don’t know whose house that is, but not mine, honey.”

Dacres stood with her arms folded, nodding in agreement until it was her turn:

I was outraged last week when I learned that the House passed horrific bills that would truly do more harm than good to my children’s school district, the Detroit Public Schools. Not only were the bills unfair, but it has been proven injurious to pass legislation that affects only one sector of a state when legislators are to represent the interests of an entire state. Not just my children, or your children, but all children in the state of Michigan deserve more than a school district that is crippled before it even begins.

An hour later, Dacres’s group was invited to the floor of the Senate. They entered through a basement door and ascended the stairs, past towering portraits of Michigan politicians. They walked through a rotunda and filed into the gallery. Members of the senate greeted them with applause, breaking in the middle of a vote on regulating plastic bags. Dacres was tickled — she was glad to have at least some legislators on her side.

In early June, four weeks after the parents’ trip, six months after the first bills confronting the Detroit school system were introduced, and a full year after Governor Snyder recommended an overhaul, both houses of the legislature came together to deliver a final reform package. The system was officially split in two, using leftover revenue from Michigan’s settlement with the tobacco industry to pay off the district’s debts. Starting next year, an elected school board will control the second, newly defined academic district, which will be known as Detroit Public Schools Community District. A group of state appointees and local officials will oversee its finances. There will be no commission to regulate charter schools; an advisory council made up of district and charter-school representatives will instead produce reports recommending where new schools, including charters, are needed the most. The new district will receive $150 million in transition funds — less than what Rhodes said was minimally necessary, though Governor Snyder’s office called the amount “more than sufficient” when he signed the bill into law. Dacres told me that she considered the outcome tantamount to defeat.

Steven Rhodes was relieved. He has reached the end of his contract, but decided to extend his term and stay on through the end of December, until the new elected school board steps in, at the start of 2017. (He eventually did meet with the board, as requested, a few times around the end of the school year.) He recognizes that he remains an obvious target for public dissatisfaction, though he told me, “I’ve tried to make it clear in all of my public appearances that I agree with the broadly felt sentiment in the city of Detroit that it is time to return control over public education to the people of the city of Detroit. I understand their frustration, and I’ve told them I understand their frustration.” Assigning blame has been a strategy for many Detroiters wishing to displace the perception that they’re the problem, but none of that matters to Rhodes. “It doesn’t help us to move forward,” he said.

Dana Dacres invited me to visit her at home, a two-story brick-and-plaster bungalow on a street lined with others just like it, some boarded up or surrounded by brush. Deer occasionally wander across yards, so Dacres calls her neighborhood “the forest and the hood.” A white screen door opens into a modestly decorated living room, containing only a love seat and a piano. On the wall is a shelf of framed photographs displaying six generations of women in Dacres’s family: Ella Wilson, in a colorful silk dress; Exie Carter, in a white church hat and a string of pearls; Dana’s grandmother, Veola Sanders; her mother, Barbara McGee, dark hair cut short into a bob; young Dana, her dreadlocks barely past her ears; and her eldest daughter, Vivienne, wearing a blue headband in her short Afro. A sticker on the doorway leading into the kitchen reads i can do all things through christ who strengthens me.

I arrived just after six on a Monday morning. Dacres had slept barely five hours, but down the stairs she went, toward the girls’ room, which is painted pink, with polka dots. She and her husband, Melvin, queued up a YouTube music-video playlist that they use to rouse their five kids each morning. It’s a mash-up of genres, played at maximum volume from her Android phone, which she sets on a nightstand next to the girls’ bed. A New Jersey club–style remix of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” woke Justine, the kindergartner, who wandered half-asleep to the bathroom across the hall. Vivienne, who is in fourth grade, was still snoozing on the bottom of a set of bunk beds; the youngest sister, Kristen, who will start preschool this year, slept soundly next to her. The boys, Wynton and Sterling, in first and third grade, emerged from their room. Sterling couldn’t find his pants. “I don’t know what to tell you, dude,” Dacres said. (Melvin, who had a day off from his job with the Great Lakes Water Authority, slept through the whole morning ordeal.)

Dacres darted in and out of the kitchen, slapping sausage and toast into a pan and tossing it into the oven for breakfast. The morning began to stir with motion. Sterling managed to locate his pants. The kids helped one another find light-blue uniform shirts, and the girls warned Sterling not to forget his red tenor drum for drumline practice after school. In the absence of a music teacher, Dacres had recruited someone to volunteer as the band’s director. She was still in her robe. “I haven’t even taken care of myself yet,” she mumbled. Sterling reminded her of the time: four minutes past seven. Burton, where the four eldest attend school, was a twenty-minute drive across the city, and class started at seven-forty.

On the way out, Vivienne grabbed a water bottle from the refrigerator. The school’s fountains had been turned off for weeks because of elevated levels of copper in the pipes. Water bottles were being given out, but they tasted funny, like bananas, the kids said. They filed out a side door and into the family’s only car, a silver minivan. Dacres expertly backed it out of their long, narrow driveway. The family dog, who in his youth might have barked goodbye at them from behind the fence, stared sullenly from his post in the shade.

Outside, the street was still. The house directly across from the Dacreses’ is boarded up, a sight so familiar in Detroit that it is unremarkable. Patches of recovery from the city’s bankruptcy can be seen in new storefronts downtown and in gentrifying areas. But progress elsewhere is slow, less shiny. I saw workers drag debris from a building owned by King Solomon Baptist Church, where Malcolm X gave his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech. Dacres navigated the van onto a highway clogged with the morning rush. We passed no police.

Burton, a magnet school, is situated in Midtown, the city’s bustling arts district. When the car pulled into the lot, the kids ran out and scattered in different directions. A security guard stood watch at the school’s entrance. Dacres is well known around Burton in a sitcom sort of way: the security guard, nearly every teacher, and a few students called her name from behind wide grins as they buzzed by. She headed toward the parent-association office, in a small, soundproof room that would have been for a music instructor, had there been the money. She had set mousetraps in her office, as had several teachers. Temperature regulation throughout the building was often poor, leaving classrooms alternately frigid and sweltering. The pool was closed and repairs went unscheduled because there was nothing in the budget to pay for a plumber.

The students Dacres passed were black and Latino and South Asian — I even saw a few white children, a rarity in Detroit public schools. In Wynton’s first-grade class, teachers rotated in and out for different subjects, a means of managing the school’s overcrowding, so kids weren’t squishing in and out of the hallways. During math, Wynton sat in the front row counting by fives. His teacher, Kimberly Thompson, moved the hands of a large yellow clock for a lesson on telling time. The students knew the answers to all her questions. Later, she posed one to me: “If every time you turn on the news they tell you how you live in the worst city, they tell you your education is no good, what do you have to look forward to?”

Dana Dacres went through the Detroit public-school system — she’s a proud alumna of Cass Technical High — as did her sister and her mother, Barbara. All say that the schools were different when they were children, and they slip easily into nostalgia, talking of team rivalries and the pressure — good pressure, they insist — that helped them get a solid education. “When I was growing up,” Barbara told me over dinner at her house, “we had clean schools. We had warm schools. We had books. Each student had what they needed.”

Dacres has entertained, if only for a moment, thoughts about what it might be like to send her kids to school elsewhere, but they pass quickly. Why should they have to leave their home? She will not be chased out of Detroit. She remains convinced that Burton’s teachers, who she says are some of the most committed in the city, are doing the best they can, and that their best is enough for her kids. “As much as I tell the kids until I’m blue in the face that catching mice in school isn’t normal or that in other schools you get to take your books home, they don’t see it,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me until a month or so ago, you know. My kids have to understand that this isn’t normal.”

 is a writer for the Village Voice.

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September 2017

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