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Can Barack Obama Save Public Schools?

Guyton Elementary School typifies the challenges the new administration faces in trying to improve troubled elementary schools.


High on a wall in the dimly lit first floor hallway of Guyton Elementary School is a banner championing an ambitious goal for the children of this poor east side neighborhood: “Guyton Students Are College Bound.”

Guyton’s 304 students are from some of the most troubled families in America and are part of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional public school systems, the kind President Barack Obama says must be fixed.

Five of Detroit’s 27 public high schools are considered among the best in the nation. Most of the rest, however, are considered dropout factories. Only 24.9 percent of its students graduate. Enrollment in the Detroit Public Schools, where 72 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced price school meals, is nose-diving by more than 10,000 students a year, as people flee the school system, the city and an economically battered state. Its enrollment stands at 94,000 students, down by nearly 20,000 over the past two years and more than two-thirds since its 1966 peak of nearly 300,000.

The school system, which has closed 35 schools in the past two years and plans to shut about 18 a year for the next few years, is operating with a $400 million deficit. It is facing a possible state takeover for the second time in a decade. Last month, its politically entrenched school board fired its recently hired superintendent.

The children of Guyton are too young to grasp the administrative chaos around them. They are shielded by nurturing teachers and school volunteers offering hugs of encouragement at every turn. These kids don’t know they are running against the wind as they read that banner high on the wall.

Meanwhile, the Guyton adults — the principal, teachers, volunteers, the handful of parents and outside supporters — are putting in 110 percent trying to defy a harsh reality. They are so relentlessly vested in creating a new future for these young Americans that failure to give Guyton students a solid launch toward college is, in their minds, not an option. They look into the eyes of these children every day and now, more than ever, see a potential U.S. president. After all, Barack Obama once had much in common with these children. He is the son of a single mother, and they too were on food stamps for a while, as many of these kids households are.

“They can all be saved,” says Debra Kelly-McGill, a Detroit native and the Guyton principal for the past four years “I know public schools work,” she says, echoing the sentiments of many in Guyton’s village of support.

The children of Guyton, and tens of thousands like them around the nation, are fighting odds President Obama has vowed to change. The question is: can he change their destiny?

The assignment is ominous.

“Detroit’s problems are on the leading edge of an educational malaise that’s affecting the whole state of Michigan and, to some extent, the whole nation,” says Reginald Turner, a Detroit lawyer and member of the Michigan Board of Education. “Money is a factor, but I would say equally important would be the failure of school leaders to improve the system of accountability with respect to student achievement. Students fail to learn to read and will drop out.

“Historically, we had an industrial agrarian economy and you didn’t need a high level of literacy to work jobs in that sector,” says Turner. “It was OK to have a low literacy rate,” he explains because young people with only a basic education could still get good paying jobs in the factories or on a farm.

In 1960, for example, the year Turner was born, Detroit was the king of the world’s automobile industry and the Midwest was king of manufacturing. There were 16 automobile plants in the city of Detroit alone, he says. They ran full tilt — three shifts, seven days a week — and paid handsomely. In rural areas, the story was much the same as American farms were busy growing enough crops to feed much of the rest of the world.

That picture could be found in city after city — Baltimore, Birmingham, Ala., Chicago, Cleveland, Gary, Ind., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Ky., Milwaukee, Wis., and beyond in one mill town after another across the South. Dropouts could get jobs as easily as college graduates and sometimes live almost as well.

Today, the factory and farm jobs have all but vanished, many of them moved outside the country where labor is cheaper and environmental and workplace rules less rigid. In big cities — like Detroit, which now has only two auto plants that no longer run full tilt – and rural towns, the economies keep shrinking and shrinking, taking down local business districts and whole city and state economies with them. Michigan has lost more than 340,000 manufacturing jobs alone since 2002, according to state officials. The nation’s current economic meltdown has only made matters worse.

Against that backdrop, reflected in nearly every aspect of Detroit’s decline as a major economic force, the people of Guyton are staying loyal to their city and school. They are working tirelessly to dodge the ominous clouds hovering over Guyton, including the loss in recent years of a full time librarian, cuts in the schedules of the school nurse, speech therapist, psychologist and school aides. They’ve also survived two plans by the school board to permanently close the nearly 80-year-old school, named after Joseph William Guyton, the first American killed on German-held soil during World War I.

Principal McGill, who taught kindergarten and elementary grades for 20 years before moving into management, works the hallways, classrooms, community meetings and parents, sometimes seven days a week. She’s keeping everyone’s eyes on the ball — maintaining enrollment so the school isn’t shut and raising student achievement and overall expectations so each child has a chance. Despite staff, budget and service cuts, she and her staff have helped the students continue meeting the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements for compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law and boosted their performance on other measures of achievement.

McGill’s got the ear and support of her teachers, several of whom grew up in the area when it was more prosperous and later sent their children to school at Guyton. They know their constituents. When a kid comes to school hungry, or without socks or coats or other basic clothing, they don’t ask embarrassing questions. They solve the kid’s problems with food, donated clothes, a call to the parent(s), so the child can focus on learning. Even without the federal No Child Left Behind law and charter schools, they understand teaching these children is more than just a day job. “We have a lot of hardships here,” says McGill.

A Community Effort

McGill also has the support of an energetic corps of volunteers. There’s former medical researcher Linda Licorish, a community activist and booster of the school who also volunteers to mow the school yard. Licorish runs Community Partners to Revitalize Guyton (CPR-G), a grass roots coalition of civic groups, businesses and churches.  Sharon DeSantis, Guyton’s computer lab teacher, heads the 400-plus member Guyton Alumni Association. Glenda McCray Morgan, parent of two generations of Guyton students, is a past president of the school parents association and is an active presence in the neighborhood and the school.

In 2003, when the school board first visited the idea of closing Guyton, Licorish mobilized the community to beat the school board back. She carries a three-ring binder of several hundred papers of support documents used like a shield to fend off evil-doers. DeSantis, who grew up in the neighborhood but went to one of the city’s many private, Catholic schools, mobilizes alumni around the nation. Morgan is the link between the community and the professionals.

“It’s a big community school,” says Morgan, who is known at the school as “grandma” or “auntie.” “The closeness that the school carries with it. Your child is my child. It’s a village thing,” she says.

All feel the energy of Barack Obama. They like what they see and hear. They feel he is on the same page. They hope he comes forth with an ambitious agenda for reviving American cities, their school and schools like it. They are hoping his agenda resonates here in time to lift their children from a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and low expectations reinforced by a broken school system. If Obama can save the public schools here, they reason, he can save public education everywhere and ensure the next generation is ready for college. They’re working hard to do their part.

“I believe he can (save Guyton), maybe because of his background,” says Pamela Stubblefield, who has two children at Guyton and volunteers at the school a few days a week. “Obama seems to be a people person, concerned and listening to what the people want,” she adds.

Carol Goss, president of The Skillman Foundation, a large local foundation that has poured millions into the Detroit Public Schools and is today the last foundation to continue supporting them, is hopeful. Goss, a product of the Detroit Public Schools, shares many of Obama’s views on expectations and innovation. She also offers some sage advice for all.

“It’s realistic for him (Obama) to deal with urban issues, of which the schools are a piece of that,” says Goss, who joined others locally in opposing the dismissal of the most recent superintendent. “It’s just one piece. State and local governments have a role.

“If we get some good federal funding and state and local focus on innovation and higher achievement and holding people accountable, then together we can make change,” Goss says. “We have to become a community Obama can lead. He can’t lead by himself.”

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