Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Vetal Elementary

I've been watching for news about Vetal Elementary, in the Detroit Public School system, for the past two years, ever since daughter Shelagh joined the America Reads program and started tutoring Vetal second graders in reading. Twice a week, she would join four other students in a University of Michigan car and drive to the school on the west side of Detroit to work with kindersgarteners and third graders. The program helped her find her place at UM and connected her to kids and adults, connections that had been lacking her experience of big classes and dorm living.

But her accounts of life at Vetal were uneven. She said the school had "spirit" despite the surroundings. She was loved the murals in the halls, not so much the locked doors and metal detectors. Many kids came to school dressed, fed and ready to learn, but many others didn't show up for days or weeks at a time, and when they did come back their excuses were things like "My mom didn't feel like getting up." Most of the kids were being raised by single mothers, most were poor, some had firsthand stories of shootings and murders. At one point, the school had no more pencils for the kids to use; the University of Michigan students took up a collection and brought a slew of pencils with them.

Shelagh described teachers who were "awesome," who were making sense and establishing order and teaching despite the neighborhood's chaos and poverty. Her favorite third grade teacher, Mr. Mullane, impressed her in the way he never raised his voice, "He didn't need to," she said, "but he wasn't a softy, he always kept order." He treated all of the kids respectfully, and did whatever it took to make learning happen. He played the guitar and sang to his class, composed songs about history, recorded them on his own time, and all the kids learned their history when they learned the songs.

She also described teachers who were barely there, who spent class time talking on the phone, and hollered at the kids who dared interrupt her conversations. There was a mean kindergarten teacher, hated by her students, who didn't show up and didn't even call on more than one occasion, leaving the class in the care of an aide who was only authorized to let the kids watch TV.

I wanted to write and share these stories as soon as I heard them, as they are an important part of my ongoing look at Michigan school funding. But I didn't tell those stories because I didn't want to give the Detroit bashers or public school bashers any more to work with. I was hoping that other Detroit schools were better than Vetal, but what if they weren't? I was rooting for Vetal Elementary, a school I've never visited, throughout it all.

Today's Detroit Free Press reports that Vetal Elementary, and four high schools, will be "restructured:"
Current administrators will be reassigned to different buildings -- they will not return to their current school. Teachers being transferred away from the schools will have the opportunity to reapply to return.

Principals' contracts end at the end of the school year. If the district wants to keep them, then officials will offer them another contract.

The Turn Around School plan coincides with the governor's small schools initiative. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has asked the Legislature to endorse a plan to create the 21st Century Schools Fund, which would allow schools that enroll more than 800 students and miss federal standards for two years or more to create small high schools of about 400 students.
Shelagh didn't qualify for work study this year, but she is still following the situation at Vetal. "I wish I was graduating this year, I'd apply for a job there." We will be watching to see what happens next.

I wrote a piece on small schools a while back. Here is a Free Press article about the governor's initiative, and the Governor's web page on the Small Schools initiative.

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