Ida Byrd-Hill was worried. Her twins’ middle school, set in a crumbling Detroit neighborhood, was being targeted by burglars. Not only had they stolen the computers but the break-ins also made her concerned that the children inside weren’t safe. So on a warm September morning she marched up to a group of “thuggish-looking” young men playing basketball behind the school. She walked right onto the court, looked over the rim of her glasses, and told the men she needed to talk to them. As she recalls the encounter from her suburban Detroit home, her signature burgundy lipstick curls into a smile. Everything about the 43-year-old says she is somebody’s mama. She has a no-nonsense lilt to her speech and a paralyzing stare. That was the look she gave the young men the day she told them that they needed to “give a damn” about more than hoops. She asked them to look out for the school kids and to watch over the building, because it was everyone’s job to make sure the children got an education. The men promised–and that was that. “Never had another break in at that school,” Byrd-Hill says with a satisfied nod. For her, the incident is emblematic of the kind of activism needed in her city, where the implosion of the auto industry has led to 30 percent unemployment. As Detroit has struggled, so has its public education system. About half of the city’s residents are functionally illiterate, according to Pro-Literacy Detroit, which provides free reading tutors. The 85,000-student school district currently faces a $335 million budget deficit–and a staggering crisis: The closure of 45 more schools this year will leave more than half of the district’s buildings shuttered since 2005. There is even worse news: Last year the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center estimated Detroit’s graduation rate at an abysmal 27 percent, the lowest in the nation. And with Black middle-class and White families decamping in droves to the suburbs, the city is now more than 82 percent Black and overwhelmingly poor, with African-American children most at risk of falling through the gaping holes in the system. UP FROM GROUND ZERO Byrd-Hill is the very personification of Detroit’s refusal to surrender. A divorced mother who founded her own school for at-risk students, she represents the sort of ground-level involvement that was the bedrock of civil rights battles nationwide. “If you are willing to fight and you have a group that is willing to fight with you, you can get anything you want,” she says. Raised until she was 9 in the projects of Flint, Michigan, Byrd-Hill later won a scholarship to the University of Michigan. But she wound up flunking out her second semester. She got back on track in community college, eventually reenrolling at the university and graduating with an economics degree. But she vowed then that her own children would leave high school prepared. Her now 16-year-old twins, Kevin and Karen, attend Detroit School of the Arts, one of about 20 new facilities built with an infusion of voter-approved bond funds. Parents lobbied to get teacher workshops, free summer school, state-of-the-art science labs and greater academic rigor. Still, as the children travel by bus to school, they cannot help but see the devastation all around. Abandoned schools pock neighborhoods, skeletons stripped to the wall beams by thieves. Other schools sag under decades of neglect, with dim lighting, ragged fencing, no libraries, missing ceiling and floor tiles, and no soap in lavatories. There is little money for textbooks and gas is siphoned from one school bus for use in another. And the city’s $1.2 billion education budget has been so sorely mismanaged that last year the state appointed an emergency financial manager to oversee it. Byrd-Hill has noted some positive initiatives in recent months. The city recruited thousands of tutors after fourth and eighth graders posted the worst math scores in the nation, and the state has also called for additional math and foreign language requirements. And this spring, a coalition of nonprofits called Excellent Schools Detroit announced a massive plan to open 70 new schools, promising an initial investment of $200 million for the project. But Byrd-Hill says that for these efforts to work, the underlying mind-set of the city also needs to change. She points to the generations who created stable middle-class families without college degrees, based on auto industry jobs. Despite the loss of those jobs, she says, the attitude that college isn’t important has persisted. “Most parents send their kids to school as they should,” she notes. “But nobody ever told them that they were supposed to go to college. We can’t afford that kind of thinking anymore.” THE POWER OF EXPECTATIONS For her commitment to improving public education, Byrd-Hill has earned respect–and enmity. One principal described her as the kind of parent who would burn through bureaucrats who get in her way. But Byrd-Hill isn’t content simply to criticize. In 2006 she founded Hustle & TECHknow Preparatory High, a school for truants, dropouts and juvenile offenders. She didn’t allow students to enter school unkempt, offered fencing class to expose them to a sport completely outside of their experience, and took them on a trip to Chicago. The school quickly earned regional recognition for its curriculum. Even so, Byrd-Hill had to fight for payments from the district and phone parents to get kids to come to school. Despite the challenges, the school graduated eight of ten seniors the first year. But it was one of ten programs closed down the following year due to a bureaucratic oversight: The district had violated state law by allowing the schools to hire their own teachers. Byrd-Hill now plans to reopen her program as a charter but acknowledges that schools alone cannot reverse decades of educational neglect in Detroit. Parents, public officials and teachers will need to stress to students the importance of higher education, she says. To do her part, she recently organized a summit to help students prepare for the tests required for college admission. The short, bespectacled PTA mom is having lunch in a Thai restaurant next door to where she located her school. As she weighs the lessons she’s learned in her roles as a parent, education reformer and school principal, one image from her days as a principal stands out. “I didn’t let the kids in school if they didn’t have their homework,” she recalls. “I used to look out there and see them sitting on the sidewalk doing their homework just so they could come to school.” She raises her eyebrows, honing in on her point. “Our expectations are part of the problem,” she announces, finally. “You can’t tell me kids don’t want to learn. They do. We just have to make school worth it for them. Children mold themselves to your expectations.” For more Time Inc. Assignment: Detroit stories, click here. Read more:
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