Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly said that 17-year-old Dennis Black quit school to get a job. Black quit the football team to get a job.

Detroit Students Tell Education Chief About What They Need to Succeed

Dennis Black, right, quit Detroit's Cody High School to get a job, but now he's back. Principal Johnathon Matthews says academic problems run deep there.
Dennis Black, right, quit Detroit's Cody High School to get a job, but now he's back. Principal Johnathon Matthews says academic problems run deep there. (By Jeffrey Sauger For The Washington Post)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

DETROIT -- Four of Dennis Black's childhood friends have been shot to death. Last year, he quit the Cody High School football team for a job at Popeyes to help his mother pay rent. He failed ninth grade on his first try but is on track to get a diploma. Many of his peers aren't.

This week, Dennis and his classmates gave Education Secretary Arne Duncan tips on how to fix America's schools during the second stop of Duncan's 15-state tour to seek -- and pitch -- ideas for school reform.

President Obama has promised a cradle-to-career rethinking of public schooling to expand programs for toddlers, get more high school students into college and pay teachers more when their students improve. His administration also wants states to agree on uniform standards to measure U.S. students against the world.

It is a moment of special opportunity for such change. Congress is preparing to overhaul the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which dramatically extended the federal reach into schools. And the economic crisis has provided an unexpected lever of influence. The stimulus law pumps roughly $100 billion into preschools, public schools and colleges -- the largest federal education spending increase ever.

But grand ideas for education can seem remote in one of the nation's most troubled public school systems. The Cody High students, who walk through metal detectors each morning, said it is sometimes hard to see beyond the gang fights and dice games in the hallways.

"Most of our generation, their whole way of looking at things is like: 'Why go to school if I'm a loser? I'm getting F's and D's, and I'm trying to reach out for help,' " Richanda Hudson, a senior, told Duncan. "Some teachers won't help, some teachers will."

Duncan pointed to Detroit, with a 95,000-student school system that has cycled through three superintendents in five years, as "ground zero" in the nation's education system. He is pushing for new Mayor Dave Bing to take control of the schools in a massive overhaul. This week, the school system's emergency financial manager asked for a "special presidential emergency declaration," backed up with millions in cash, to help.

Thirty-eight percent of Detroit's ninth-graders get a high school diploma within four years, according to one estimate, a grim statistic that puts the city's on-time graduation rate below that of Baltimore (42 percent) and D.C. public schools (58 percent).

In a city hit hard by the auto industry's slump, a steadily declining population and high poverty, Duncan said the hope is to transform public schools from a "national disgrace" to a "national model."

Duncan said he will not back away from testing and accountability.

At Cody High, an aging school in a neighborhood of tiny brick bungalows, Duncan sat for 45 minutes Wednesday with teenagers in a library where shelves are lined with outdated encyclopedias.

The students he met -- poised to graduate in a class of about 250 and brimming with plans to be nurses or teachers or enter the military -- are success stories in a school with too few. About 97 percent of juniors failed state math tests last year, and about 80 percent failed in English.

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