Detroit teachers, prevented by law from striking, have been staging a series of “sick outs” in recent weeks to call attention to the miserable conditions in which they work and students are forced to come and supposedly learn. As my colleague Emma Brown wrote in this story:
Teachers say they are fed up with working in schools that aren’t fit for them or their students. Classrooms are plagued by rats, roaches, mold, ceilings full of holes and unreliable heat. Teachers don’t have textbooks or other supplies they need to teach, they say, and they haven’t had a raise in 10 years.
Most of the city’s public schools have been forced to close on days of the sickouts, and the Detroit public school system filed a legal injunction asking that the teachers be prohibited from continuing these actions. On Jan. 21, an injunction was denied by the Michigan Court of Claims, but district officials plan to push again for one next week.
Here’s a piece by a Detroit teacher explaining just how hard it is to work and study in the conditions that exist now in Detroit public schools. She is Shalon Miller, who has taught in Detroit schools for 15 years and is now teaching at the Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody.
By Shalon Miller
I love being a teacher in Detroit Public Schools, challenges and all. But when those who control the schools allow them to deteriorate to the point where the conditions are a distraction to learning, it really makes you question how much they really care about the kids.
I’ve taught in Detroit for 15 years and have been at Medicine and Community Health @ Cody for four years. Teaching at Cody is bittersweet. I see the potential that Medicine and Community Health @ Cody has to become a great school and give students a great foundation for jobs in the health field. But the reality is, the building is 61 years old, dilapidated and under-resourced. For the kids’ sake, I wish Michigan and the school district would invest the funds necessary to make Cody — and every other Detroit public school — a truly great neighborhood school.
Since I have been at Cody, I have taught in horrible conditions. Classrooms have old, drafty windows that are poorly insulated. In some rooms, we have to wear winter coats in class until lunch time. In other rooms, it can be ridiculously hot. Both temperature conditions are extremely distracting to the educational process. It’s hard for kids to concentrate when their hands are freezing or they’re sweating profusely. When it rains, water leaks into the classrooms from the roof. We have had to place buckets under the leaks and pray for dry weather. Unfixed structural damage causes water-soaked tiles to frequently fall from the ceiling of classrooms. The carpet has an ever-present moldy smell.
These conditions are a slap to each and every student, teacher and other school employee. Combined with the other dilapidated school buildings and inferior learning conditions, they are a slap to the entire city of Detroit.
I want to be fair and unbiased when describing my experience as an urban educator. Last year, Cody’s community partners saw the crumbling condition of our building and decided to give our school a bit of a facelift. Life Remodel helped revitalize certain parts of our building. IKEA donated a new kitchen for our health education classes. We have a new medical lab to start CNA nurse training program. This year, we offer an innovative firefighter course. If students successfully complete the course and pass the state exam, they can start a career right out of high school.
But staff retention is a huge problem. Because of the overall poor working conditions, frozen pay scales, no pay raises in the last 10 years, and additional health care cuts, Detroit Public Schools isn’t exactly a go-to destination. Right now in my school, there are six vacant teacher positions. Uncertified substitutes will probably fill those positions until the end of the school year. This year, teachers are leaving the district in droves for better opportunities in suburban districts. If 50 percent of the staff keeps leaving every school, we won’t be able to fully implement our School Improvement Plan. It’s a battle we can’t win without a consistent staff focused on the same goal.
Sometimes I feel hopeless. I wonder why people who have the power over our schools don’t care about my students. I wonder why my students are left in the worst conditions possible. I wonder why it’s the same problem in urban communities across America. Why is separate and unequal okay in 2016?
Gov. Rick Snyder and the governor-appointed emergency manager for Detroit schools can say they understand our frustration, but simply saying they understand and then throwing their hands up in air isn’t good enough.
I say, enough is enough. It’s not okay to tell 47,000 kids that they’re not important enough to warrant decent educational environments. It’s not okay to have beautiful suburban schools in the state of Michigan and let Detroit schools rot. It’s not okay to ignore the community’s plea for help. It’s not okay to disrespect teachers by refusing to give them a pay raise in over a decade. It’s not okay to take control of Detroit schools and let things go from bad to worse.
This year, I decided it was time to fight harder for my students. This year I will empower my students and parents to also join the fight for better school conditions. Now after the public exposure of our problems, I feel more confident that many of our concerns will finally be addressed.