That’s all the time Pam Good says she needs with struggling students in Detroit’s public schools. And when she’s done, she can guarantee that they’re reading on grade level.

That’s less time than it takes for leaves to turn after school doors open each fall, less than the stretch between Christmas and Easter breaks.

And it’s a gift that will last the kids forever.

Good is working this magic right now through Beyond Basics, a tutor-based program in four Detroit schools. Last year, Beyond Basics reached 98 kids. They’ll try to up those numbers this year, and in years to come.

Magnify the bright spots

But why can’t we just take what Good and Beyond Basics are doing, bottle it, and spread it all over the district? I say “can’t” because for decades in Detroit, we haven’t. Not a week goes by that I don’t learn of a great program, or school, in Detroit that has figured it all out and is coaxing kids to high achievement. But overall, the district is a horror, because such bright spots aren’t turned into floodlights to show more children the way.

Think about it. Cass Tech and Renaissance have been great high schools for decades. But whatever they’re doing there hasn’t been transplanted to Mumford or Finney. We don’t do well with scalability around here. We can’t figure out what might raise the fortunes of the vast majority of city kids.

Believe me, I understand the challenge — and the profound differences you can find between one school population and another. One size won’t always fit all.

But doesn’t the failure to meet that challenge explain a lot about where we are with our schools?

Or are we thinking about it all wrong? Instead of trying to grow one success into schools everywhere, should we be trying to encourage small-scale, individually tailored successes in more places?

There’s a real debate about that going on in education right now. Supporters of charter schools, in particular, have been advocating small-scale innovation. Do something that works for a certain population, or addresses a certain ill, and don’t worry about importing it everywhere. Just create the opportunity for good ideas to flourish.

That runs counter, though, to the long-standing approach of coming up with the one big idea that can transform an entire school system.

Scale up expectations

For her part, Good believes she could scale up Beyond Basics pretty easily. And a lot about her program would work wonders in any school.

The first is simplicity. Beyond Basics tutors and small full-time staff identify the kids’ reading levels, their strengths and weaknesses. They work with them intensely, individually, for about an hour every day. And they move the needle. The 98 kids who completed the full reading program between fall 2008 and fall 2009 all moved from below grade-level to above it on the Woodcock reading mastery test.

The program works within existing schools, with existing administrations. Principals have to commit to giving the program a classroom, and to sending kids who need the help. The money, about $100,000 per school, comes from donors. (They’ll need more if they expand their footprint.)

Good says her program is scalable because it’s tested (been around since 1999, started as a coat collection program and grew slowly to meet specific needs) and because it’s focused exclusively on the kids and their needs.

When one of the program’s host schools, Thirkell Elementary, showed up on a list for closure this year, Good didn’t blanch.

“The kids will still be someplace,” she told me. “We’ll go where they are.”

Emergency financial manager Robert Bobb has seen Beyond Basics and has asked Good to put together a plan to grow it. I hope that happens fast. I hope it works.

Six weeks is nothing. And if that’s the difference between having a kid read or fail, we certainly ought to make that available to everyone.

Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor for the Free Press and the host of “American Black Journal,” which airs Sundays at 2 p.m. on WTVS-channel 56, in Detroit. Contact him at, or at 313-222-6659.


‘Dateline’ To Air Detroit Special

Chris Hansen Hosts Hour-Long Detroit Special


– The Motor City is hurting and we all know it.
The city that drives the world continues to get slammed with negative headlines, such as CNN’s most “Dangerous Cities in the World” list, the auto industry’s plight, the lowest literacy rates in the country and record unemployment numbers.

National network camera crews and a “Dateline” correspondent with close personal ties to Detroit have been scouring the streets for the past ten months to bring Detroiter’s fight for revival and survival to a national arena.

Read on..

Mass Closures of Public Schools, Promotion of Charters Raise Fears of Privatized Detroit Education System.

Mass Closures of Public Schools….

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Detroit. A central part of the plan to downsize Detroit centers on the city’s school system. The Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, announced plans last month to close more than a quarter of the city’s public schools.

    ROBERT BOBB: The plan calls for the closure of forty-five facilities in June, with most programs moving to new or renovated facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: The school closings come at a time when private foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the Detroit public school system. The foundations are pushing for mayoral control of the school and the opening of dozens of new schools, including charter schools.

Doug Ross of New Urban Learning spoke at a recent news conference outlining a new initiative called Excellent Schools Detroit.

    DOUG ROSS: The vision of this group is an education marketplace in Detroit with common high-performance standards in which DPS, charter and private schools compete for students around those academic standards. No more ambivalence about whether good performing charters harm DPS. Robert Bobb, as you heard, has said, welcome more competition. He’s told us over and over again, bring it on. Well, that’s what we intend to do for the benefit of Detroit kids. So bottom line, the old plan said to parents, wait, be patient, give us another five years to improve the school where your child goes. This plan says, uh-uh, waiting is over. We’re going to close low-performing schools. We’re going to open new ones. And parents, now you have to take the initiative to go find the best school for your child. Big difference, new day.

AMY GOODMAN: But the plan to transform Detroit’s schools is seen by some as a move to privatize the city’s school system. The elected school board has already been stripped of much of its power, as a state-appointed emergency financial manager now has full financial authority for the school district. And private foundations are ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars to fund school reform, but the public has little to no say in how the money is spent.

To talk more about this, we’re joined now by Nate Walker, a former Detroit schoolteacher, now a member of the school development team at the Boggs Educational Center. The Boggs Center is developing a plan to open its own neighborhood-based school next year.

Nate, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the way the system works. As I read about what’s happening here in Detroit and talk to people, I am continually thinking about, well, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and about Arne Duncan recently, the Education Secretary, saying the best thing to happen to education in this country is after Katrina in New Orleans.

NATE WALKER: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting that New Orleans has now become the model for school reform. And it—

AMY GOODMAN: There, they closed the public schools—

NATE WALKER: Absolutely. There’s—

AMY GOODMAN: —fired all the teachers, who were unionized.

NATE WALKER: Yeah. And so, in New Orleans there’s four public schools that have opened now, and it’s pretty much a charter-run school system. And in many ways, that’s what’s happening in Detroit. Right before Robert Bobb announced that forty-four schools would be closing, the Skillman Foundation, with other foundations, announced that they would be opening seventy new schools in the next five years. So, currently in Detroit 70 percent of students in Detroit go to Detroit public schools, and 30 percent go to charter schools. The Excellent Schools Plan, which was announced about a month ago, intends that, by 2015, 25 percent of students will go to Detroit public schools, and 75 percent will go to charter schools. So you can see the shift in who’s going to be providing education in the city of Detroit.

AMY GOODMAN: How many kids go to school here in Detroit, and how has that number changed?

NATE WALKER: Well, when I began teaching in 2002, there was 160,000 students in the Detroit public schools, and currently there’s about 88,000. So you can see that number has almost been cut in half. And, you know, families are leaving the city, so students are going to other districts and other places, but there’s also students who are leaving the public school system to enroll at charter schools, as well.

And so, it’s interesting, in the context of the shift of who’s going to be providing education, there’s a couple things happening. I think first, as was mentioned in Doug’s clip when he spoke, the foundations are not only going to be providing money to start new schools, they’re also setting up an accountability network. So now they’re going to be deciding what constitutes a good school to be closed or to be opened. And so that’s totally taken out of the realm of the public sphere, where parents and community members decide on a type of education that is necessary for the city. And foundations and folks who aren’t necessarily considering those voices are deciding what’s good education.

And in a certain way, that’s going to be driven by what we call student achievement, right? And in a sense, student achievement is a number of how students perform on test scores. It’s a bottom line. And so, it’s a system that’s being started and developed on this assumption of a bottom line that’s the most important thing about schooling.

And it’s changed what a parent’s role in schooling is. So before, where a parent would have a voice, either by running for school board or contributing to how education happens, now they’re delegated to the role of consumer, where they exercise their choice as to where they can enroll, but not necessarily how they can be involved in the schooling process. And that’s very similar to what’s happened in New York City, when Joel Klein took control of schools. You see the shift where folks call for parental involvement, but not in any of the decision making, so be involved on our terms, because we know what’s best for your children.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what schools are closing, what schools are opening?

NATE WALKER: And so the closing plans aren’t finalized. They’ll be finalized in about two or three weeks, after town hall meetings have been conducted at the buildings that will be closed. And those town hall meetings were sort of very scripted and regulated as to who could participate in them and who had a voice there.

But in the particular neighborhood that I live in, they’re moving a school of choice in the school district. So this is a Detroit public school that you have to essentially apply to get into. And so, that school is staying open and moving to a new building. The neighborhood schools, which serve neighborhood students, are being closed. And so, in this particular case, Burton International is moving to Owen, which was a neighborhood school, and Owen’s program is being demolished and no longer going to be there.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will happen to the kids who were going to Owen?

NATE WALKER: Well, they’ll have the option, I suppose, to apply to Burton or to make a new school choice, which becomes a—is problematic, because as they’re opening new schools in Detroit, there’s a specific model that they’re opening, and that’s a model where parents have to sign contracts to sort of say this is what we’ll do as part of the school community, and students have to sign contracts. And so, in that process, right, it opens the door for folks to be pushed out. And so, if they’re being pushed out of charter schools, and now the public—

AMY GOODMAN: Why would contracts push people out?

NATE WALKER: Well, if a school mandates that you’re on time every single day, and if you’re not on time, then the school may not be for you, and you are in a situation where you can’t make it, because you don’t have the transportation, or you—life may somehow get in the way, right? Some of the contracts stipulate, like if you’re absent four times during the school year—well, that’s sort of unrealistic, I think, to expect that families who will now be traveling across town to get to a specific school will be able to be there on time every single day of the school year. It doesn’t necessarily consider the situation that folks’ lives are complex.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kind of organizing that’s being done right now. And also, who is deciding the schools that are being opened? Who is in control of the school system?

NATE WALKER: So the organizing that’s happening now in Detroit is primarily around the school closures. And so, myself and some folks, some former teachers also, are trying to organize a vision for a new type of neighborhood school, because if neighborhood schools are closing, we are trying to figure out how we can set up a school in our neighborhood that considers the voice of the community. And so we hope to organize folks around that idea and around this neighborhood school.

In terms of who decides how schools are open, in Michigan, schools become chartered through public universities, through the existing school district or through a community college. And so there’s sort of a small network of universities in Michigan right now that charter schools. And these are very competitive spots. I think there’s—one university is accepting applications now for about three or four spots, and eighty folks applied.

And one of the challenges within that is, last year, three charter schools were opened in the city, and of those three schools, they were being managed by sort of national corporate management companies. And so, if citizens or parents or teachers want to open a charter school in Detroit, it’s very difficult. It’s a very difficult process because they’re competing with sort of corporate management companies who have a fast lane into the authorization process.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk a little about the Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, the tradition he comes out of?

NATE WALKER: Well, I mean, I think Robert Bobb is making decisions—he was brought in as the Emergency Financial Manager, so he’s making decisions, at first, anyway, in the realm of what’s best financially for the district. It is a shrinking district, as well, and so there were certain decisions that had to be made when your student population drops from—in half over the course of five or six years. Currently, he’s pushing very hard to get control of academics, as well. And in that process, he’s very much making decisions with Skillman and the charter schools who are the operators who are now opening schools also.

AMY GOODMAN: And the school that you were a teacher in, who is it run by?

NATE WALKER: Doug Ross of University Prep and New Urban Learning.

AMY GOODMAN: And Doug Ross is really spearheading the whole charter schools movement here?

NATE WALKER: Yeah, he absolutely is. And it’s interesting. He started University Prep under what was called the Big Picture model, modeled after a charter school in Rhode Island in 2000 or 2001. And this was a school that was sort of based on the premise of project learning and community involvement. And about three or four years ago, there was a shift in University Prep, where they sort of began to shift their model. You start to see some different things happen with the curriculum. They became very much more test-oriented and much more concerned with how they can move their bottom line of student achievement than necessarily, I think, participating with the students.

And so, when I worked for Doug, a group of teachers and myself came together and said, you know, there’s a model of education here that’s worth defending. And so, we began to organize about how we could defend that. And Doug was certainly not supportive of that.


NATE WALKER: Because I think he had a different vision. I think his vision was to replace the public school system. And he’s gone as far as saying this. But he had a vision of replacing the public school system with starting certain schools that were very easy to model. An education is messy work, and at times you can’t have a cookie cutter model across communities. And so, when we invested in making this school better, it didn’t necessarily fit the model that he was trying to push on the rest of the city.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, talk about the school that you and members of the community are organizing now, that the Boggs Educational Center is organizing.

NATE WALKER: Well, the founders of the Boggs Educational Center met in 2002 at the Boggs Center, where Grace was hosting discussions called the Freedom Schooling Discussions.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Grace Lee Boggs.

NATE WALKER: This is Grace Lee Boggs, yeah. And during those discussions, we talked about what transformative education would look like in the city of Detroit. And so, we began to tackle questions like why are we educating people, and how can we educate them in a way that deepens their humanity and ultimately empowers them to become agents in their own lives? And those discussions for us continued for seven more years, where we began to formally meet and talk about how we can take some of that theory of education as transformation and turn it into a program for our community. So we’re in the process where we’ve began to develop our curriculum and the type of school that we want, one that becomes a community hub. We don’t intend on opening for another year, because we want to do a year of intensive community planning, where we engage folks to really invest in the process of planning a school.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nate, I want to thank you very much for be with us. Nate Walker, former Detroit teacher and member of the school development team at the Boggs Educational Center, which is named for Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs.

Article from

Last Updated: November 19. 2009 1:00AM

Amber Arellano

Tough job for Detroit’s academic czar

It’s 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett is e-mailing Detroit Public Schools’ Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb one more thing to add to their to-do list.

She e-mails him at 4 a.m., when she cannot sleep. She e-mails him at 11 p.m., before she goes to bed. She e-mails him at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays from Cleveland, where she lives some weekends with her husband, Bruce, before returning to Detroit to do one of America’s toughest big city jobs.

Byrd-Bennett is Bobb’s academic czar and more: She is his co-chief.

When Byrd-Bennett told Bobb he was proposing budget cuts that would hurt children’s learning, he backed off. When she recommended they negotiate a dramatically different teachers’ contract, he followed. When she said Detroit had to radically change to compete with charter schools, Bobb agreed.



While Bobb is the school district’s showman who woos the public with his no-nonsense message and anti-corruption results, Byrd-Bennett is the behind-the-scenes policy strategist charged with the arguably tougher job: dramatically improving student achievement in the country’s most troubled urban school district.

“What is important to her is not the glory; it’s the students and what’s best for them,” says Sharif Shakrani, co-director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center, who worked with Byrd-Bennett in Washington, D.C.

This week is one of Byrd-Bennett’s most critical early tests. She is one of the lead negotiators in talks with the Detroit Federation of Teachers’ union. Negotiations have been extended until Saturday.

The negotiations are considered by experts to be essential to the district’s survival. Byrd-Bennett wants the teacher union to agree to a new special contract for the city’s lowest-performing schools, modeled after a successful effort she headed in New York City.

“What Barbara is working on now, along with the current teacher contract negotiations, will dictate the future of the Detroit Public Schools,” Bobb says.

Despite her influence, Byrd-Bennett is relatively unknown in Detroit. Outside the city, she is considered a superstar. Hundreds of wanna-be reformers have tried to boost poor urban student achievement levels. Byrd-Bennett is one of the rare leaders who has done it.

What reformers around the nation are watching now: Whether Byrd-Bennett — who led the turn around of New York City’s and Cleveland’s failing schools — will be given the opportunity to flourish in the Motor City.

Children drive her

Byrd-Bennett’s passion for disadvantaged children drives her. Growing up in the “projects” in a black working-class family in New York City, she says, she always wanted to be part of a movement to empower disenfranchised people.

Byrd-Bennett was inspired by her dad, Wallace Lee, a postal worker who rose to become a leader in his union. Her mom, Helen, worked in retail.

She found her opportunity in a chance meeting in her early 20s with a renowned New York City educator called Mother Hale. The woman asked her, “Do you want to be a teacher?” Byrd-Bennett answered, “No, but I want to be part of a movement.” Mother Hale said, “You’re hired.”

Struggling as a teacher early in her career, Byrd-Bennett eventually made a name for herself in her mid-30s when she began to unravel the mystery of how to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools.

She was charged with improving instruction and curriculum in dozens of schools. Her first year, test results flat-lined.

“I could almost cry, just thinking about it,” she says. “We looked at why and made changes.”

By years two and three, students’ reading and math test scores improved, eventually reaching a jump of 30 percent. National experts paid attention. The model she developed is championed by Mass Insight Education & Research Institute and other school turnaround experts.

“Barbara laid the foundation for everything we’re doing with District 79 (New York City’s alternative schools and programs),” says Giulia Cox, executive director of student support services for the New York City Department of Education.

The city has revamped its General Educational Development (GED) degree and other programs for teenagers and young adults who weren’t succeeding in traditional high schools. The result: The GED passage rate doubled in the first year, and the city’s graduation rate is rising, Cox says.

Byrd-Bennett built that foundation as the superintendent of the Big Apple’s special Chancellor’s District in the 1990s.

Byrd-Bennett wants to apply that model to Detroit. She and Bobb are proposing to create a “high priority district” within the larger district for the city’s chronically failing schools.

The high priority district’s success largely rides on securing a special teachers’ contract, as it did in New York. Byrd-Bennett wants failing schools’ staffs to be hired based on performance, not just seniority; and ensure students have longer school days and smaller classrooms.

To encourage the Detroit teacher union to support such changes, Byrd-Bennett and Bobb are offering an unprecedented $45 million in performance-based bonuses for school employees.

Such a carrot helped build buy-in from New York City teachers’ union.

Detroit hasn’t been that easy.

Detroit talks difficult

Byrd-Bennett had anticipated difficult contract negotiations; budget deficits; brutal public scrutiny and an intrusive school board in Detroit — all are part of the typical urban district’s terrain.

What she had not expected is Detroit’s almost total lack of workable systems.

“This really isn’t about reform,” she says of Detroit. “In a reform district, you see some measurable results relatively quickly … Children are not dying in a reform district.”

“Detroit is very different, in my mind,” she added candidly. “This is about turnaround. … I failed to judge how deep and intense the work would be here. It’s very heavy lifting.”

On the other hand, Byrd-Bennett says Detroit is similar to New York City and Cleveland, the latter of which she served as superintendent for eight years until 2006.

“Every community thinks their circumstances are worse than any other city,” she says. “They think nothing can be done.”

Experts say the results of her work will not be seen until next fall, at the earliest, if she is given the chance to succeed.

“Barbara knows all of the challenges; she knows what the hiccups are,” says Michelle Rhee, chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools. “At the end of the day, she can be as great as anybody, but if there is not the political will and infrastructure in place to support reforms, it’s not going to matter.”

Like Bobb, Byrd-Bennett is ambitious and decisive — and often works 14-hour days, her staff says. Her buoyant energy is contagious.

“I’ve done incremental school change and rapid change,” she says, explaining her workaholic lifestyle. “Rapid change is what parents want.”

Unlike Bobb, Byrd-Bennett is so warm and gracious, even her critics like her. Keith Johnson, the teachers’ union president, says he has so much faith in her — unlike Bobb — he believes the district could be turned around in just three years under her.

For her, she says “Detroit is a high for me in my career.” It’s a chance to ensure some of the country’s neediest children get the high-quality schools which they deserve, the civil rights movement of her era.

She says the biggest obstacle to school reform is faith.

“You have to suspend your disbelief,” she says. “Change can happen, and it does happen. I’ve seen it.”

Amber Arellano is a Detroit News editorial writer who writes about education policy. Please sSend letters to The Detroit News at Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or (313) 496-5253 or

On the corner of Woodward and Grand Boulevard you see the edge of an institution,
Four blocks east we got polluted streets and confusion,
Four blocks south you see the heart of a solution,
Four blocks on the west souls on the brink of survival,
Yet we only need to go four blocks north to see some strategic revival.

In all directions from the old Labor State Building and Wayne State,
You see broken neighborhoods,
You see the river front and Hart Plaza,
We have the Henry Ford Hospital,
And then there is Ferndale,
This system needs to be connected,
Resurrected and protected.

I am witness to the greatness this city produces,
I am witness to all the ill this city reproduces.
We must be beacons of light,
We need to lead the fight,
Protect ourselves and do what is right.

So, we may be at a disadvantage in the inner city schools,
But I say, let us try harder to make them better,
Let us gather the voices and represent them,
Let us raise the children and show them why an education is important.
We need to believe in the system at hand,
We need to improve the system at hand,
We need to improve the demand,
We need to devise a plan,
Full of motivation,
Filled with compassion,
To produce a reaction,
We must instill hope.

Socio changes and economic deprivations,
Dollars funding the wrong agenda,
We must reach our goals.
We must touch the hearts and explain the arts,
We must volunteer and be sincere,
We need to make a change, for a change,
We need to lift off the hand that is holding us down,
So we can lift up the children and give them crowns.

Detroit has the structure to rise up again,
Knowledge is power,
Tell all your friends,
Knowledge is power,
Seek Knowledge.


Jamieson Elementary is located in what looks like a war zone.  The houses surrounding the school have lost a battle against destitution and poverty — windows are broken or absent, porches and roofs have collapsed.  It is hard to imagine that anyone lives around here.  Yet, once one enters the school, one is greeted by the sounds of children’s voices, the sight of groups of children orderly walking in a line, professional looking teachers and a charming principal. I am struck by the disconnect from ‘outside’ to ‘in’ and wonder how these children survive “out there”.

What is a suburban white woman doing in this place?  My first instinct is to flee.  But now that I have worked with some of these precious (and sometimes challenging) children, I am drawn back to this blighted neighborhood.  I am drawn to these children who greet me with a smile, or rush over to stand next to me as if to say, “I choose you”, or the tough one who utters, “you’re back”, as if she really never expected to see me again.  They acknowledge me and it’s enough to lead me to believe that my presence makes a difference.

My heart breaks for these children and I want to bring them all home with me.  I have tears in my eyes as I tell my husband the tidbits revealed while I work with individual children editing their stories.  Realities of food stamps, eviction, mothers with boyfriends who aren’t nice, houses with rats, are mentioned nonchalantly.

One week, I work individually with a few fourth grade boys and I am struck each time by how polite they are.   A couple of them apologize for mistakes in their writing.  I try to reassure them that mistakes are just part of the writing process. Once the editing is complete, I compliment their work. I am rewarded with a coy smile.  These eleven year olds want to do well.

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, the number one answer among the kindergarteners seemed to be “doctor”.  A couple of boys want to be “firemen” and there was a “super hero” or two thrown in.  A “doctor and a super hero so I can save people and give them shots” was my favorite. These children have the same aspirations that suburban kids do, it doesn’t matter, does it, that they have them for different reasons. The trick here is to keep these dreams alive past elementary school…

Cathy Denious


“The first time I helped a young man in the Publishing Center, I was hooked.  This young guy had written a beautiful story, but he didn’t know how to use periods and capital letters.  So I explained that periods are basically placed after an idea is finished (or where the reader naturally wants to pause when reading the story); and that a capital letter then always follows the period to begin the new sentence.   He seemed to understand and so in the next 5-10 minutes we went through his story and he made all the corrections.  It was literally as “easy as pie”.  And in the space of a few minutes, we were both empowered.   He learned something that will forever positively impact his life…..and I the same.  Together we can go to beautiful places.”