Potential school closures may be a hot topic for many in the city of Detroit, but at Western International High School — on the city’s southwest side — the big conversation surrounds immigration.
And Principal Angel Garcia told an audience gathered in his auditorium tonight that his school is working to make sure students feel safe when there is concern about immigration raids and possible deportations.
“We’re living in very tumultuous times,” Garcia said during a meeting of the Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education.
He said the district recently designated Western International as a sanctuary school, meaning it’s a safe place for students and families in the community to get help.
“We’ve sort of been operating as such for quite a long time. Just having that formal announcement really sends a message that … this is a safe place to send their students. I’m very proud of that.”
Minutes later, Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, urged the board to adopt a resolution that would designate all schools in the district as sanctuary schools.
Bailey said threats of legal action create fear and make it difficult for students to learn.
Bailey and Garcia received loud cheers and applause from the audience for their comments.
Meanwhile, the subject of the potential school closures was mentioned frequently during the meeting. Dozens of people showed up for the meeting, filling the auditorium and many carrying signs declaring “Hands off our schools” and “Keep our community schools together.”
The state School Reform Office has identified 38 schools statewide as potentially closing at the end of the school year because they’ve ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years. The list includes 25 in Detroit — 16 in the DPSCD, eight in the Education Achievement Authority and one charter school.
The EAA, created as a reform school district that took on some of the worst-performing schools in the city, was launched in 2012 but the schools will be returning to the DPSCD on July 1.
The newly elected DPSCD board voted last week to give the district administration the authority to move forward with a lawsuit against the state, if necessary.
“The board has taken a clear position that we’re opposed to the … closing of any schools,” said Iris Taylor, the president of the board of education.
“It is our opinion that as the newly elected board, we came into this position with a clean slate,” Taylor said.
A legal opinion provided last summer contended that the state was unable to close schools in Detroit for three years. The lawyers — from Miller Canfield, the same law firm the board has hired to possibly sue the state — had argued that because the Legislature in June passed a $617-million financial-rescue package that resolved the district’s debt — and created the DPSCD as a new district — the reform office wouldn’t be able to close schools until 2019. But Attorney General Bill Schuette disagreed in a September opinion that said there was no such grace period for the Detroit schools.
“We believe we should be given the opportunity to innovate and turn around schools,” Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather said.
State officials have said not all of the 38 schools will close. Some may remain open because there aren’t any better-performing schools nearby. The state will impose some other type of intervention, such as appointing a CEO to take over the school’s academics, on schools that remain open. The decision on closure is expected later this month or early March.
Meriweather said the district is developing turnaround plans to help those schools. The district is also focused on developing ideas for innovation at schools districtwide. At tonight’s meeting, the board approved 11 innovation proposals, though detailed information about those proposals wasn’t discussed and administrators referred frequently to a packet provided to board members, but not made public. The Free Press has requested such packets but didn’t receive it until late into the meeting, after the board had voted.
“We want to make an aggressive plan around our schools, put children at top priority and get healthy,” Meriweather said.
The innovation plans would launch with the 2017-18 school year. According to a news release the district sent near the end of the meeting, the proposals include turning Southeastern High School, currently part of the EAA, into an examination school, which would mean students would have to take an exam and fill out an application in order to enroll. It would start with ninth and 10th-graders.
That proposal earned some jeers in the audience when the board took up an agenda item that involved the “renaming Southeastern High School.” District officials said that part of the innovation plan might include changing the school’s name, but asked the board to approve starting a process of getting community input. The crowd was largely against such a move.
Many of the sign-holders appeared to be connected to EAA schools. They included Monique Crosby, who came hoping to share her thoughts about Mumford High School, which is on the potential closure list. She graduated from the school in 1977.
“I came to support the kids that attend Mumford and make sure they have a voice that’s heard,” Crosby said.
Many of those supporting schools that are currently under the EAA wanted to make sure those schools remain whole as they transition to DPSCD — urging the district to keep the staff and teachers intact. They said their schools have improved in the years since the EAA took them over.
“Mumford has come a long way,” Parris Jackson, a ninth-grader at Mumford, said after the meeting.
Many in the audience were livid when the board went into a closed session without hearing public comment. The public comment period was one of the last agenda items.
“Let the people speak,” they chanted as the board adopted the motion to move into a closed session.
“We want to speak,” Crosby said in the hallway during the closed session.
The crowd became even angrier when Taylor cut off public comment, after dozens had spoken but there were still large lines of people waiting to speak. Taylor had been urging the speakers — many of them students — to group together and appoint a spokesperson to speak on their behalf, instead of everyone speaking. Most were from Mumford, but they represented other EAA schools, such as Law Elementary and Denby High School.
“This is the only place we can be heard right now,” DeJuan Green, a sophomore at Mumford, said after the meeting.
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Teachers union: Detroit students need more sanctuary schools,