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Published: Thursday, 2/24/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Uneducated youth a time bomb for Detroit

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- Libya, like a number of other oil-rich nations, is tottering on the brink of revolution and, perhaps, chaos. Thousands in Michigan were riveted by developments there this week, as they were by the earlier revolution in Egypt.

Few, however, seemed to be paying much attention to a development that threatened to have an enormous impact on life in Michigan: the impending destruction of Detroit's public schools.

The state Department of Education this month issued an ultimatum that -- unless something changes soon -- promises to finish the job of effectively destroying those schools.

Lansing ordered the deficit-ridden district to put in place a financial restructuring plan that would close nearly half of its 143 schools within two years. Among other things, that would result in an average high school class size of 62 students.

That would make anything resembling learning all but impossible. As a conservative columnist for the Detroit News said, that's not a classroom; that's a holding pen.

Detroit's schools, once one of the best public systems in the nation, have been dying for a long time, the victims of financial mismanagement, corrupt political appointees, poverty, and racial tension.

Parents have been fleeing the district in droves. Eleven years ago, the district still had 175,000 students. Last fall, the total had shriveled to 74,000 -- the loss of nearly 10,000 kids a year.

Enrollment is expected to decline further, to 58,000 students three years from now. With those who leave goes the bulk of state funding, further lessening the district's ability to serve those who remain.

It's anybody's guess what will be going on with students left in Detroit Public Schools "holding pens" in 2014.

But whatever happens is unlikely to look like education -- at least not the kind of education needed to give these kids, almost all from poor and minority backgrounds, a chance at modern jobs.

Not a lot of quality education seems to be happening in Detroit's schools now, despite the efforts of the soon-to-be departing emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb. Officially, graduation rates have increased slightly. Three-fifths of students get a diploma.

But test score data indicate that even many graduates are woefully unprepared to compete in today's world; some are barely literate. Whose fault it is that Detroit schools are in such a state has been argued endlessly, with everything from single-parent families to black culture to white racism having been blamed.

But what baffles me is that most of the rest of Michigan doesn't feel compelled to do something about it. "If people don't care for the right moral reason, they should for their own vested self-interest," said Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools.

"Uneducated kids don't simply disappear," he added. Detroit is populated with hundreds of thousands of desperate young people who are not going to be employable at any conceivable legal, 21st century job. How can that be good for the state?

How can that leave rich people in the Grosse Pointes, some living only two blocks from urban squalor, feeling secure?

We live, sadly, in two worlds in this country: the white world and the black one. Recently, I did a radio commentary on how West Germans pitched in and spent billions to build up East Berlin after communism fell and the wall came down.

I had spent time in East Berlin during and right after communism. Some dilapidated neighborhoods resembled parts of today's Detroit. But almost uncomplainingly, affluent West Berliners tackled the task of building their reunited city.

I said it was hard to understand that we weren't willing to do that here. I immediately heard from an elderly white woman I know. " 'Tain't baffling," she said. The Germans, you see, are white.

This woman is about as politically liberal as they come. She lived and worked in Detroit until about a year ago, when the sheer cost and difficulty got to be too much.

Now, deeply pessimistic, she worries that the answer to Rodney King's famous question -- can't we all just get along? -- might be no, primarily because of the way white Americans treated black Americans for generations after slavery -- "brutalizing and ghettoizing them and keeping them in separate but equal ignorance."

That, she fears, has led to hatred and rejection of our culture, and of learning itself, on the part of much of black America, and a lack of interest in white America in whatever happens to blacks.

"Politically incorrect?" she said.

Perhaps. But perhaps true, nevertheless. You don't have to be a sociologist or have a doctorate in education to know that a poor city full of undereducated and unemployable youths is a time bomb.

Nor do you have to be a genius to figure out that unless we find a way to make Michigan's largest city a decent place to live and work, a place where children can be educated, the state itself has no chance of serious prosperity in any scenario we can foresee.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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