School Chief Pushes `Design for Excellence'
Finding resources to educate 170,000 students in the Detroit public schools is a challenge for the system's first female superintendent
DEBORAH McGRIFF is clearly enjoying herself as she huddles with the children at a kindergarten class in the Goodale Elementary School here and discusses their work. Visits to Detroit schools and classrooms are the best part of her job, she says. She tries to schedule at least one such visit a week.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's why anyone wants a job like this," Ms. McGriff says, with equal parts humor and seriousness.
Her job is superintendent of schools for a city of roughly 1 million people, where unemployment hovers around 15 percent, and 32.4 percent of the residents are below the federal poverty line. Property tax rates, which provide the primary support for local schools, are already much higher in Detroit than in other communities in Michigan.
The present school year began with a month-long strike by teachers unhappy with their low salaries. Finding the resources to educate the 170,000 students in Detroit's public schools is a constant struggle.
Statistics like the dropout rate for black male high school students - some estimates put it at 45 percent - indicate the long haul ahead. On the bright side, recent statewide testing has shown some improvement in the students' math, science, and reading scores, according to the superintendent.
The first woman to hold Detroit's top school job, McGriff came to the city after stints in Cambridge, Mass., as an assistant superintendent, and as Milwaukee's deputy superintendent. Like Detroit, both cities were deeply involved in educational reform efforts. McGriff is completing her second year in the Detroit system, which makes her an "old-timer," she says, since big-city school chiefs hold their posts, on average, for only two years. Urban-suburban contrasts
The tasks she faces in Detroit epitomize the challenges facing American education generally and urban education in particular. Prime among these is the gulf between her hard-pressed district and the surrounding suburbs.
In salary, Detroit's teachers rank 68th among among Michigan's school districts, she says. Unless teachers here are paid as much as teachers in the rest of Wayne County, she argues, there will always be a huge gap in educational quality.
School-finance reform has been on the agenda of Michigan's Legislature for 20 years, says the superintendent, but so far schemes to equalize funding between rich and poor areas have made little headway.
Here, as elsewhere, however, legal challenges could force more equitable funding.
"I agree with Jonathan Kozol," says McGriff, referring to the author and well-known critic of American public education. "You can tinker with property taxes, but until you generate a new way of funding, property-poor cities can't compete."
What would she like to see from the new administration in Washington?
"I would hope to see reduced regulation," McGriff quickly replies. "There should be greater reliance on the outcome and impact of programs, giving local districts more flexibility in the process of implementation." Federally funded Chapter 1 programs that are aimed at disadvantaged children would be one place to start, she says.
Her immediate job, and her pledge to Detroiters, is to be "more efficient with the money we have." Working with the Detroit school board and with considerable public input, McGriff has developed a series of broad goals for the city called "Design for Excellence." More school autonomy