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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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

The first goal is to "create schools of the future." In the current school year, that grand-sounding purpose will emphasize greater autonomy within individual schools (called "charter-empowered schools") and fuller application of an "African-centered multicultural curriculum."

These approaches are hardly unique to Detroit, though McGriff may bring an unusual degree of commitment to them.

Robert Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents' Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and the former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee, says "Deborah is the flash point - the person willing to advocate change and to advocate children." He is a long-time colleague of McGriff's. Before she came to Detroit, McGriff served as deputy superintendent under Mr. Peterkin in Milwaukee.

Schools reforms that give more decisionmaking power to administrators and faculty in individual schools and that heavily involve the public are unsettling to many adults in education, Peterkin says, but such changes probably serve the best interest of children.

Kurt Metzger, at Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies, gives the Detroit superintendent high marks for her willingness to publicly advocate change and to field questions, which he calls a refreshing change from past school chiefs in the city.

McGriff says she wants to see schools adapt to the individual needs of students and to the changing world that awaits young people when they graduate. She wants to bring successful local business people into the schools to share entrepreneurial skills with the kids.

"We still have an organizational structure in schools based on a manufacturing model," she says. "Successful companies personalize their products, and we in education still say, `One size fits all.' "

A big part of Detroit's effort to personalize public education is its African-centered curriculum. The emphasis on black history and culture has drawn fire, and the controversy reached a peak last fall when the Malcolm X Academy, an elementary school designed for African-American boys, moved to a new building in the largely white Warrendale section of town. McGriff had to face angry parents who wanted the school closed.

Malcolm X Academy remained open, however, and the superintendent doesn't retreat an inch on the subject.

"The African cultural emphasis is not about self-esteem," she asserts. "The curriculum we teach will tell the truth about the origins of African-Americans and about the African diaspora across the globe. It doesn't mean you talk only about Africa and Africans. African culture is by definition multicultural."

If kids in Detroit don't learn about their heritage and the contributions of black Americans, they'll wonder why the public school system failed them, says McGriff. She points out that only 8 percent of her students are white. Integration a `nonissue'

"You have to educate the children sitting in front of you," she says. In Detroit, she adds, racial integration is a "nonissue."

Not that McGriff likes the idea of black children growing up in isolation from their white fellow citizens. She has started a "partnership" with some suburban districts so that black and white children have more chance to meet and talk.

But the core need, she emphasizes, is a program of learning that captures the imagination of children, keeps them in school, and prepares them for a "world of diversity" beyond.

"Remember," she says, "the problem in American education is not `urban education.' It's that even many of the best students in the country can't compete globally."

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