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Can Flint be reborn through its public schools?

Local partners are working with Flint, Mich., schools to make them hubs of progress – reviving a model of community education in the face of dire needs for the city's children and water that still is not safe to drink. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Second grade students get ready to take a math and language test at Eisenhower Elementary on Sept. 30 in Flint, Mich. The school had been among the lowest-performing in the state, but has improved enough to come off the state's priority list one year ahead of schedule.

When she first heard about the lead-tainted water in Flint, Sandra Hinman thought about all the sips her two older children had taken from the fountains at school, and all the bottles of formula she had made for her baby. “I cried for days,” she says.

She could have transferred her kids to school in a bordering town, through Michigan’s Schools of Choice program. But, even though her family is still drinking bottled water a year later, she and many others have chosen to stay put.

For people like Ms. Hinman, there’s something special happening in the Flint Community Schools district – a determined pulling-together of residents, educators, philanthropists, health workers, and caring neighbors near and far who have poured in their support.

Under extraordinary circumstances, Flint continues to do the very ordinary work of educating the next generation.

“Our teachers love our students,” says Hinman, who regularly volunteers at school. “We are not just schools, we are a family – we are a community.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Parent and volunteer Sandra Hinman poses with her children Chase, 8, and Troy,12, at the Holmes STEM Academy's community garden on Sept. 29 in Flint, Mich. Hinman says that, despite Flint's problems, there is an outpouring of support from the community, which is moving to embrace its schools.

Despite the disruption and trauma prompted by the water crisis, students at some grade levels showed strong academic gains last year. That was when Bilal Tawwab took the helm as superintendent and instituted reforms in discipline and academic standards. Now, strategies that yielded promising results are being expanded districtwide, including a community initiative that puts schools at the center of expanded services for children and adults in the neighborhood.

In effect, local partners are working with Flint schools to make them hubs of progress – hoping to reverse a decline that started decades before corrosive Flint River water started flowing through the city’s taps in 2014.

Each step is particularly noteworthy in a district with a $10 million deficit and where nearly 9 out of 10 students are "economically disadvantaged," in the words of the state. In the 2014-15 state assessment for third-graders, just under 19 percent scored proficient, compared with 50 percent statewide.

The water crisis has layered even more problems on the district. Some parents allege that the district is not providing what is required for special-needs students or those exposed to lead, and, in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union, have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state and district.

But such challenges are not the city’s only story, thanks to the dedication of Flint defenders in both the public and private sectors. 

Keeping school doors open later

Sneakers are squeaking and braids are swaying as 20 middle-school girls lob volleyballs during an evening team practice at Holmes STEM Academy.

Community education – which started in Flint about 80 years ago and later waned – is back in a big way now. Thanks to a coalition of philanthropies, nonprofits, and businesses, schools are able to offer a wide variety of sports teams, after-school meals, youth-development programs, music instruction, and field trips. And people of all ages can come in to their neighborhood school to take classes or, at some sites, seek health services.

“With community ed in the building, it’s amazing,” says Latoya Vaughn, whose son Anthony is a seventh-grader. Over the summer, the school hosted several dinners for students and families, and Anthony attended a free STEAM camp (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). “They get to just explore,” she says.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Students participate in a Lego robotics activity during a YouthQuest after school program at the Holmes STEM Academy on Sept. 29 in Flint, Mich. A coalition of philanthropists, nonprofits, and business have brought community education to every Flint school. It enables schools to offer a wide variety of sports teams, after-school meals, youth-development programs, music instruction, and field trips.

The expansion of community ed this year to all Flint district schools was supported by a $2.9 million grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, whose namesake supported a similar “lighted schoolhouse” model in 1935 that spread far beyond Flint.

Each school has a community schools director employed by the local Crim Fitness Foundation, which heads up the partnership. For Holmes STEM Academy and its 570 third- to eighth-graders, that person is the unflappable Kerry Downs, a former teacher at the school who now plays matchmaker between local resources and the needs of students, teachers, and families – and can sometimes be spotted picking up trash on the playground before school starts.

Hinman’s third-grade daughter, Chase, and seventh-grade son, Troy, attend Holmes and take part in just about everything community ed offers. She oversees outdoor garden beds, pops in to observe her kids’ classrooms and help out, and plans to take an adult computer class here.

She has asked friends who have placed kids in charters and nearby districts about whether their schools welcome parents so freely during the day. None do, she says.

Linda Waters, who perches on a black plastic crate as she watches her granddaughter Malaysia play volleyball, is also pleased with the level of activities and loves to check on their learning environment. “I sat in with [my grandson] through his science class and the teachers welcomed me,” she says.

Superintendent Tawwab hopes those sentiments will spread, and that the district’s new initiatives will be able to draw back some of the many families it has lost – along with the per-pupil funding that travels with them. Folks in the community, they want to see their public school system return, so there’s a lot of support. But we have to do the heavy lifting,” he says.

To improve the climate in schools, he's also working with principals to rewrite discipline codes and train staff in more positive approaches, so that suspensions will be used only as a last resort. Before he arrived, he says, suspensions could be up to 10 days long, and some schools “were just throwing those out like Tic Tacs.”

Community education partners also help teachers stay focused on what they are uniquely qualified to do. If one notices a child’s glasses are broken, the community health worker “can stop everything she’s doing in a way that teachers are not supposed to,” Downs says.

Teachers say that support – along with new assessments, positive school discipline, and the time to collaborate – bodes well for progress. This September, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers handed out 23 fewer discipline referrals than last September, says math teacher KaSandra Cookenmaster.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Parent Latoya Vaughn poses with her son Anthony,12, at the Holmes STEM Academy's library in Flint, Mich.

A superintendent's first test

In the modest library of Eisenhower Elementary, second-graders wait patiently as their teacher helps them launch reading assessments on iPads. A little boy in blue Nikes reads: “Click on the picture that has the same beginning sound as bell,” and he says “bird” out loud, touching the blue bird and looking up with a smile of satisfaction.

The test is not for a grade or for state accountability. It’s to help teachers better pinpoint skill gaps. And it’s one tool that Tawwab is relying on to improve the quality of teaching and learning here.

Tawwab’s own first test was what to do last September when he was new on the job and a local pediatrician held a press conference about lead contamination in the water. City and state officials offered no immediate response, he says. It would be several weeks before the problems started to gain national and international attention.

“It saddens me at times to think about how folks just kind of let us sit out there by ourselves,” Tawwab says.

He and the school board decided quickly to shut off the water and secure donations of bottled water for the 5,000-plus students.

Although the city switched back to water from Detroit in mid-October last year, many schools and homes still have problems with their pipes that make the water unusable.

As Tawwab managed the distress among students and staff – and the generous donations and visits to support Flint’s children – he did his best to stay focused on providing coaching to school staff and giving them time to collaborate on academic improvements.

The new assessment from the Northwest Evaluation Association showed some bright spots of growth by the spring.

Among students in the pilot, third-graders improved their reading and science skills to a greater degree than 64 percent of peers with similar academic starting points around the country. Sixth-graders also showed strong growth in reading, language arts, and science – at a rate surpassing more than 70 percent of their peers.

Some teachers were reluctant at first to add yet another test, but they've started to see the value of this the internal data, which helps both students and teachers track the progress made. Tawwab has since expanded its use districtwide – doing away with some other tests that weren’t as effective.

“Many of us are putting the data on the walls, so kids have to own it … and they are very full of empathy for each other,” says Cinda Guilbault, a third-grade teacher at Eisenhower. “Today it was awesome. I had one little boy go up to another little girl who was lower than he is, and he said, ‘I’m going to go read with her.’ ”

Older students keep track of scores in private folders, says sixth-grade teacher Darlene McClendon. But they are still encouraged to celebrate each step of improvement.


Alfredo Sosa/Staff
School Superintendent Bilal Tawwab poses for a photo in his office on Sept. 29, 2016 in Flint, Mich. One month after he started his new job, Flint was roiled by revelations that lead had leached into the water supply. A year later, the water still isn't safe to drink, but the schools are showing promising gains.

The data walls aren’t about reducing students to a test score. “It truly is a living wall,” Tawwab says, “where you are … understanding what’s going on with a child. Behavior… attendance, you need to [see that] if you are making decisions about interventions.”

Ms. McClendon was skeptical at first, she says, “because we had just become used to one data system and then we were told, 'No, we’re not doing that one anymore.” But she’s seeing students make gains.

Teachers have also received strategies to incorporate more movement, games, and technology into the classroom to keep students engaged.

Eisenhower once sat in the bottom 5 percent of schools in Michigan. Under Principal Rachel Turner, the school improved enough by the start of this academic year to come off the state’s priority status list, one year faster than projected. Some categories of students now score on par with or surpass the state average.

Principal Turner says she worked hard to keep the staff consistent and develop their talents. And the school benefited from piloting community education.

“It all boils down to those collegial conversations with teachers, and having students at the forefront of everything we do,” she says.

Flint's challenges

But just as Eisenhower’s successes point to the promise of Flint’s schools, the school also provides a picture of the challenges Flint faces. One of its students is a plaintiff in the federal class-action lawsuit by the ACLU of Michigan and the Education Law Center in New Jersey, which advocates for educational equity.

According to the complaint, the boy's mother said Eisenhower was slow to respond to her requests for evaluations for an IEP, or individualized education program, which special-education law requires. Moreover, she said the school actively discouraged her from enrolling her son in preschool there.

The parents in the lawsuit have laid out a list of demands for the state, county, and district that includes health and educational screenings, special-ed services, universal pre-K, and changes to current discipline approaches. Flint has a much higher suspension rate for special-education students than the state average.

Another mother in the lawsuit, Nakiya Wakes, says her son, J.T., was suspended last year more than 50 times from International Academy of Flint, an autonomous charter school. He was in first grade and diagnosed with ADHD.

“I gave them a copy of the lead exposure [results] and they were like, ‘It’s your son,’ and I was like, ‘No … the year before he was only suspended one time,’” Ms. Wakes says in a phone interview. She says she asked repeatedly for an IEP, but she didn’t receive it until near the end of the school year. “They weren’t trying to work with me at all until I told them ‘lawyer’…. Some of the suspensions were for throwing crayons,” she says.

J.T. used to love school so much he cried if he missed the bus, Wakes says. Now, even though she transferred him to a district school where he has an IEP and has only had one suspension, he doesn’t want to go.

“We’ve been poisoned, the school doesn’t want to help, and I’ve got to fix this? We did not poison ourselves,” Wakes says.

School-finance and special-ed funding formulas had already been contributing to the district’s deficit. That created a “disincentive to diagnose” children with disabilities, says Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Layer on top of it the water crisis, and this is a civil rights disaster.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
First grade students learn about sizes in Maggie Wright's classroom at Eisenhower Elementary on Sept. 30 in Flint, Mich.

A spokesman from the state education department would not comment on the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 18, several weeks after the Monitor’s visit to Flint. Tawwab said in an email that the district is reviewing the details and cannot comment specifically. But, he noted, “The health and well-being of Flint Community Schools students remains a top priority,” and a number of programs have been added to support students and families.

Living with this tension between signs of progress and entrenched problems seems part of the “new normal” for residents here.

'What if Mom uses water to cook?'

Last spring, a student made a poster showing herself surrounded by thought bubbles: Mom’s wondering if she should pay the water bill, because she heard that if you don’t, you’ll lose your kids. What if mom uses the water to cook dinner? How bad could it be?

“That’s heavy stuff to put on a kid,” says Sue Gladstone, who’s been teaching in Flint for 20 years. She thinks about her students on her hour-long commutes: “You live and breathe it. The kids, they’re our kids.”

The number of Flint students needing special services is expected to increase in coming years because of the lead exposure.

Kristi Bowman, an education-law scholar at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says the response to the lead crisis has not been adequate. “The state is obligated under federal and state law to carry a certain weight…. You can’t put a district that’s in this kind of fiscal distress in the position of having to go out and beg for contributions…. It’s not going to equip them to comply with all the legal requirements.”

The lawsuit may provide some fixes, but state residents would have a role to play, too. “You cannot get meaningful education reform without public buy-in, in addition to a judicial remedy,” says Ms. Bowman.

Yet there are compelling reasons for people to remember there's a positive narrative in Flint, as well.

Ms. Downs counsels people who volunteer in Flint: “Please don’t think, because you happen to see their reading scores in the newspaper, that you understand our kids’ intelligence.”

The kids are smart, she says. They know how to work a mass transit system, get themselves to school every day, and they’re incredibly savvy at reading people, “because they’ve needed to be,” she says.

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Psalm Bingham has had plenty of experience defending Flint against stereotypes. A 2013 graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at Flint Southwestern High School, she’s now tackling three majors at Michigan State in East Lansing. Through AmeriCorps, she’s helping coach several kids’ sports teams in Flint, serving as a role model to the girls playing volleyball at Holmes.

People “think it’s a rundown place and you come from a violent background. I’m completely the opposite of that,” she says.

“The scores, absolutely, can be heartbreaking,” Downs says. But as she sees it, there's also now “a great opportunity for us to turn things around and do right by our kids.”

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