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Will Detroit Schools Turn Challenges into Motivation?

March 08, 2010 12:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Detroit school board President Otis Mathis has what could be considered a learning disability, calling more attention to his struggling district and raising questions about living with mental and physical challenges.

Is Mathis a Good Example for Students?

Laura Berman of The Detroit News discussed Mathis’ “difficulty composing a coherent English sentence,” a plight that he and others deem a story "about someone who manages his limitations, just as others manage physical disabilities.”

In e-mail excerpts contained in Berman’s article, Mathis displays a stunning lack of English proficiency. But Berman reports that these troubles haven’t prevented Mathis from completing high school and college, and could not keep him from being elected president of the Detroit school board.

Mathis’ district of 90,000 students is currently the subject of a legal battle. According to Time magazine, Detroit Public School (DPS) Financial Manager Robert Bobb is lobbying the Michigan state Legislature “for academic control over DPS,” while Mathis and supporters fight to retain their hold. 

The situation presents difficult questions, including whether Mathis is fit to lead a district and whether he can be considered a positive example for struggling students. Mathis may consider himself a “role model” and his leadership a reason for “kids to dream, with whatever weakness they have.” But Berman questions whether he’s “an example of the system's worst failings—a disinterested student who always found ways to graduate, even when he didn't meet the requirements.”

Background: Robert Bobb and the crisis in Detroit schools

Bobb has emerged as a controversial figure in Detroit Public Schools, according to Steven Gray for Time. Previously serving as president of Washington, D.C.’s board of education, Bobb says he came to Detroit in hopes of reshaping “the roughest and the toughest” district, and claims he understands the complexities of  “urban America.”

His lofty goals include improving performance by school administrators, teachers and students, partly by “establishing systemwide standards for what classes a student needs to have passed to be promoted to the next grade,” Gray reports. But the Detroit school board claims Bobb is taking too much control over academic affairs. 

In early February, Bobb authorized a standardized test in Detroit Public Schools, which DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said is “standard practice across the country,” according to the Detroit Free Press. But school board members, parents and teachers spoke out against the test, fearing it “would be used as a political tool to help ... Bobb lobby the state Legislature for academic control over DPS.”

Tracy Martin, DPS deputy chief academic and accountability auditor, said the test will help "determine whether students are progressing" toward National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standards for fourth and eighth grades. In 2009, DPS students had the lowest scores in the U.S. in NAEP’s 40-year history, the Free Press reported.

Detroit Schools’ Online Shift

In spite of political disagreements, Detroit schools seem to be making strides in online learning.

According to School Library Journal, Detroit Public Schools have teamed with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to create a program combining “technology, customized lesson plans, and teacher training.” The “multiyear partnership” is called “Destination Detroit,” and aims to “reshape Detroit’s approach to teaching through professional development and the use of a Web portal that lets teachers, parents, and kids share resources and track student performance.”

Michigan has a relatively long history of encouraging online learning. In January 2009, the state allowed some high school students to take more classes online, the Detroit Free Press reported. The plan gave 11 school districts and a charter school a waiver to allow them to break state rules requiring students to be in the school building for approximately 1,100 hours during a school year. The waiver also applied to a limit of the number of online courses a student can take outside the school each year.

Related Topic: Resources for parents of students with learning disabilities

In a TED talk, runner Aimee Mullins discusses her life as an athlete, a career she pursued despite “being born without shinbones.” Mullins says if given the choice, she would not change the way she is, noting that her experiences have come because of her so-called challenges, rather than in spite of them. It is important for children to learn that challenges are a part of life, rather than something to be overcome, Mullins suggests. For parents of children with learning disabilities, Mullins could serve as a source of inspiration.

In an article for The New York Times, Walecia Konrad provides additional support for parents, suggesting they educate themselves about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Konrad also feels parents should “contribute to an individualized learning plan for a student with a learning disability.”

FindingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Learning Disabilities presents additional resources for parents and teachers.

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