clock menu more-arrow no yes
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

I'm a Detroit teacher protesting our awful school conditions. Here's why I think we’ll win.

I have worked for Detroit Public Schools for 15 years. I work with students with learning disabilities, and I'm a testing coordinator. I came to Detroit fresh out of Kentucky State University at the age of 23, ready to change the world. I purposely chose urban education because I thought that was where I was needed most.

I have always believed that public education is a vital part of the American dream, and I wanted to give students that chance despite their economic circumstances. I didn't realize how many roadblocks would be placed in the way of a quality public education.

The educational climate right now is the worst I have seen in all of my years of teaching. In the past few weeks, local and national media have shown the deplorable conditions at my school, Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody: The leaking roof has caused structural damage in and outside of the school. The ceiling tiles are so water-soaked that they fall down in the stairwells and classrooms. Mold has grown under tile and carpet because of dampness. The broken glass-block window that surrounds the school lets in the elements. The building temperature changes from freezing cold to tropical hot.

The conditions are so bad that last month the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, sent his own inspectors out to the worst Detroit public school buildings. The reports became public knowledge on January 25. Cody High School had 30 violations of city code ordinances, and the school district has 30 days to comply. The entire list can be found here.

Had I become desensitized? Had I stopped seeing the blight? The answer is ... yes.

As stories about the conditions of the public schools started to surface, family and friends began to call. They asked, "How did it get this bad?" and, "Has it always been this way?"  Their questions made me pause. Had I become desensitized? Had I stopped seeing the blight? The answer is ... yes.

I didn't realize how badly students and teachers had tolerated these conditions until one day I was having a conversation with a student in the hallway. A news outlet had come to interview teachers and take video images of the school's decay. I happened to catch a cameraman in the hallway and wanted him to get video evidence of a rodents' nest in the biology classroom. This was the week of final exams and just the day before students had poured out of the classroom because of the rodents.

A student said to me, "Ms. Miller, why are you showing the cameraman the rats? You're going to get Cody closed down."

I told the student that I didn't want Cody closed down: "We're fighting for school repairs or a brand new Cody," I said.

The student said, "They won't build us a new school. They'll just tear it down."

I felt an overwhelming sadness. This student didn't believe that anyone saw Cody as valuable and worth being saved. This student was afraid that if we exposed horrible conditions at our school, they wouldn't have this neighborhood school any longer, and so much has already been taken from them.

On my way to work, I drive past blocks that are completely uninhabitable — boarded-up houses with the debris of evicted tenants. It is sensory overload; I have to block it out. This is a basic survival technique. I believe the same thing has happened with my students. Those pictures for local and national eyes to see awoke us from our slumber. I think we have become so used to the conditions that we, the teachers and the students, forgot this is not normal. Had our prolonged silence on the deteriorating schools and lack of resources taught students that they were worthless? This is a pivotal moment for me and Detroit Public Schools. We can't afford to be silent. Our students have already lost faith. I hope we can restore it.

The most discouraging thing about Detroit Public Schools for teachers and students is the instability. The rug is constantly being pulled from under our feet. There's always a new restructuring plan and a revolving door of new staff. In my 15 years of teaching, I've had to change my school location five times.

And then there are the school closures. Detroit Public Schools has been under emergency management by the state since 2009, and in those six years, dozens of schools have been closed. So many closures at one time have left students without transportation. Detroit Public Schools does not have complete yellow school bus services to ensure safe travel to schools. High school students must rely on unpredictable Detroit city bus transportation, and waiting for unreliable public bus transportation during a Michigan winter can be brutal.

I remember a couple winters ago, some of my 11th-grade students were waiting on public transportation in bitterly cold weather for at least an hour. I felt so bad for them that I decided to take the four of them home. Teachers aren't supposed to provide transportation, but the conditions were inhumane.

We teachers had no choice but to do something. The "sickouts" began as a grassroots movement, independent of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Pockets of concerned teachers began meeting about how we could expose the deplorable conditions in our schools and bring attention to the abuses that students and teachers have long suffered.

Maybe the media coverage we've been receiving will mean that this time our cries will not fall on deaf ears

As with any social protest, the movement started with a few brave teachers and schools willing to stick their necks out. The first sickouts, in November and December of last year, were fairly small, with only five or six schools participating, but I'm very proud that my school was one of the first. In my mind, there was only one decision to make: Defend quality education for urban students. I worked in the district a long time, and passively waiting for change has gotten us nowhere.

I became an activist in my own school building, rallying staff, parents, and students to join the fight. Teachers across the district started to self-organize and become protesters. These teacher activists created Facebook pages that gather ideas district-wide. They held conference calls about actively fighting against injustices, and had lunchtime strategy meetings.

On January 11, sickouts closed more than 60 Detroit schools out of about 100. The momentum of the protest was starting to get local and national attention. On January 20, President Obama planned to be in town for the International Auto Show. Teachers, students, and parents decided that we would have our largest and most effective protest, closing 88 schools. Finally, because of these protests the community and policymakers began listening to our voices.

On January 28 — just eight days after the last sickout — the Detroit Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, and several parents filed a complaint in Michigan's Third Circuit. The plaintiffs are asking court for the following:

  • Compel the school district to conduct periodic inspections of all buildings that they know present serious hazards and fix all existing building code violations.
  • Compel the district to investigate complaints filed by parents and teachers about unsafe, hazardous school conditions.
  • Compel the district to set up an appropriately funded capital plan to be able to bring all Detroit Public Schools up to 21st-century standards.
  • Remove the state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, and restore local control over Detroit Public Schools.
  • Last, continue court jurisdiction over the matter to ensure the defendants are taking steps to remedy the problems.

We've already had one huge victory: Earley has resigned his position as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. The intense criticism of his decision-making as the manager of both Flint's water crisis and Detroit's public schools proved to be too much.

Still, some in the state legislature want to punish teachers for participating in the sickout. Michigan state Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, a Republican from St. Clair Township, said, "Our kids deserve an education, not an empty classroom and locked school doors."  Maybe Sen. Pavlov did not understand that the district has about 170 teacher vacancies already, meaning thousands of students will not be getting a certified teacher in front of them at all this school year. Maybe Pavlov did not realize that because of the teacher vacancies, some students sit in classrooms of 40 to 50 students.

Do those students in overcrowded classrooms deserve a quality education? Does Sen. Pavlov think that will be accomplished in that educational environment? Maybe he does not realize that my school is called "Medicine and Community Health," supposedly a STEM school, but it does not offer physics or calculus. Maybe he does not realize that we have very few options for electives, offering only one foreign language and no advanced placement classes.

This same senator would like to tighten the anti-strike laws, take teaching certificates, and impose severe fines on the teachers who participated in the sickouts. Maybe he does not realize Detroit Public Schools is not a popular destination for new teachers because of the poor working conditions, low pay, and additional health care cuts. Maybe he did not realize that this year teachers are leaving the district in droves for better opportunities in suburban districts.

At my school, we currently have six teacher vacancies. If this pattern continues, we will never be able to effectively implement our school improvement plan. It is a battle we cannot win without a consistent staff focused on the same goal.

The fight to improve Detroit's public education system and restore a democratic school board instead of a state-appointed emergency manager is far from over. But maybe all the media coverage we've been receiving will mean that this time our cries will not fall on deaf ears. The local and national attention to our problems might just spark the long-needed change we have been hoping for. I can't give up fighting because there's a young man in the hallway who thinks no one cares enough to repair or rebuild his school. I'll continue to protest and fight for public education until someone does.

Shalon Miller is a teacher at Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody in Detroit, Michigan.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Explainers

How screwed are Democrats in the Senate?

Culture

The dark, enthralling power of Succession

The Goods

The problem with America’s semi-rich

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.