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One City, Many Voices: Mumford Forgotten

Jews should help save public education in Detroit.

By Oren Goldenberg

Springtime is looming, and while most Michiganders look forward to trees budding, birds returning and tulips popping, Detroiters are bracing themselves for the annual onslaught of school closures.

Detroit Public Schools, which boasted almost 200,000 students in 1999, is now being severed —into a state-run Education Achievement Authority and DPS, the local school district of old. The EAA will comprise 15 “failing schools” — including Mumford High — that are being offered to charter companies and can be closed if not enough students enroll.  Along with some other school closures, this will reduce DPS’s actual reach to a mere 32,000 students.

While I encourage all to further investigate the recent history of Detroit Public Schools (specifically the forced state takeover in 1999, which left the school district with a $250-million deficit, and the forced takeover three years ago under an Emergency Financial Manager law), I want to spend these words on the need to oppose the dismantlement of the Detroit Public Schools and public education in general.

As a young Detroit resident and activist, people are constantly asking me what I think can save our city. I can respond with certainty that it is not planting trees or more “business opportunities,” though both can help.

While I am totally in need of more places to eat, socialize and work, my primary concern is a very pragmatic one: Where will I send my (hypothetical) children to school?

I went to Hillel Day School and Berkley High School; I’d like my children to be able to walk to their school or at least be within a reasonable commute. I worry about where children of mine might receive the attention they need (pu-pu-pu) if they happen to be disabled in some capacity.

Mumford High School in Detroit

The loose association of charter schools steadily replacing DPS doesn’t guarantee admittance or programs for children who are mentally, physically or emotionally challenged. They are not required to admit all students, allowing selective discrimination.

While our Jewish community is frantically seeking methods of retention for our own young adults, our vision has settled on the immediate allures of Detroit yet has bypassed the more difficult battles ahead of us if we aim to maintain a healthy, thriving region.

As a Jew living in Detroit, and as a Jew who would like to raise a family in Detroit, I believe our single, most treacherous obstacle is resuscitating the public sector.

What I need to leave my bachelorhood behind and commit to making a family is a safe, provocative, communal space that will educate my children and provide for my own continuing education. I need a school that is not exclusive to a single demographic. It needs to be open at nights so I can swim in the pool or play basketball. It needs to be open so my kids can be there if I am working after school hours. It also needs to offer my children the same level of education that I received.

While there are many current Jewish efforts to “revitalize Detroit,” they fail as separate initiatives to utilize the collective power of the Jewish community. It is great that many of our young people are being employed and allured by these efforts, but the truth is that it will be very difficult to remain in Detroit without a more direct response to the education crisis.

When I think of the potential of a united Jewish community in Detroit, I think of what we can do that will not only improve our own community’s life but also how we can find ways of ensuring our success in stride with the success of those around us. When we put our money into the city of Detroit, we need to be challenging ourselves to think beyond our own class and demographic.

What would be truly innovative, attractive to young adults and worthy of the title “Arsenal of Democracy” are programs and policies aimed to reduce inequality instead of just isolating it. If we are giving middle-class young people financial incentives to move to the city, can we not match that with dollars to aid keeping people already living in Detroit in their homes?

Please think about what it was like attending a neighborhood public school: how meaningful it was to have a diverse population amidst our Jewish one, how you walked to school or took a bus, how you stayed in school after hours.

With the continual dismantlement of the public school sector in Detroit, we are losing city assets that your grandchildren will be yearning for.  While it is clear that the state of DPS is in crisis and that drastic measures are definitely necessary, I urge our Jewish community, which is currently investing in Detroit as a place of retention for our youth, to become involved in saving Detroit’s public institutions.

We must think ahead and picture what a truly just, truly comfortable and inspiring city will look like. I assure you that what we conjure in our collective imaginations are examples once rooted in a strong public sector.

Oren Goldenberg is a filmmaker in Detroit, director and producer of the feature-length film about DPS, Our School, and the upcoming documentary Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother, about the first black public housing in America. He owns Cass Corridor Films and is a regular attendee at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.



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