Detroit, Education, Emergency Managers — August 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

GUEST POST: Prof. Thomas Pedroni on the unjustified closing of Detroit’s Oakman Elementary/Orthopedic for disabled kids


Is it now too expensive to teach disabled children?

[CC image credit: ~kawaii-bubble-wrap | deviantART]

In April of this year, former Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts announced that Oakman Elementary/Orthopedic, a school specializing in serving disabled Detroit students, was slated to be closed. After doing a cost-benefit analysis, the school was found to be too expensive to keep open. At the time district spokesman Steven Wasko said this:

It…has facilities issues including very bad flooring, and requires new bathrooms as well as complete security and mechanical system upgrades at a total cost of over $900,000.

Given Oakman’s serious building concerns as well as its continually declining enrollment, the cost/benefit to make the repairs is not justifiable. Operating buildings like this does not help us to achieve our end goal of providing a quality education to all of our students because it pulls limited resources away from the classroom.

Professor Thomas Pedroni, Director of the Detroit Data and Democracy Project and associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University investigated the closing of Oakman and found that these claims are inaccurate and that the proposed closing of the school is unjustified.

The following guest piece was first posted at Prof. Pedroni’s website and is reposted here with permission.


By Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni

Former DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts could at times be disarmingly candid. One of those moments came in April, as he unveiled the district’s new strategic plan. Closing more schools every year, he acknowledged, was a losing plan.

“When the team came to me with schedules for reviewing the list of schools that might have to close, I was extremely uncomfortable,” Roberts confided. “I said if this was a Fortune 500 company with a board of directors, and the leadership team continued to bring that board plans year after year that did nothing to stop a loss of market share or a plant closing, the board would fire the entire team.”

Roberts, who had unparalleled authority over DPS affairs, didn’t fire his team. Instead he set the district on a new course. Since 2009 DPS Emergency Managers had taken more than 100 schools off the books. Now he was reversing course. Only four schools– not 28– would be closed. And these would be the last.

As for those final four, “I do not take the closing of any school or program lightly.” Roberts noted with gravity. “In fact there is nothing that I take more seriously because I know the impact closing a school can have on a community.”

But Roberts’ seriousness in his decision to close at least one of those schools, Oakman Elementary/Orthopedic, is hard to discern.

Oakman serves approximately 300 PreK to 5 children, about 40 percent of whom have special needs. Because special and general education students comingle from their first day of school, young children grow up seeing the humanity in each other. This goes a long way to eradicating the fear and stereotypes that lead to stigmatization.

The school’s distinctive features include accessible entryways, a single floor layout, rooms for performing diaper changes and catheterizations, and a wheelchair accessible greenhouse and playground. School personnel form a tight-knit, loving community of professionals who take tremendous pride in every facet of the school.

Roberts, in a communication to the school’s families in April, explained the need to close the school:

“Facility Condition: Very bad flooring, requires new bathrooms, as well as complete security and mechanical system upgrades at a cost of over $900,000. Sharply declining enrollment: Just 288 students in a school with capacity for 446; approximately 50% of seats un-occupied. Lost 50% of enrollment since 2009.”

But the district has been unable to substantiate any of these claims.

Enrollment numbers for Oakman are readily available on the DPS website. Rather than declining 50 percent, enrollment has actually increased since 2009, when it stood at 265.

DPS in 2003 determined the school’s capacity to be 290. With an official enrollment of 288 today, the school is operating at 99.3 percent capacity, not 50 percent.

The district maintains that the building capacity is now 446, even though neither the square footage of the building nor the composition of its student body has changed. School leaders, who say they were never consulted in increasing the school’s stated capacity, surmise that the district has simply inflated the number by over 50 percent by assuming every classroom in the school is a “regular education” classroom with a capacity of 25-33 students. However at Oakman, one of the classrooms in each grade is a classroom for students with physical and other health impairments. By law, such classrooms have a capacity of just 10 students, not 25-33.

My Freedom of Information Act request for the district’s rationale for increasing the stated capacity was answered with a single line on a single page stating the school’s present enrollment.

School personnel also dispute the estimated $900,000 in needed upgrades. My Freedom of Information Act request for an itemization of the needed repairs was answered, again, with a single line on a single page stating the current annual operating costs—and no itemization of needed upgrades.

When I informed the district’s Freedom of Information Act coordinator that I had not received any of the requested information, which by law the district must provide, she told me that I was welcome to file an appeal.

For now I’m filing a different sort of appeal, publicly and directly, to incoming Emergency Manager, Jack Martin.

Mr. Martin, we need a plan for the district to win, not a plan for failure. Please revisit your predecessor’s unwarranted decision to close this commendable school.

Editorial note:

Playing nice in the hope of getting broader exposure in one of Detroit’s local dailies, I initially titled this column “NEW DPS EM SHOULD REVISIT DECISION TO CLOSE OAKMAN”. I hoped that new EM Jack Martin and others might read the story and make a better decision about Oakman than Roy Roberts had. I heard nothing from the Free Press for a week. I then submitted the column to the Detroit News, which agreed to run the story, most likely this past Monday or Tuesday. However by Thursday, the Detroit News was, like the Free Press, no longer able to find space on its opinion page.

Please help me and the families of the school in distributing this story widely and quickly. Time is running out.