The Detroit Public Schools have a new interim superintendent appointed by state emergency manager Judge Stephen Rhodes.
Alycia Meriweather is now in charge of academics for DPS. Unlike a lot of previous top administrators, she’s actually from Detroit and a DPS graduate. She’s also a long-time Detroit teacher.
DPS has been closing schools, ending programs, losing students and losing money, a downward trend that has continued under the string of state-appointed emergency managers.
For teachers in Detroit, Meriweather says it’s been an exercise in creativity.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention, right? So, as a science teacher in a situation where there were many challenges, you get creative, you become a problem solver at the most basic level, and to be honest you look at the children in front of you and say, ‘They deserve better,’ and you figure to how to make it happen,” she says.
Most recently Meriweather was the DPS executive director of curriculum, but she tells us being higher on the administrative ladder has only accentuated the need to draw on her roots in the classroom.
“With every different experience you have, your view is expanded," she says, "and that’s been extremely helpful to me. The other part that’s been extremely helpful to me is that I’ve stayed connected with the classroom.”
She explains that one of her biggest concerns about taking a higher administrative position has been maintaining that connection with the students and teachers so that she can really understand what’s going on in the classroom.
“I think my experience as a classroom teacher definitely drives the way that I look at school and teaching and learning, and having been an actual teacher makes a difference,” she says. “I think having both the classroom experience and the system perspective is extremely helpful in this new role.”
She says from the time she returned to DPS as a teacher, her goal has always been to provide students and their families with experiences and opportunities that they are the best they could have received.
Meriweather says it will take a lot of work to get there, and that while debt relief is a big step forward, it’s only part of the equation.
Running the school district at a profit is an accomplishment, she says, “but it is not success unless our students are proficient and also have what I would call an equitable education.”
Taking in the entirety of its per-pupil allocation without losing anything to debt would be a boon for the district, Meriweather says, but “just throwing money at situations” isn’t the ultimate solution either.
“I really want to be clear. There has to be a coordinated, focused plan, and I believe we have the dedicated teachers and administrators to be able to implement that plan if they are given the opportunity to have the resources that they need.”
“The creativity of our teachers, the dedication of our teachers to both the academic and what I call the wraparound, or the social, is really remarkable. I mean, if you go to any school and you talk to teachers about their students, and when you hear a teacher say, ‘my kids,’ and, ‘this is what we’ve done,’ and then they go on to talk about some of the struggles that their children have, such as, you know, we’ve got kids whose teacher has literally paid the light bill for the household. They’ve bought their students clothes, they’ve washed clothes for students. Going above and beyond to make sure their students have what they need to be in the classroom.”
But those teachers aren’t going to be able to do that if they stop getting paychecks, and the emergency manager has told the Michigan legislature that DPS will run out of money by the end of the month.
Meriweather expects the legislature will “do the right thing on behalf of the children in Detroit.”
“I just cannot foresee the legislature not approving money so that students can continue to go to school,” she says. “I mean, to consider the possibility of 46,000-plus students not having access to school for the remaining 13 weeks … is just unimaginable, and I have to believe that the legislators agree with that sentiment.”
“This debt and this issue are not the children’s fault. We can argue about a lot of different things and how we got here, but … it is not the kids’ fault. And they’re the ones who would suffer the most from a drastic decision like this.”