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"New" DPS has some cool new programs. But can they last?

Sep 16, 2016

This year marks a fresh start for the newly restructured Detroit Public Schools.

The district is unrolling some new, experimental programs for students. They’re meant to entice parents who might otherwise take their kids elsewhere.

After years of upheaval in Detroit schools, success isn’t guaranteed. But at least one school has high hopes they will.

Montessori: Learning together

Anastasia Katopodis has taught young kids in Detroit for 20 years.

She exudes the warmth and patience of someone who genuinely loves it, even when those kids interrupt her.

“Do you remember how, when you want to talk to the teacher, do you remember what we do?” Katapodis gently asked a little boy trying to get her attention. “That’s right! Exactly. Then you gotta keep your hand there, until I say ok, right? That’s right, sweetheart. Keep it right there.”

In this classroom at Maybury Elementary School in southwest Detroit, that’s more than just a reminder.

This is a Montessori classroom. There’s a big focus on practical life skills — like learning how to get someone’s attention in a courteous way.

The learning process is kid-driven. They spend lots of time working on the floor, alone or in groups, with materials they choose.

But there’s structure in that freedom. And finding that balance takes time, especially with four and five-year-olds.

“It’s a process,” Katopodis said.

“It takes them a long time to get a rug, put it out, select their work, and then sit down and work on it. And then when they’re done, put it back where they found it, roll up their rug, and put it away.”

And they’re learning together. Katopodis is fresh off four solid weeks of Montessori training herself. And that’s just the start of a three-year process.

Montessori education emphasizes independence and self-direction. Kids spend much of their time like this, working with materials they choose.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

That’s because the Montessori program here at Maybury, and two other Detroit public schools, just started up this school year.

It’s one of about a dozen programs and initiatives the district is rolling out as it tries to lay the groundwork for a new future.

New ideas for a “new” district

Kathleen Keenmon, Maybury’s principal, says it all started when the district’s interim superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, put out a call for ideas.

“And she wanted to hear not only from the teachers, but from the community: What are some innovative ideas that we can try?” Keenmon said. “And one of them was Montessori.”

That was back in the spring. Then, it wasn’t even clear if the district would be around in the fall to implement these programs.

After seven years of state-appointed emergency managers, DPS was going broke.

In the end, Lansing finally stepped in with a bankruptcy-style restructuring. That technically created a whole new school district, called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

But would parents take a chance on brand-new programs in a tenuous new district that had just escaped the trauma of near collapse?

For now, the answer seems is yes. In the case of Montessori, Keenmon says the demand has been “overwhelming.”

As we talked, the assistant principal poked her head in — another parent looking for a spot in the program. Keenmon told her there’s a wait list.

That’s true across the district, with 150 spots in seven Montessori classrooms quickly filling up.

But launching this kind of program takes time, preparation — and of course, money.

“The initial investment is the biggest thing,” Keenmon said. “It’s purchasing all the supplies. And then you have to invest in the teacher training. And that has to be ongoing.”

Keenmon thinks it’s already paying off, though. The Montessori program is serving some longtime Maybury families, but it’s also drawing new students from far beyond the school’s traditional boundaries.

Like Gabriel Seabrooks. He enrolled his four-year-old son in Montessori at Maybury, even though it’s a long drive from the family’s home on Detroit’s east side.

“I would drive him further. It’s worth it,” Seabrooks said.

Many parents in Detroit make those kinds of drives every morning. In the past, it’s usually been to escape DPS schools for charters.

Now, the district is hoping to reverse that trend by offering programs parents can’t find anywhere else in the city.

It worked for Seabrooks, whose son attended another Montessori Pre-K program last year.

“I like the way they’re developing their mind and everything,” Seabrooks said. “He actually knows a little Swahili, Spanish, he knows all his ABC’s, colors, shapes. He knows some of everything.”

But it cost hundreds of dollars a month. Now, Seabrooks’ son is getting the same education for free.

Can it last?

District leaders say enrollment in the new programs has been strong across the board.

But they need resources. And while Lansing largely erased the old Detroit schools’ debt burden, it wasn’t very generous with money for needed investments.

For now, the programs are living on faith — and dedication. Teacher Anastasia Katopodis says there’s nothing she won’t do to see Montessori succeed.

“Go back for more training, do the readings. I get here early, you know, I stay late, because I want it to work,” she said. “I really want it to work.”

And with that, Katopodis is back in action, learning new ways to learn right alongside her kids.