Detroit's Tough Times Spur Effort to Help Schools

Detroit's skyline
Detroit's skyline
Connect for Kids (now SparkAction)
<p>Cecilia Garcia</p>
January 30, 2006
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Detroit's skyline

It's hard to overstate the extent of Detroit's budget problems. Once the nation's fifth largest city, Detroit continues to lose residents year after year, and now ranks 10th with about 900,000 residents. Known for decades as the Motor City, the city's economic fortunes remain closely tied to the domestic auto industry. With all three major auto companies announcing large layoffs in late 2005 and early 2006, Detroit is braced for more pain.

With a budget deficit reported to be nearly $300 million, city officials have been making tough decisions. For kids, that means making do with less. The city closed nine of its 30 neighborhood recreation centers in January, 2006, and of those still operating, only seven are open on the weekend.

Even more fundamental are the cuts in education. The city's public school system, with just over 130,000 students, has closed 30 of its 243 schools, and more closings are expected. Even so, the system has had to borrow more than $500 million in short- and long-term loans to make ends meet. The city expects to lose $73 million in state education funding because of declining enrollment.

Optimism Required

How does a nonprofit dedicated to improving schools and strengthening neighborhoods operate in such tough times? Charlie Anderson is executive director of Communities in Schools of Detroit. A native Detroiter, Charlie came to CIS with twenty-four years of experience as a Detroit high school teacher and counselor as well as ten years of community-based youth/community development.

He's also an optimist who believes things will get better. Until then, "...It's a waiting game. You know it's going to get better, but when you're on that downward cycle, it's hard." Anderson said. "You're waiting for that catalyst to turn things on an upward swing."

The Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing parental leadership and involvement in the public school system, reported in its September-October 2005 newsletter that Detroit students scored lower than students in other state school systems in the 2004 Michigan Educational Assessment Program scores by nearly 20 points in reading and 25 in math. Using a number of state statistical resources, DPN reported that of the 14,617 9th graders in Detroit public schools in 1999, only 4,873 made it to their senior year.

All the more reason for Anderson and organizations like CIS to keep stepping up and working with teachers, parents and kids to make their schools better.

Daring to Dream

"CIS Detroit's mission is to make dreams come true," says Anderson. The 10-year old nonprofit organization describes itself more as a process of leveraging and brokering services for schools than a program. "CIS Detroit is affiliated with the CIS National Network, but we're unique in what we offer and how we operate, because each city is unique. And each school we serve has different needs."

Nationally, Communities in Schools began more than 28 years ago in New York, as street academies for young people who had dropped out of school. Over time the organization began to work directly with schools to keep kids in the classroom. CIS programs quickly spread from New York to Atlanta and Indianapolis. There are now 188 CIS affiliates operating in 28 states.


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CIS-Detroit After School Activities

All CIS affiliates are guided by five basic principles that assert a child's need for a good relationship with a caring adult; a safe place to learn and grow; a marketable skill for employment as an adult; a healthy start and a healthy future; and a chance to give back to the community. While CIS National provides some resources and training, the local CIS affiliates work hard to foster local ownership and funding for their community-building efforts and programs.

Among the services CIS Detroit offers is the Academic Incentives Resource Center, which matches a school's need with the resources to address it. Anderson explains CIS Detroit's approach: "We find out what kids and teachers need and we get it for them. For example, Harms School on Central Avenue in Detroit had a playground, but no equipment. We were able to secure $40,000 in donations, but leveraged it with donated labor into a fully-equipped playscape that would have cost $100,000. Our approach is to engage everyone in the process—kids, teachers, parents, the business community. And because of that, we're able to find resources."

CIS Detroit's Comprehensive School Services works with parents, teachers and administrators in individual schools to create a school-specific plan to address an identified need. For example, one school identified lack of parental involvement as an issue. CIS Detroit helped that school community think through ways to attract more parents to participate in the monthly meetings of its local school community organization. Other schools have made the case for health screenings and dental services for their students, and CIS Detroit helped to obtain them.

Building relationships up over the past decade, CIS has created a network of community organizations and businesses that it works with that now numbers more than 850. This extensive network is key to how CIS Detroit operates. The nine-member CIS staff manages a $15 million annual budget that includes some $7 million in donated goods and services. The students at 60 Detroit schools are the prime beneficiaries.

Partnerships in Tough Times

Like most nonprofits across the country, CIS Detroit got hit by what Anderson calls "the proverbial perfect storm—first 9/11, then the tsunami, and the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast," Anderson said. "These diverted funds from local charities. So it's not just the city of Detroit that's hurting—nonprofits are in tough straits also. The war in Iraq is draining federal funds that cities like Detroit desperately need."

"I worry about the children," said Anderson. "Jobs are disappearing in Detroit; recreation centers are closing; school are closing. Where do kids go? What do they do? CIS works with public schools to provide after school programs, but if the schools shut their doors, the kids lose out on the program. We're serving only a fraction of the kids we served just a year or so ago."

Detroit's 2004 population of 900,198 included 280,133 children under the age of 18. By contrast, Detroit's population in 1990 was 1,027,974, of which 302,315 were children.

The auto industry's woes have also had an impact on CIS Detroit's after school program. "We've had a longstanding partnership with the United Auto Workers union," says Anderson. "The UAW had been investing in after school programs, but with its own membership shrinking because the auto industry is in trouble, it's also had to cut back on its support."

In spite of setbacks like this, Anderson sees the impact of solid partnerships. "There are a lot of good things going on here in Detroit. For example, we are partnering with the National Football League to have NFL players visit Detroit area schools while they're in town [for the Superbowl]."

And CIS Detroit is one of several organizations that will benefit from the proceeds of a Superbowl shindig called Motor City Touchdown. "This is one of the few Superbowl parties with a reasonable ticket price of $100," says Anderson. "I told a local columnist that the most people would sit home and read about the $1,000-per-ticket Superbowl parties, without an opportunity to participate. This puts the fun and excitement of the Superbowl within reach and helps local nonprofits continue to serve Detroit residents."

Long-term, the Detroit Lions joined with CIS Detroit, Costco Wholesale, City Year and the Detroit Public Schools to establish the Detroit Lions Academy. This alternative middle school works with students who have experienced problems in traditional academic settings and has attracted strong corporate support from companies like Ford Motor, Dow Chemical, and Pepsi.. CIS National has worked on similar alternative schools in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Indianapolis and Phoenix.

Sharing the Resources

Anderson worries about the growing demands on nonprofit organizations in places like Detroit, where they are being asked to provide services that the city can no longer afford. "Nonprofits are being asked to do so much. We can't be expected to do more and more, with less and less," Anderson said. His organization is working to address this need as well.

"CIS Detroit is housed at the Center for Community Cooperation," he said. "and we're working to make it a resource for smaller nonprofits. We want this to be a place where every organization, regardless of budget size, can get the resources they need. We'll offer public relation services, and a place to make low-cost copies. We're already making our gymnasium, auditorium and conference rooms available at little or no cost to nonprofits"

This spirit of sharing is making CIS Detroit a partner of choice for those businesses and organizations that want to make Detroit a better place for kids.

Cecilia Garcia is the former executive director of Connect for Kids, and a Detroit native.

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We have a problem in Detroit Public School, their system had cash flow problem for years now. And honestly it getting worst in terms in progression with more children leaving to charter their schools almost every year. The state decided to give the Detroit school districts cash advance of $70 million so they would meet the schools expenses, as well as payment for teachers. Robert Bobb, the newly appointed emergency financial manager, requested the funds early in order for him to get the house in order before he had to start panicking. President Obama has been giving out large sums of money for troubled school districts, perhaps that’s where a generous portion of the aid came from. Getting Detroit Public Schools in working order is a worthy cause.

March 17 at 01:07am

Undoubtedly, that’s great program. Most companies in Detroit are becoming unprofitable, which results to layoffs, and even children are affected. Thus, that kind of program could be helpful to the resident of Detroit. However, some legislators in Michigan want to crack down on the practice, and institute better terms for refund anticipation loans by making lending more transparent. It is obvious they just want citizens to be protected from going down harder than the Detroit Lions' record this year.

February 7 at 12:12am

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