Three days had passed before I saw a police officer in Detroit. I’d covered miles of the city, by foot and by car. Twice I was advised not to bother calling the police in an emergency; they wouldn’t come. I only ever found them in one place: armed officers from the city’s police department and from Detroit Public Schools’ own security force were manning a gray metal detector at the door to Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, on East Lafayette Street. They were in position for a public meeting that night, in May, asking that everyone empty their pockets and bags. A line had formed: on the agenda was the presentation of a new financial plan for the city’s fraught public-school system, put forth by Steven Rhodes, a retired judge who had presided over Detroit’s bankruptcy and now serves as the fifth state-appointed emergency manager the district has seen in seven years.
Burton International Academy. All photographs with drawings from Detroit by Mischelle Moy
When Rhodes came to office, this past March, the Detroit public-school system was contending with an operating debt of more than $500 million, and the Citizens Research Council of Michigan had estimated that the total debt topped $3.5 billion. For years, money intended for students has instead been paying off old loans, and academic achievement has consistently ranked among the worst in American cities. At many school buildings, much-needed repairs to walls and leaky roofs have gone unaddressed; in the worst cases, mice could be seen scampering across unheated classrooms. For thirteen of the past seventeen years, the state has controlled the city’s school district, and with the more recent addition of all-powerful emergency managers, Detroiters have had to pin their frustrations and hopes on a rotating cast of emissaries. At the meeting, Rhodes — who has adopted the title “transition manager” — would present his recommendations to the community.
In King’s atrium, district officials had set up a table piled with thick, stapled copies of the new forty-five-day financial and operating plan. Dozens of people streamed in — parents, pastors, and youth organizers, many of them public-school alumni. They picked up copies and greeted one another in the hallway. Some looked anxious, others moved like boxers gearing up for a rematch. Alongside them were teachers and school counselors who had left classrooms, coaching, and after-school club duties to be at the meeting. Several King students were there, too, chatting about the banalities of high-school life. As everyone entered the auditorium, they passed representatives of King’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, who were dressed in uniform.
First, some good news: Deborah Jenkins, King’s principal, gave a careful speech touting the school’s recent accomplishments. Last year, she said, her thin eyebrows raised, King was an exception to the district’s overall poor performance: one hundred percent of the graduating class had committed to college or the military, and the marching band had been invited to perform at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Greeting applause, Jenkins smiled. Then she shifted course. “Any individual not modeling the way for our [Letter from Detroit] | Held Back, by Alexandria Neason | Harper's Magazine: