The president of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), Otis Mathis, is condemned to "waging a legal battle to steer the academic future of 90,000 children, in the nation's lowest-achieving big city district," without himself having the basic English language skills that would make his job a whole lot easier. Mr.Mathis "acknowledges he has difficulty composing a coherent English sentence". Unlike many of his counterparts, Mathis has never had the possibility to address his deficits in even a moderately rigorous educational environment. He got through college by simply waiting out the system until the graduation requirement for minimal English competence was dropped. The following is an example of one of his emails to colleagues...
"If you saw Sunday's Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason's he gave for closing school to many empty seats.
In encountering people like Mr.Mathis over the years, the same thought has always occurred to me: Who would this person have been, if he had been exposed to a moderately good education in a timely manner, before the damage had been done? Yes, it's another issue that those who say they want to fix public education don't seem to have the guts to address, the fact that failing to timely educate young people does greater and greater damage to them the longer it is allowed to go on, so that at some point in their secondary education the damage is irreversible. While Mathis is somebody that his mostly Black constituency can identify with and support, "his communication issues" marginalize him, so that the humanity of his supporters is never capable of being expressed to a wider audience with the social capital necessary to achieve the changes they seek.
The fact that he beat University of Michigan Professor Tyrone Winfrey by a 10-1 margin for school board president does not carry with it the success and value it might carry elsewhere, but rather only shows just how far out of the main stream this southwest Detroit community has been allowed to fall. In having spent most of my teaching career in communities of color, I have been often chastised for trying to teach in inner city schools with the rigor demanded by parents in the more affluent communities.
A principal once said to me, "Mr. Isenberg, this is a Black school" when I asked why we weren't demanding more from our students. My failure to acknowledge this caveat has caused me to acquire the reputation of being a troublemaker in a reality where even minority administrations are committed to not encouraging students of color to do their best. Hell, it is clear to me that most of these administrators and teachers don't believe these students are even capable of better.
We used to have a saying in my automotive shop, it's a bad mechanic who blames his tools. Well, in all honesty, I probably would have shared the low esteem my fellow LAUSD educators -- Black, White, Latino, or Asian have for our present student population -- but I taught in France for 7 years, where my best students who spoke the most precise French were sub-Saharan Africans, whose strong family structure and reverence for knowledge was key to their achievement. Here, we have come to revere the idea of education, while saying, "I am somebody", but the reality of what it takes to have a truly dynamic public education system that integrates ALL members of our society is something that so far has eluded us. Maybe its my 1960s paranoia, but I just don't think this is an accident.
It seems obvious that Mr. Mathis had no mother in an SUV picking him up after school or getting him a tutor for his learning deficits in a timely manner. However, while I am in awe as to his tenacity and success, given the mediocre nature of his schooling, I don't think that he should be the head of a school district that aspires to achieve something different. The skills he needs to accomplish this task are inextricably connected to ones ability to use all aspects of the English language as a tool for change.
"Instead of telling them that they can't write and won't be anything, I show that cannot stop you," Mathis says. "If Detroit Public Schools can allow kids to dream, with whatever weakness they have, that's something. ...It's not about what you don't have. It's what you can do.
I don't know about you folks, but I am no longer willing to require students in America to "manage their limitations," especially when the limitations are consciously being inflicted on our children by a society and public education system that has known better for a long time. The comparison to "others [who] manage physical disabilities" in rationalizing why people of color in this society still no longer live up to their potential is offensive. One's insistence on using this inept example is tantamount to requiring children of color to deal with the effects of polio when a vaccination for this disease has been available for over 50 years.