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More than 50 percent of teachers at Detroit's public schools called in sick Monday. (Photo: WFIU Public Radio/flickr/cc)

Detroit Teachers Hold Sick-Out to Demand Fixes to School's "Abominable" Problems

Nearly 60 public schools shut as teachers call on governor, emergency manager to follow through on promises

Nadia Prupis

Detroit teachers on Monday organized a "sick-out" to call attention to the school district's "abominable" problems, including filthy buildings and overwhelmingly large class sizes, and called on officials to follow through on long-held promises to salvage the city's educational system.

"Detroit kids matter!" teachers chanted at a rally Monday afternoon at the A.L. Holmes Elementary School, which they say is infested with mice and beset by structural problems, such as wet ceilings and broken entry steps.

One educator taking part in the rally, Theresa Williams of Burton International Academy, held up a sign that read, "I have 39 first-graders in my classroom."

According to the Detroit Free Press, nearly 60 public schools were closed Monday, with more than 50 percent of the teachers at those schools calling in sick over the "deplorable environmental and learning conditions that Emergency Manager Darnell Earley has long ignored." The Press ran a list of the schools closed by the action.

Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), said Monday, "The deplorable conditions in our schools have created a serious environmental and educational crisis that is being ignored."

"The children of Detroit, Flint or any other community should not be exposed to atrocious, environmental hazards," Bailey said.

Among the teachers' demands are improved working and learning conditions, decreasing classroom sizes, increasing teachers' benefits and salaries, and restoring local control to the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system, which was revoked in 2009.

Hours after the rally, state superintendent Brian Whiston, the top school official, called on Earley to respond to the teachers' demands and address their health and safety concerns, including rodent infestations, crumbling walls, broken equipment, and no heat, accompanied by staff and supply shortages—conditions which Bailey said have only worsened since the economically devastated city was placed under emergency management.

"I care deeply about the safety and well-being of teachers in Detroit, just as I do the students," Whiston said. "They all still need to be in the classrooms teaching and learning, though. If buildings have health and safety issues, they need to be addressed immediately with the district administration and all appropriate agencies."

At the rally, Kimberly Jackson, a seventh-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, told supporters, "No other district ... would allow their children to be inside a school building under those conditions. Many of our (classes) are way oversized—some with as many as 50 children inside one classroom. It’s time out for that. It’s time out for biz as usual, it’s time out for working in deplorable schools."

"We are set up for failure," Jackson said. "Our goal is not to shut the schools down. Our goal is to have a quality education for our children. ... We’ve been trying to make do with what we have. Our children deserve better."

Jaime Diaz-Herrara, whose child is a student at Western International High School, said Monday, "I wouldn’t consider a classroom of 45 kids conducive to teaching and learning. I wouldn’t say that a classroom with black mold creeping up the walls is conductive to teaching and learning. I wouldn’t say that roaches and rats scampering through hallways are conducive to teaching and learning. It’s disgusting, unsafe, unhealthy and not the way we should be educating our kids in Detroit or anywhere else."

The sick-out follows a meeting by a group called Detroit Strikes to Win, which gathered Sunday night to discuss the action and a possible district-wide strike.

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