Ex-politician finds success in Michigan education arena
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BY JACK LESSENBERRY
DEC 2, 2011 12:00 AM
DETROIT -- If the lawmakers who are debating charter school reform in Michigan want to do it right, they might spend some time picking the brain of Doug Ross.
Possibly the best thing that has happened to the battered and reeling Detroit Public Schools in recent years was the fact that Mr. Ross, a liberal Democrat, got beaten -- badly -- when he tried to run for governor of Michigan.
Thirteen years ago, Mr. Ross, a former state senator and state Commerce director, sought the Democratic nomination for governor. Party regulars threw their support to a particularly uninspiring candidate, Larry Owen.
Flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fieger got into the race, spent millions of his own dollars, and pulled off an upset primary victory. Mr. Ross was left with those who cared about policy and who, a generation earlier, had been fervent supporters of Adlai Stevenson.
The year after his defeat, Mr. Ross turned his attention to education. Even then, it was clear that Detroit Public Schools was failing to do its job of educating kids.
So he founded a nonprofit institution called New Urban Learning, which began a charter school named University Preparatory School, aimed at African-American students in Detroit.
"We had a philosophy of changing the culture," Mr. Ross told me last week. "Changing the culture and changing expectations, where we say to these kids -- I say, 'We will not let you fail.'"
That approach was scoffed at by some critics. How were poor African-American kids from Detroit going to relate to a white guy from affluent Birmingham with a graduate degree from Princeton?
The answer: pretty darn well. University Prep turned out winners. Today, there are seven New Urban Learning charters in Detroit. They take all comers, not just the elite. Last year, Mr. Ross said University Prep students had a 95 percent graduation rate.
What percentage of graduates go on to higher education?
"One hundred percent," he said. "All of them. We don't let them graduate until they have at least two offers of postsecondary possibilities."
For more than half, this means traditional, four-year colleges or universities. For the rest, either community colleges or higher-end vocational education.
Mr. Ross, like Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, knows there is no shame in being a highly skilled -- and highly employable -- welder or plumber.
Michigan public schools traditionally hate charters because they drain state resources -- primarily, the state per-pupil foundation grant -- from them. But Roy Roberts, the new emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, may have remembered that old Remington commercial, in which Victor Kiam proclaimed he was so impressed by its razors that "I bought the company."
Three months ago, Detroit Public Schools bought Mr. Ross, in a sense. He was hired to be chief innovation officer for the troubled district, and to be in charge of the 14 charter schools run by the school system.
Mr. Ross continues, at least for now, to wear a third hat: He remains active in New Urban Learning.
Mr. Ross knows that if Detroit Public Schools are to survive, they have to be fixed in a hurry. Eight years ago, the school system had more than 150,000 students. Now, enrollment is down to 66,000. Mr. Ross said: "The decline is accelerating."
The chief innovation officer is making recommendations to Mr. Roberts. The emergency manager's main job is to get the schools' mushrooming deficit under control.
Mr. Ross thinks he knows a big part of the educational solution. He doesn't think every school can be saved. But he wants to give those schools that can be preserved wide autonomy to come up with their own formulas for success.
"Over the past 30 years, not a single large urban district in America has had any meaningful success using a centralized approach," he said. Detroit Public Schools has been notorious for hidebound, inefficient bureaucracy that could rival that of the old Soviet Union, and was about as successful.
What's needed, he said, are schools that use innovative approaches to create student success. That happens, he added, when you instill in all students the drive to make something of themselves.
He noted that most kids from affluent suburbs such as his own Birmingham have that drive, constantly reinforced by their parents. Maybe only a third of urban kids do, he said.
But Mr. Ross said his University Prep Schools have helped awaken that drive by creating a culture of high expectations. To what extent he can make his ideals reality in Detroit is yet to be seen.
The Michigan Legislature seems determined to allow virtually unlimited charter schools. It's not clear what impact that will have.
Mr. Ross turned 69 this year, and knows he is no longer likely to achieve higher elected office. But he said: "I would like to be able to say that my most meaningful work is yet to happen."
Anyone who cares about the future has to hope he is right.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: email@example.com