Catherine Ferguson students target Sheffield, Roberts in protests against closings, charters
By Diane Bukowski
DETROIT—Encouraged by extensive national coverage of their occupation of Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA) April 15, the school’s young mothers, their babies and supporters have kept up their battle to save not only that unique school, but all Detroit Public Schools.
In the last two weeks, they targeted charter school owner and bidder Rev. Horace Sheffield III in a march outside his offices at Wyoming and Grand River May 19. Drivers going by in heavy rush-hour traffic constantly blew their horns in support, laying on them when police arrived, until the cops retreated into a parking lot across the street.
Previously, they took Woodward Avenue May 10, closing it off to northbound traffic, as they marched miles from CFA at Selden and 16th to the Fisher Building to protest the pending installation of new Emergency Manager Roy Roberts. That march too was accompanied by loud horn-blowing.
“Whose schools? Our schools! Whose streets? Our streets!” they cried out. Young mothers wheeled their babies in their carriages, others had their children help make signs, and one taught her son how to read a sign during the rally outside the Fisher Building.
“I’m here because my school is very important to Detroit,” Dalana Gray, accompanied by her little daughter Danyla Gray, said May 19. “Not only do we care about our school, but we care about all of DPS.”
CFA student Breanna Thomas said of the drivers honking their horns, “I think they should join us to support us. With the little people we do have, we have been able to stop the closing of three schools so far, and we are going to do an occupation again if they don’t back off CFA!”
“Hell, no, DABO has got to go!” marchers outside Sheffield’s Detroit Association of Black Organizations office chanted. Sheffield drove by the picket, rounded the corner and kept going, but police showed up not long afterwards. One of the officers said they had received a call to come to the scene, although protesters were picketing on the sidewalk in compliance with city regulations.
Sheffield’s DABO has joined 17 other bidders who are seeking to charterize schools that DPS Czar Robert Bobb put on a list of 45 slated for closing this June. DABO already operates the Detroit Cares Alternative School, formerly the Last Chance Academy, out of the former location of the city’s fabled Courtis Elementary School, at 8100 W. Davison. Previously, according to state records, Sheffield also operated a charter school known as “Galilee.”
Galilee is listed with a 0 score on the 2008 Michigan School Report Card list, while no records of the scholastic progress achieved at the Last Chance Academy or Detroit Cares are currently on the list.
In an interview on MSNBC about Detroit Cares, Sheffield said, “”I don’t think college preparation is the cornerstone of Detroit Public Schools anymore. The vast majority of these kids are looking for a high school diploma and to get jobs.”
The story went on to interview numerous students, including some from Detroit Cares, who said they cannot find jobs anywhere regardless.
Sheffield also runs a church, “New Destiny Baptist Church,” out of the Davison location. He was formerly the pastor at New Galilee Baptist Missionary Church on Detroit’s east side, but state documents show the president is now Karen Gray Sheffield. Detroit ministers have taken over many of over 80 DPS school buildings that have closed since 2004, as well as recreation centers and other city-owned facilities.
“The community fought for two years to keep Courtis Elementary School open,” said Sandra Hines of the Coalition to Restore Hope to DPS. Hines was active at school board meetings in the battle against closures in 2008 and 2009, especially that of Courtis. She was removed by DPS police from one meeting as she decried the closings. She also garnered 40 percent of the vote in a run for the school board in 2008.
“Courtis made AYP (average yearly progress) until Robert Bobb took over,” Hines explained. “He did not fill vacancies for math and science teachers for the seventh and eighth grades, so class sizes increased to over 40 students,” Hines explained. “It was rumored that Sheffield had been trying to buy the school while it was still open, and now he owns the building. He is the reason Courtis closed.”
A Courtis parent commented on a school review website, “My child had some teachers that really cared about her education. Mr Weir is a sweetheart, Mrs Blankenship was simply wonderful, Mr Smith was a great math teacher, and Ms Blazo is an excellent counselor. This school has some good teachers as well as some not so good. I wish I could take all of the good … Read more teachers from this school and combine them with my children’s previous good school teachers and just make one big great school. Its important to have good teachers that really care about the children’s well being.”
To add insult to injury, Sheffield held a “DABO House of Delegates” meeting there May 7, during which community leaders addressed the audience in opposition to PA 4, the Emergency Manager legislation which gives people like Bobb and Roberts dictatorial control over school districts and municipalities. The previous emergency financial manager act allowed Sheffield to take over Courtis.
A review of DABO’s 2009 non-profit tax filing (click on DABO 990 2009 for full copy) shows it had $1.2 million in revenue, and $1.184 million in expenses. Of its revenue, $690,646 was for its “alternative academy” (public tax revenue from the school aid fund). Sheffield was paid $80,400 in salary, but took out a $175,145 loan from the agency.
Sheffield was called at three numbers, including his cell phone, but was not available for comment on this story.
During the protest at DABO, Christine Abood, a teacher at Carleton Elementary, said it was one of the three schools taken off the list for closure or charter auction. She said she has been a teacher for 38 years, and all she wants is smaller class size.
“I’m against all school closings,” she said. “They tear up neighborhoods, causing private companies who want to invest in Detroit not to do so. They need stable neighborhoods. So-called ‘declining enrollment’ in DPS schools actually makes us equal to the suburbs. We get smaller class sizes of 26 or 27 instead of the 40 and more that we used to have. You cannot run a school system the same way you run a business; an industry mindset is different than an education professional’s mindset.”
Abood denounced charter schools.
“Most of them are for profit, and the only way they can profit is by cutting back on the quality of the teachers, many of whom are not even certified, and charging students for things like extracurricular activities. Our students are not for sale on the marketplace!”
CFA student Catherine Buckens, there with her 2-year-old son Da’Mire Zimmons, vowed, “Turning Catherine Ferguson into a charter school is not going to work or happen. Our students are having an impact, and they know we’re serious.”
Monica Smith, leader of the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) coalition, which has supported the CFA students, called on hundreds more to come out to keep CFA and other Detroit public schools from closing or being put on the charter auction block.
For more information, call 313-585-3637 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow BAMN on YouTube and MySpace as well, and go to their website at www.bamn.com. To read about occupation of Catherine Ferguson Academy and see video, click on story “Young Mother Describes Occupation of Catherine Ferguson Academy” at http://voiceofdetroit.net/?p=6582.
SIGN PETITION TO SAVE CATHERINE FERGUSON ACADEMY AT: http://www.grownindetroitmovie.com/school.php