DETROIT — Walking through the halls of Spain Elementary-Middle School the temperature quickly changes. A musty smell wafts through the air as a draft comes from the direction of the gym.
But there are no children playing inside. The wooden floors are warped from rain damage because roof repairs weren’t made. Basketballs lie on the floor untouched. On one side of the gym, the wood has been torn up, but that’s as far as things have gotten.
For now the children here play in the hallway; running up and down, bouncing balls. Even if the weather weren’t in the 20s, the playground wouldn’t be an option either. Clouds of steam pour into the playground and it was deemed unsafe.
Workers at the school say this cycle of neglect is having a devastating effect on the children’s future and they are fed up — with the Detroit Public Schools, the local government and the state. It is why many of the teachers staged a sickout, forcing the school to close for two days.
“We are losing generations of children because we are failing them. We are failing them because we are not able to provide everything that they need: textbooks, programming and even the facilities,” says Lakia Wilson, the school’s counselor and union representative. “And that is criminal. And those are just the basics, that’s the necessities.”
Detroit Public Schools officials say they are working on complaints, but they have to make tough choices and prioritize where to begin because of the district’s massive debt. The Legislature has to act, they say, to free up money so they can help put children first. The mayor has ordered inspections of all the schools by the end of April.
But teachers, support staff and parents say they’ll believe it when they see it.
‘Look at us, help us, somebody see us’
Wilson has worked in Spain Elementary for 19 years, first as a kindergarten teacher and then for 14 years as the counselor.
Things weren’t always as they are now, she says. She remembers when the halls bustled with 1,400 students. They went to orchestra, band, art, drama or computer class. Now there are only one-third that number.
“I love these kids, I love them. I love their families. I’ve taught them; many of their parents were my students.” Wilson says. “I’m committed to them.”
But she says they are being left behind and exposed to what she believes to be dangerous elements in the school. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has an open investigation into the conditions there.
“The community is being let down and sold out,” she says.
She tells us that after the sickout and inspections, along with media attention, improvements began to appear. Two humidifiers now run in the gym. A plastic sheet covers the entrance to the other side of the gym, where exposed ground remains.
Wilson says these complaints have been lodged for years and only now is action being taken. She likens the relationship of teachers and the school system to “an abusive relationship between employer and employee” where you stay for the kids.
“We have no hope because we don’t trust our employer, because we’ve been lied to, the broken promises, we just have no hope,” she says. “We want to hope, I think that’s why we’ve stayed so long and we have this huge outcry, saying ‘Look at us help us, somebody see us.’ ”
After Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan toured the schools this week, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Darnell Earley noted the “tenuous” financial situation and capital maintenance programs for fixing many of the issues being brought up.
“To the extent that areas of concern are called to our attention, we remediate the issue based on the resources available. In every case where an issue has been brought to our attention, we have responded in as timely a manner as possible,” Earley said.
In an email to CNN, Michelle A. Zdrodowski, the school system’s executive director of communications, echoed Earley’s comments on the system’s responsiveness and financial challenges. She noted that DPS “is essentially insolvent, and if projections carry forward as expected, the District will run out of cash in April.”
“We know [the teachers] are frustrated — I am frustrated, and so are all DPS employees,” Zdrodowski said. “Working for an organization in distress, especially the level of distress facing DPS, is not easy. DPS employees have made a tremendous amount of sacrifices to move the District forward over the last eight years, and the efforts they put forth on a daily basis are to be commended. That is a part of the broader message that Mr. Earley has been sharing with the Governor’s administration and the Michigan Legislature.”
Why do ‘they want these kids to fail?’
Wilson says more than anything she wants help to get tools for children to succeed, and she would never think of leaving because she wants to ensure things get better.
“You just don’t walk away from them. You want to help them,” she says. “I tell my students all the time I pour everything into you, so you can exceed me. That’s the whole goal of this. If I can’t raise you up then I need to leave and I hope that’s what we are doing.”
Inside the lunchroom, the children press Savelyeva Miller about using the gym.
She’s a volunteer and member of the school’s support staff, and her son is in third grade.
The children are energetic inside, frenzied, because of the lack of places to get their energy out without a gym or playground.
“The gym is destroyed, it’s messed up, it smells bad,” she tells them. But they want to go. They always ask.
“I say ‘It is in bad shape, it got wet and you can’t go around there, because of the smell, that side isn’t safe for you all.”
When? They press her.
“When someone comes out here that wants to fix it,” she says she tells them. She emphasizes: “Someone that wants to fix it for you all.”
“They ask why nobody has come to fix it,” she says. She simply tells them, “I do not know, I hope they fix it so you can go and play.”
It is even sadder for her, because she went to this school for grades five through seven. She wants this school to be as great for her son as it was for her.
“I don’t want to pull him out of this building,” Miller says. “I want to fix this school and get what they need to have in here, the tools to teach these kids and make a [place with] better breathing quality, one where they can get their work done.”
She says she is frustrated with many people, including other parents.
“They need to start going to their kids’ school at least a couple times a week, volunteering, to see what’s going on,” Miller says.
But she says she is most frustrated with officials; it’s hard to wrap her mind around their inaction. She wants them to help bring the school back to what it was. But it doesn’t feel like they want to help, she says.
“I do not understand why they want these kids to fail. Why? I don’t get it. Why?”
Zdrodowski told CNN that the teachers’ sickouts “don’t help us in pleading our case for their assistance.”
DPS “has 97 school buildings that are on average 47 years old. We work every day to ensure that our school buildings are safe, clean and in good repair,” Zdrodowski said. “When issues are brought to our attention, we investigate and take the appropriate actions to address them in as timely a manner as we can. We address the smaller issue as quickly as possible, the bigger issues like roofs … we just don’t have the resources to tackle right now.”
She said replacing Spain’s roof “would cost upwards of $5 million.”
Conditions ‘hazardous;’ fixes ‘a slap in the face’
It’s in the 20s outside, but it’s sweltering in teacher David Kade’s fourth-grade classroom. It’s better than it has been, he says, noting he’s taken pictures of his thermostat at 94 degrees.
Four fans are placed throughout the room.
“How do you expect kids to learn like that? Kids were falling asleep. They can’t learn and I can’t teach,” he says. “We’ve got windows open when its 13 degrees outside. That’s not the way to learn. Its not conditions that we should be teaching in.”
It is why he felt the need to take part in the sickout.
“People just think we’re complaining,” he says. “But it’s hazardous to the children and that’s the bottom line.”
After complaining to the district, the state and emergency management, he says teachers felt the need to “take it to the streets and educate the community.”
He’s got a litany of things students have endured: “Roaches, bedbugs; I mean, you name it, we’ve seen it. Water pouring down in the middle of the hallway from the floor above because the water fountain ran all night because it was broken.”
Kade points to a water fountain outside his classroom. For part of his tenure at Spain, he says it was a hole that mice crawled in and out of, and eventually it was covered with a board, for about four years. But a new, working water fountain showed up right after the sick-out, Kade says.
“It is a slap in the face because it’s things we’ve been saying all along that needed to be fixed,” Kade says. “They want to beat us down because we interrupted education to protest … but our protests got [inspectors and officials] here to fix these things because we put [them] on the spot.”
He says the loss of special programs for the arts, which the school was known for, hurt the school’s reputation. The problems with the facilities add to the frustration. Some parents are moving their children to charter schools.
“We were the jewel of downtown,” he says, recalling just the past five years. “Now, without the extras, more than just the basic education, why send them here? As a parent, I get it. We can’t offer the same things.”
Still, “its one of the best schools I’ve been to,” he says, speaking highly of other teachers and administrators. “Even with all the problems.”
But something has to give, he says, and it can’t be the teachers anymore.
“We can’t just keep giving and giving and giving,” he says. “We have nothing left to give.”
‘There has to be some type of repercussion’
If you looked at the log in the nurse’s office, India Brimberry says every month for the past few years would look something like this: “Nosebleed, vomiting, stomach ache. Nosebleed, vomiting, stomach ache, nosebleed, nosebleed, stomach, vomiting, headaches. Every day. Every month.”
Brimberry has been here for three years. She says the dry air in the building and the changes in temperature make students feel ill.
“Their health is definitely at risk. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see,” she says. “You can see what’s in the building. This is a hazard.”
Brimberry grows increasingly frustrated when she talks about the obstacles children in the school face.
“There has to be some type of repercussion for the system,” she says. “Yes, it’s public education, but it’s public education for a reason. Its not public education because we’re just poor, its education we can afford.”
Brimberry feels strongly that the facility problems only make worse already difficult lives for some of the children. For them, the school is a refuge. But what kind of safe place is it, she says, if building conditions mean they don’t really know how safe they are?
“They have failed these children, there’s no sugarcoating it,” she says of the school system and the government agencies. “Somebody has to say, ‘This has to stop, I’m not going to allow you to treat these human children like they are nothing and they aren’t going to be anything or turn into anything or their lives don’t matter.'”
The school system, the mayor, the district’s emergency manager and the governor have all pledged to work hard to inspect all the schools and turn things around.
Brimberry just wants the answer to one question: Why has this been allowed to happen here? To these kids, specifically, who often are already struggling.
“Why is it so hard for someone to give us an answer?” she asks.
She then adamantly declares her own answer: “Because there’s so much crap on top of that answer and nobody wants to take a fall for it.”