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At protests, Detroit teachers talk of 52 kids per classrooms, rats in schools, lack of books

Kate Wells

Angelita Davis says she’s got 52 kids in her eighth-grade classroom at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

“How do you walk into a classroom with 52 kids? They’re packed in there like sardines," she says, shaking her head as she marches on a downtown Detroit sidewalk Wednesday with dozens of other protesters.  

"We can't do it anymore. We just can't."

Recently, the math teacher at Davis’ school had to move her class to the library. But not because of overcrowding. Because of rats in the classroom. "They ran the kids right out of the room," says one teacher. 

“It’s been like this for years, and nobody won’t listen,” says Davis, standing next to several other Palmer Park Prep employees, including the school social worker.“We’ve been begging and begging. Somebody please help! The kids need to learn!”  

The conditions at DPS aren’t new, teachers say. But with the sickouts gaining momentum and closing 88 DPS schools Wednesday, the feeling among protestors is that finally, enough is enough.

Credit Kate Wells

“It’s gotten so bad, we can’t be successful,” says Davis. “I don’t have hope. That’s why I’m out here, because I don’t have hope. But I know God can do it. I’m hoping that [President Obama] will see us [when he visits Detroit Wednesday.] If we don’t take a stand for our kids, who will?”

Crystal Oliver brought her two grandchildren to the protests. They both go to DPS schools, but Oliver says, they’re not getting the kind of education she got when she was a Detroit student. 

“I’m seeing a shortage of teachers, I’m seeing a lack of care. They even took away the security guards, so they don’t even have security now in the schools. Just simple things like mats, so they can wipe their feet when they come in from the snow,” she says.

Many protesters says they blame the state for mismanaging DPS.

“I think when the Flint situation broke, it gave the [Detroit] teachers momentum, because it put the microscope on Governor Snyder,” says Oliver. “Because he is responsible for the situation here, and he is responsible for the situation in Flint.”

For teachers, having support from parents and students’ families make a difference – especially when they stand behind teachers' sickouts, even when it means families like Oliver's have to scramble to figure out child care on days when schools are closed. "It's a sacrifice, but it's worth it," Oliver says.  

“I think Snyder really thought the parents were not going to be on our side … and we’re just so happy that the parents are behind us,” says Terry Lawrence, who says she currently teaches at the Detroit School of the Arts.

Over her years teaching at several DPS schools, she says she’s seen the shortages at DPS up close.

Credit Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

“There are not enough books. I’ve bought snacks for kids that have been eaten by mice. I’ve had mice feces on my desk. I’ve had kids come back from the restroom and tell me that the ceiling tiles are falling down, not at DSA, but during my time at DPS," she says.

Like other teachers and parents protesting, Lawrence says the sickouts aren't just about teachers. It's about a school system that's consistently failing Detroit's kids. "We go out of our way to buy books, soap, I buy socks, clothes [for students,]"  she says. "It’s just what we do. It’s for real. People are finally just tired.”

Reporter's note: We called Palmer Park Prep Academy Wednesday morning, asking for comment on teachers' statements on having 52 kids in their classrooms. The middle school office referred us to DPS communications. In an email sent Wednesday at noon, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said she was checking on this. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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