Educational exploration: CEHHS professor starts group to help Detroit parents research schools

March 23, 2015
Dara Hill

When Dara Hill was a young child, her parents looked around Detroit to find the right school for her.

They wanted an educational environment that celebrated diversity, culture and creative learning.

The Reading and Language Arts associate professor said her parents found the perfect place for her. Hill attended Burton International School, when it was located at Cass and Peterborough.

“My experiences there made me want to be a teacher. Economic, racial and cultural diversity were all nestled in that one school,” she said. “There were kids of attorneys and kids who lived in the projects. We all felt like we belonged.”

And Hill she wants a similar enriching experience for her daughter, Norah, 5.

To find the right school—and to help other Detroit parents do the same—Hill and a group of core parents started the Best Classroom Project, a social media group of more than 300 members.

Best Classroom Project members have visited and reported on a number of Detroit’s public, private and charter schools. It’s made up of Detroit residents with children looking to enter school, like Hill, or families who are relocating to the Motor City.

The group meets every month to organize daytime school visits and share information. They average one school visit every two weeks, Hill said. The Facebook group is open for any family considering  public, private or charter schools in Detroit to join.

She said what they are doing is similar to what her parents did when looking for a school in the 1970s; they’re just doing their research. But, since the Detroit schools landscape looks so different today, they have a more formulated approach.

Hill said the Detroit Schools have had hardships since she attended DPS.

Almost 15 years ago, the school system had 200,000 students. Now there are less than 50,000. Neighborhood schools have had to close. In the past five years, DPS has shut down 80 schools.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still great options.

“There are many choices to look through—public, private and charter. We are getting our foot in the door of these schools. That’s the only way to see what they are really like and if they are a good fit for our kids. And, contrary to what you see in the media, we’ve seen that there are good schools in Detroit,” she said. “I have made it my research agenda to look at all of the schools, even those that haven’t generated as much interest. I will at least go in and visit and report out to the group.”

Hill, who has classroom experience at both the elementary school and middle school level, helped create a detailed checklist for parents to take on school visits.

Some questions include: What does the library look like? Do the children have artwork on the walls? Are teachers given flexibility to run their classrooms and use different instruction methods? Is the school diverse? How do administrators and teachers interact to build the school community and reach out to parents and the broader community?

“We don’t want parents to go in blindly. Through the Best Classroom Checklist, we want to give them ideas on what to look for,” she said.

Hill said parents in the Best Classroom Project are looking to find the best school to fit their child’s needs.

“One school is not going to work for everybody, but I do think that it’s possible for everybody to find their place in our city,” she said.

With only one more academic year before Hill enrolls Norah in an elementary school —she currently attends UM-Dearborn’s Early Childhood Education Center and will stay there for kindergarten—there is another important step for the Hills to take: Norah will visit the classrooms too.

“The Best Classroom Project has helped us narrow down our choices. Next year, we’ll have Norah experience the schools and see how she feels,” Hill said. “After all, this is about finding the best place for your child to thrive.”

Even after a school is chosen for Norah, Hill said she wants to stay involved in the overall Detroit schools landscape, and pass the information along to the next group of families.

“The Best Classroom Project is an investment in the community and in our children. I’ve seen how it has made a difference to parents, in our neighborhood and in our schools,” she said. “As Detroit residents, we need to continue looking for ways to improve things for this next generation.”

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