Dania Bazzi’s family story is a reminder that the narrative of the American dream, however problematic, isn’t without roots in reality. In the late 1970s, Bazzi’s parents immigrated from Senegal to metro Detroit, where Mary and Al started a convenience store business in Wayne, a working class community in the inner ring of western suburbs. It wasn’t an easy life, though it was unquestionably a good one. Her parents worked a permanent schedule of 12-hour days with no days off, and Bazzi says at least one of them was at the store until they both retired. But it was never boring, nor were they ever lonely. “My parents’ store was almost like a neighborhood meeting place,” Bazzi says. “People would come and talk about their problems or have a cup of coffee. They saw my mother and father as confidants and friends, and that won them a lot of loyalty in a community where running a business wasn’t always easy.” That social currency no doubt served her father well when he later decided to go into local politics, first as a Wayne City Council member and later as the city’s mayor and Wayne County Commissioner. Bazzi and her siblings enlisted as his campaign door knockers to support their dad’s dreams, the way he’d done for them.
Bazzi says Mary and Al were always clear about the reason for moving to the U.S. Ensuring they’d have access to free, quality education was a ticket to giving their kids a more comfortable life, and ideally, one where each of them could pursue careers that fit their passions. Studying hard and getting good grades were taken for granted in their home, and there was never any question about whether Bazzi or her four siblings would go to college. She says it was an easy choice to follow in her two older sisters’ footsteps and enroll at UM-Dearborn, where the smaller class sizes and down-to-earth professors and staff made a shy kid feel safe.
To say Bazzi was a dedicated student is an understatement. Taking advantage of a block-tuition program that allowed students to take up to 18 credits per semester for the price of 12, she earned her bachelor’s in mathematics in three years. During that time, she basically lived on campus between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., squeezing in study sessions between classes and surviving on Cottage Inn pizza at the U Mall, a forerunner of the University Center. During her final semester, she interviewed for and landed a job at Ford as a project management consultant, where she was tasked with wrangling white-collar engineers and blue-collar suppliers to make sure cars got built on time. “It’s funny to think about now, but there I was, a 21-year-old, on the phone, trying to get tough with suppliers, threatening that we’d find another supplier or that I’d be there on the due date to pick the parts up myself. And they’d be like, ‘Who is this?’”
Overall, it was a good job, with a good salary and health benefits, and Bazzi says she grew a lot, especially when it came to building professional relationships. But it wasn’t long before she started seriously considering a dream that had always been hanging out somewhere not quite in the back of her mind. She credited her public school teachers with giving her “belief in myself when I didn’t always have it” and had often felt inspired to follow in their footsteps. So while working full-time at Ford, Bazzi headed back to UM-Dearborn for a master’s program designed for working professionals like her who already had a bachelor’s in a teachable subject and wanted to make a pivot to education. Her memory of the program is that it was “robust.” When she hit her first in-classroom practicum, there was definitely part of her that wondered if she’d made the right choice. Even once she took her first job as a high school math teacher, the doubts didn’t disappear immediately. “I remember at the end of my first year, I was talking with my teaching partner who was next door, and I told her ‘I’m never coming back. I’m going back to Ford!’ I was semi-joking. Semi. But I was exhausted. And she literally put her hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Hey, go have a good summer, relax, but I’ll see you next door. After a week or two, you’ll be fine.’”
Her colleague was right. Every year, Bazzi says her confidence grew. She also got more excited about new methods for making math exciting for her students. Her classroom was noisy — in a good way — and she describes her style as a “warm demander,” a term she borrows from teacher educator Zaretta Hammond. Between bells, the expectations for participation were always high, but outside of class, students could come to her for anything. Those five years leading a classroom produced countless good memories. But Bazzi’s strong interest in pedagogy and curriculum innovation eventually led her to take an interview for a school improvement consultant in another district. When she got the formal offer, it was a hard decision to leave the classroom, but ultimately, she thought she’d have a broader impact helping teachers and districts develop exciting new practices. She loved the work, and after two years, it led to a curriculum development director gig at a district near Grand Rapids, a job which still ranks as her all-time favorite. “I basically was able to do all the fun stuff,” Bazzi says. “My job was to listen to the things that teachers or students or administrators needed help with and then figure out how we could do that at a high level. I had no direct reports, no evaluations. I just got to be the creative, fun person and help everybody.”
"I remember at the end of my first year, I was talking with my teaching partner who was next door, and I told her ‘I’m never coming back. I’m going back to Ford!’ I was semi-joking. Semi. But I was exhausted. And she literally put her hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Hey, go have a good summer, relax, but I’ll see you next door. After a week or two, you’ll be fine.'"
Given her passion for new ideas and now with some substantive administrative experience under her belt, a superintendent position was probably inevitable. Her first was at a rural district in west Michigan with barely a thousand students — an experience she still cherishes because of the skills you build in a place with an all-hands-on-deck culture. She talks about leading Ferndale schools, her next stop, the way a proud parent talks about their cool kid with an independent streak. Bazzi came in at a time when school choice was triggering enrollment and financial churn for metro Detroit districts, and under Bazzi’s leadership, Ferndale stabilized enrollment, improved achievement and passed a bond for a new lower elementary school. “Ferndale is a hidden jewel,” she says. “People don’t realize it, but it actually serves four different municipalities, so it’s a very diverse district. In many communities, people have lost connection with their local schools, but I think it’s a great example of what you can accomplish if people are willing to come together, and everybody’s rowing in the same direction.”
More recently, Bazzi has taken a new post, one which she expects will be a more permanent stop. As the superintendent of West Bloomfield School District, she’s again leading a community brimming with diversity and anxious for new ideas. Defying images of the ethnically homogenous outer suburbs, the schools serve large Jewish and Chaldean communities, African American students, who make up about 40 percent of enrollment, and numerous immigrant communities. In all, 61 languages are spoken in West Bloomfield schools. Bazzi says it’s also a district with a history of embracing new ways of doing things. Right now, that means pushing for more diversified learning opportunities, especially focused programs in the trades, career preparation and STEAM. It’s something that’s a big part of their messaging as they advocate for a new bond proposal, which will be in front of voters later this year. She says it makes it a little easier that another bond is expiring, so people will either see their taxes stay the same, if it passes, or go down a little, if the bond fails. Bazzi is hopeful that the community will choose to have strong schools at the heart of their community over a tax break.
Bazzi says West Bloomfield is indeed still one of those places where the schools feel like the center of gravity of community life. Even so, she’s not taking that ethos for granted. Bazzi says she mostly tries to stay out of politics, but her positions are pretty firm when it comes to some of the issues that have recently divided communities and eroded faith in public schools. “To me, and to my parents, our public schools were always one of the things that felt very special about this country,” Bazzi says. “It was a collective commitment that a free, quality education was something every child needed and deserved. I’d be disappointed to see us lose that. I see parents chasing the ‘best-rated’ schools, or being wary, whether consciously or unconsciously, of districts that serve students with lower socioeconomic status or that may be going through troublesome times. But I wish people understood this kind of diversity is part of what makes a school strong. Your child isn’t going to lose out on anything because they sit next to a kid who has different circumstances. They’re going to gain from that. I see it all the time. Our schools are here to ensure that some baseline level of equity in our world can exist. They are not the whole solution, but if we abandon ship on our public schools, I don’t see how this helps anyone. The world is diverse. The world is complex. And I think we’re all better off when we face it together.”
Story by Lou Blouin