According to recent reports, many schools throughout the Detroit Public School system continue to grapple with overcrowded classrooms, and now the fire marshal has launched a probe into the issue.
The current academic year is now in full swing, but for some Detroit Public Schools, overcrowding issues are showing no signs of waning. Last week, an elementary school in the district was cited by the fire marshal for a jam-packed classroom. Parents and teachers, as well as the teachers’ union for the district, are complaining that district officials are simply not listening to their concerns, and classrooms sizes are not changing fast enough to facilitate a safe, positive learning environment.
Violations Found at Nolan Elementary
The Detroit News reported last week on a parent of a kindergarten student at Nolan Elementary, Kristol Philpot, who complained that her son was in a classroom with 55 other students. When her concerns went unheeded by the school’s principal, Philpot contacted fire officials about the problem.
“There are completely way to many children in there,” Philpot told the News. “It’s a completely unsafe environment there and they can’t learn. There are 56 children and it’s steadily growing.”
Philpot said she called the fire department because the principal wouldn’t answer her questions on when a new teacher would be brought in to divide the class.
“With the class that size, if there is a hazardous smoke or fire, it’s unsafe for the children. There are too many in there for them to get out in time,” Philpot explained.
The fire marshal agreed with Philpot. After investigating the situation, Noland was issued a violation for an overcrowded classroom, according to another report in the Detroit News. The classroom in question was designed to hold 35 to 36 students, according to the square footage, but was about 20 students over that limit. The fire department is now working with the district to determine if overcrowding is a problem at other Detroit schools, and to ensure the district understands capacity limits based on classroom sizes.
“We want to be ahead of this and so there is no misunderstanding of what the expectation is of how many students can be in the school,” Fire Marshal Herbert White told the News.
Investigation Continuing in DPS
A second school is also currently under investigation by the fire department. Gompers teacher Dolly Osandusky told the News that there are 45 students in two seventh-grade classrooms at the school, in rooms designed to hold about 25. Teachers are taking empty desks and chairs from empty classrooms to accommodate the huge number of students. Osandusky said she met with fire department officials when they came to investigate Gompers.’
“We are close to 45 in each seventh-grade class,” Osandusky told the News. “Those are bigger bodies and there is only one exit in each of the rooms. Overcrowding is not a minor issue here. They staffed us for 600 students and we have 1,000.”
At this time, it is not known whether a violation like the one issued to Nolan was issued to Gompers as well. However, as reports of overcrowding in Detroit schools become public, it is becoming very clear that the situation may not be isolated to one or two schools in the city.
Teachers and Parents Voice Concerns at More Schools
At Mae C. Jamison, overcrowding has also caught the attention of teachers and parents. One teacher at the school, Jennifer Menzer, told the News that many of the classes there have more students than they should.
“One eighth-grade class has almost 47-50 students, as well as the seventh-grade,” Menzer told the News. “Our fifth-grade has 40-45, with most of the students [having] very serious discipline issues and academic issues.”
Menzer is also concerned that although the district is aware of the overcrowding problem, she has not heard any plans to correct the issue at this point.
“I’m doing this for the kids,” Menzer added. “If we don’t stand up and say, ‘enough is enough,’ they won’t do anything.”
Another Detroit parent, Tania Gordon, voiced concern over the crowding issue to Click on Detroit. Gordon said she currently has five children in the Detroit Public School system, but plans to move them out as soon as possible.
“They don’t really get the one-on-one with teachers,” Gordon explained.
Union Survey Provides Numbers on Overcrowding
An annual survey by the Detroit Federation of Teachers shows that more than a quarter of Detroit classrooms are still facing overcrowding issues, well into the first semester of the school year. According to Michigan Radio, some schools are reporting class sizes of well over 50 students, and some are still facing serious shortages in supplies like textbooks. The executive vice president of the union, Mark O’Keefe, said that the district had to make deep cuts in the budget, but promised to keep class sizes to 35 students.
“It’s really alarming to see how the district continues to overcrowd classrooms, even after they imposed a 10-percent pay cut on all of our members,” O’Keefe stated on Michigan Radio. “That should have allowed them to staff classrooms adequately,” O’Keefe added.
District Disputes Numbers
Despite concerns by parents, teachers and the union, Detroit district officials said the overcrowding problem has been exaggerated. A spokesman for DPS, Steve Wasko, told the Detroit News that the overcrowding problems were being addressed. He also stated that the district did not consider the figures provided by the union to be reliable.
“It’s not a document that we have used for any of our decision making,” Wasko told Michigan Radio. “We have our own processed for determining classes that do need attention.”
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