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How Corletta Vaughn got elected to Detroit’s school board — and what she wants to get done

Corletta Vaughn, left, speaks during a candidate forum put on in September by Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit.
Corletta Vaughn, left, speaks during a candidate forum put on in September by Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit.
Koby Levin

Between her decades in the pulpit of a Detroit church, her work as an author, and a stint on reality TV, Corletta Vaughn is no stranger to the spotlight.

Her latest role, though, is a new one. When the Detroit school board meets Tuesday night, Vaughn will be the newest face on stage at Renaissance High School. Elected in November to a four-year term — her first time winning a public vote — Vaughn now has a chance to shape the education of roughly 50,000 children in Detroit, and she knows exactly how she wants to do it.

She knows her constituency (“the church put me in this office”), and she knows her issues (topping the list are student safety and adding professional development for teachers). After all, she’s been eyeing this job for 20 years.

Vaughn, 65, has been a pastor for 33 years at the Holy Ghost Cathedral, a Baptist church on Detroit’s east side. After starting her career as a nurse, she attended William Tyndale College [now closed; formerly the Detroit Bible Institute]. She says she was among the first women to graduate from the school, and one of the first female pastors in Detroit.

Vaughn graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1971 and raised her two daughters in Detroit.

We spoke with Vaughn last week about her story and her plans for the district. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

How would you rate the progress the district made in the two years since the emergency managers left?

I’ve watched it from when when this board was first put in place. I can say that from where we were — without a real superintendency, without people that really cared about children (because the emergency managers did not) — the district today is millions of miles ahead. Do we still have millions of miles to go? Yes we do. We have a lot of repair work to do.

But I can say that in sitting down with this superintendent and reading his heart, and understanding him as a father with children in this district, I believe that in another six years, maybe another eight years, we will have traveled galaxies ahead.

I think the teachers and principals and assistant principals feel that we can do this. People are getting their momentum back.

Talk about your connections to Detroit.

I’m Detroit raised and Detroit educated. I educated my children in Detroit Public Schools. And all of my life I’ve been in church.

I did not get endorsed by unions. I ran a campaign with $7,750 that came out of my pocket. But I had the church. I had the faith-based community. I had volunteers that came from churches across this city.

I’m one of the first women pastors in Detroit.

I did a reality show for Oxygen Network called Preachers of Detroit, where I advocated for women and girls.

I’m deeply rooted from being a musician [Vaughn sings and plays flute] , and a pulpiteer, and a loud-voiced woman. And that’s why the faith-based community knew me.

What does your base — the faith-based community — want to see in schools? What’s your mandate?

I talked to a lot of church people. The repetitive messaging, number one, is safety. That was heard over and over again.

The number two thing is not feeling like they mattered. I kept hearing that, even from administrators and teachers. A lot of them came through the emergency manager nightmare.

One of the things I did not know much about before I ran was this third-grade reading law. I was amazed by how many parents, as I was talking to them in these home meetings, were unaware that a third-grade reading law had been passed. There was an obvious breakdown in communication, and I think I can help with that, being a pastor connected to the grassroots.

Any goals or priorities for your first year on the board?

In the [district’s] strategic plan, two of the bullet points are culture and community. The reason I felt I could be an asset to the board is that I’m the only grassroots person that can connect those two dots: culture and community. I haven’t taught in K-12, I don’t have that educational experience, but I do have experience of culture and community.

As a board member, I’m going to be working with the deans of culture. I’m going to work with them and connect them to the community. And I’m going to be working with Sharlonda Buckman, who’s been given the job of bringing the Parent Academy and the community together. I can help her with that, because I have the connections.

I want to be branded as the board member that tells it, that makes sure the parents are engaged, and the churches are providing wraparound services to these schools. That’s what I’m going to focus on these next four years.

How did you decide to run for Board of Education?

Twenty years ago I first thought, ‘I need to run for school board.’ My mom was an educator. My daughters are educators. My family is full of teachers. I’ve been surrounded by libraries and books and schools all my life. What I saw was a huge spiraling, that Detroit schools were going to be in trouble. As a parent during those days, I could see that things were eroding.

But there was a massive campaign, and I knew I could not win. Looking at the landscape of politics, I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the base.

Why was this year the right year?

Once the Detroit Public Schools was laid to rest and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District was created, I watched that very carefully. I was going to run the first year, two years ago when DPSCD was first formulated. I was advised not to, to give it a minute, so I said ‘okay, I’ll wait.’

I kept my finger on it, going to meetings, paying attention. I was feeling like the grassroots community — the faith-based community — wasn’t being represented.

I said ‘if this puppy opens up one more time, I’m going to run.’

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