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What you may have missed at Detroit’s October school board meeting

A classroom with many desks, but no students.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District board also heard an update on enrollment and fielded complaints about student cell phone use in classrooms.

Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Two school communities in the Detroit district now have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of their school name.

Detroit Public Schools Community District board members voted Tuesday to reopen the name change process for Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine and East English Village Preparatory Academy. Both schools got their names about a decade ago, when state-appointed emergency managers were in charge of the district.

The vote allows both schools to gather input from students, staff, alumni and families on whether to change their name or keep the current one. Once that process is complete, a final board vote would be required to approve any name change.

Tuesday’s meeting saw a large group of Jared W. Finney High School alumni come out in support of the agenda item in hopes of restoring the Finney name. East English Village Preparatory Academy is located on the former site of Finney.

At last month’s meeting, board members called for renaming Carson in response to complaints about its namesake, a noted Detroit surgeon-turned-politician who served as President Donald Trump’s housing secretary. 

The board also deliberated over early attendance and enrollment figures following Count Day on Oct. 5, and fielded complaints over student cell phone use in the classroom.  

District attendance, enrollment figures trending well

Student attendance continues to trend in a positive direction, a sign that the district is performing on pace with or better than this point last year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in his monthly report.

As of Count Day, the district enrolled 48,480 students. The average daily attendance rate for the school year so far is 83%, in line with pre-pandemic rates; using the same metrics, about half of this year’s students would be flagged as chronically absent, or missing 10% of school days, compared with 57% around November 2021.

Vitti also reported nine teacher vacancies, with an additional 79 open slots among support staff.

Teachers petition for restrictions on cellphones

Some Detroit educators are looking to curtail distractions from student cellphone use at their schools. 

During the meeting, Southeastern High School teachers LeAndrea Fisher and Blair Sawyers both spoke in favor of restricting student access to their phones during the school day. 

“They get all kinds of messages,” Sawyers said. “We’re trying to deter bad behavior, increase academic (achievement), as well as avoid different types of problems we have in school.”

Fisher, a 27-year educator, said cellphone use is a “disruption” in her classroom and called on the board to reconsider its personal device policy. Under the district’s code of conduct, students can receive violations for using any electronic communication device inappropriately or at “unauthorized times.” But the policy doesn’t strictly ban cellphone use in school or class.

“Once upon a time, cellphones were needed as technology enhancements to my instruction. That is no longer the case,” Fisher said.

“We’re not asking for a penalty,” she said. “We’re asking for a phone-free environment.”

Both teachers asked the district to arrange for pouches that can lock and secure phones, earbuds and smartwatches during school hours.

Vitti said cellphone rules for the classroom are better left to individual teachers. 

“Our policy empowers teachers to require the students to keep their cellphones away,” Vitti said. He added that individual schools can use any of their allocated federal COVID relief funds to address distractions from phones.

A bill proposed in the Michigan House of Representatives in August would require school districts to prohibit the use of personal cellular devices during the school days.

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