One Woman's Quest: Re-imagine Detroit's Public Education System

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If Michigan legislators have their way, the state could soon be home to some of the most permissive charter school regulations in the nation.

Michigan, and Detroit in particular, is widely seen as one of the epicenters for a number of experimental school reforms. The recently introduced legislation aiming to relax the cap on charter school growth, follows a move, earlier this year, that essentially placed the worst performing schools in the Detroit Public School system into a separate district. The city and the state have been rallying to overcome U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s declaration, last year, that DPS was “arguably the worst urban school district in the country.’’

But in the push to implement sweeping school reform, some veteran educators say Detroit and the state may be missing an opportunity to make student and classroom-centered changes.


Carmen N’Namdi is a very vocal local calling for “more relevant reform.’’ N’Namdi founded the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, a 33-year-old private school that was one of the first schools in the state to become a charter. Nataki, a social studies immersion school, opened its doors with just 18 students, operating as a magnate for middle class African American families seeking alternatives to traditional education. Today as a charter the school serves 425 students.

Though the students at Nataki are shielded from the problems of the Detroit’s largest school district, N’Namdi says she can’t help worry about the long term consequences of data-driven school reforms and experiments like creating new separate districts.

“It reinforces labels and name calling,’’ says N’Namdi.  “Imagine having to say that you attend a failing school. Such a comment impacts the children, parents, teachers, and the neighborhood’s perception of itself. When this happens, teachers tend to become missionaries rather than teachers which in turn stagnates their growth professional and psychologically reinforces want we don’t want reinforced in children.’’

So, what’s N’Namdi’s preferred style of reform?

“Because of the economy, we want a pop solution, when what we should really be focused on, I believe, is creating more opportunities for students to be introspective, to develop a sense of resiliency through learning. You have students who are graduating and they don’t know how to work, how to bounce back in life, to make decisions. You teach these skills through critical thinking and play, not by tests and data. But recess has become a luxury in some schools."

N’Namdi acknowledges that fixing Detroit’s dire budget situation — suffering, among other things, $327 million deficit — has to take priority over her call for the development of more “resilient” learners.

“Due to the financial situation," she says, “their creative energy has to go into how to administer their new ideas, to address the challenges of the district.’’

So she’s taken to preaching her brand of change to the parents and teacher training workshops, believing that by sharing a little of the “Nataki Way,’’ she can foster more alternative ideas. N’Namdi stepped down as the school’s principal five years ago into, what she calls “the balcony” role of leading the school’s management company.

“I’m just trying to change the conversation we have about children, one person at a time. I think everyone has to feel like they’re dong their part. This is mine.’’ N’Namdi is completing a book called  “Raising Nataki,’’ that she hopes will guide parents and teachers toward a different perspective.

What evidence does she have that her blend of reform works? She points to three decades of creative, curious and skilled graduates, including her own three children, each graduates of Nataki.

Her oldest, daughter Kemba, owns a translation company and worked for the United Nations in Paris. Son Jumaane is an art dealer who operates the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in Chicago. Youngest, daughter Izegbe is the Director of Operations of the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit.

“It seems minute to some to be focused on teaching resiliency but I believe that’s where our focus should be as a nation," says the proud mother. "We're sending students out into the world with no grit, without a connection to curiosity. Whatever happened to looking at children as people, and showing them how to become learners?''