Mayor Mike Duggan has for the first time hired a deputy who will focus exclusively on children, expanding the city’s ability to shape education policy.
Unlike New York or other big cities where mayors have broad authority over education, Detroit’s mayor doesn’t have much sway over K-12 schools. But Duggan has gotten increasingly involved in recent years, convening a citywide education commission and pushing to create a universal pre-K program that would provide free preschool to every four-year-old in the city.
Now he’s ramping up the effort with the hiring last month of a deputy dedicated to issues affecting children. Monica Rodriguez, 29, is the city’s new Director of Children and Youth — the first person to hold that title.
Jack Elsey who runs the Detroit Children’s Fund, a non-profit education fund that supports school improvement in Detroit said the arrival of someone dedicated to children in the mayor’s office is a positive sign.
“It’s always a good thing for city leaders to take a vested interest in Detroit’s children,” Elsey said. “Hiring someone full time to do that is a serious and important step.”
In an interview with Chalkbeat last week, Rodriguez said she sees her new role bringing the city together with schools, nonprofits, and foundations that work with Detroit children.
She declined to offer specifics about her early priorities but said she defines herself as a communicator who will help Detroit’s education sector work more smoothly.
After graduating from Cranbrook, a private school in the Detroit suburbs, she earned a communications degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan.
“I would hope that the city’s exchange is really honest and open and collaborative, and that there are a lot fewer walls around who does what and who shares what,” she said, adding: “And that we’re as helpful as possible to all of the entities that are doing this work.”
It it still unclear whether Duggan will be able to find the funding necessary to create a universal pre-K program in the city. A pot of federal funds that he’d hoped the state would set aside for the effort was spent elsewhere. If Duggan is able to find another way to fund the program, Rodriguez would play a roler in steering that effort.
Last week, she declined to comment on the state of Duggan’s preschool plans.
“I can’t speak to any particular outcomes,” she said. Of early childhood generally, she noted that “there are a lot of people for whom this is really important.”
Perhaps the most concrete part of Duggan’s education legacy so far is the Community Education Commission, which is one of the only places in the city that brings together competitive district and charter school leaders.
The Commission is already running an after-school program in northwest Detroit, which is served by a bus route that runs between 10 charter and traditional schools. Later this year, it will begin rating all city schools using an A-F grading system it developed.
Before coming to the city, Rodriguez worked for six years on the Detroit Promise, a college scholarship program offered to high schoolers in Detroit. Her job, as she puts it, was to build participation in the program by figuring out “the true experiences that students are having.”
That helped improve the portion of students who returned to their two-year college programs after a first year on the scholarship from 30 percent to 60 percent, she said.
Asked to tell a story behind this success, Rodriguez told the story of a student she encountered who didn’t think college was an option. Few people in his life had done so, and no one seemed to expect him to be different.
“We were just asking questions,” she recalled. “What does this look like for your? The conversation when we started with him wasn’t, ‘you should go to college.’ We had a lot of other things to consider.”
The student is now on the verge of graduating college. For Rodriguez, his story is proof that good communication can be the difference between students’ success and failure.
“They have really good answers to questions people aren’t asking them,” she said.