DETROIT — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the Motor City a homework assignment Thursday.
“Can Detroit become the fastest-improving urban district in the country?” Duncan asked Detroiters packed into the auditorium of the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Sciences. “I see no reason why that can’t happen.”
It was a challenge, and a less scathing message than the one Duncan gave during his last visit here, in 2009. Duncan admitted branding the city as “ground zero” for education reform, may have angered Detroiters.
“I was a little bit tough,” he said. “Two years later, I couldn’t be more hopeful and optimistic about Detroit.”
Duncan’s emphasis on turning around the Detroit district is echoed in the sentiment that pervades the schools here.
“If we can do it in Detroit, then we can do it anywhere in America,” said Michael Brennan, president of United Way for Southeast Michigan.
Detroit’s schools are depressed. The district is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and faces a mounting enrollment crisis. This year’s first day of school saw a 55 percent attendance rate.
A recovery in Detroit would be encouraging for school districts nationwide. But for that to happen, recent reform measures, such as the creation of a special state-run district to manage Michigan’s lowest-performing schools, must bear fruit.
Duncan was passing through Detroit on the second day of his back-to-school bus tour.