Coffee Break: Jack Elsey on How Choice Changed His Future, Detroit’s Tough Conversations, and a Musical Motown Food Fight

Education Post
September 21, 2016

While much of Detroit is seeing a resurgence, its public schools are still mostly a mess.

Jack Elsey is a son of Detroit who, as chief schools officer for the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, is now working to turn around some of the city’s historically lowest-performing schools.

Are you a coffee drinker? Tea? What’s a cool place in Detroit to grab a cup?

Coffee is what makes our daily 7 a.m. conference calls possible! Light roast, when available. One of my favorite local coffee shops is Astro Coffee. It’s a small shop on Michigan Avenue and the kind of place where you can see energetic people from all kinds of backgrounds. It sort of embodies a new and emerging Detroit, a place of budding optimism and opportunity.

Talk about your background and what drives the work you do to empower families with choice and quality schools?

I’m a first-generation college graduate because of school choice. When I was in second grade, I transitioned from a school where the question was “Are you going to college?” to a school that asked “Which college are you going to?”

That’s the power of a great school.

The best schools present students with opportunities and ensure through rigorous preparation that all options are realistic and attainable.The best schools present students with opportunities and ensure through rigorous preparation that all options are realistic and attainable. When I became a middle-school teacher in the South Bronx, it was evident just how many hills my students had to climb compared to their wealthier peers. Thankfully, chancellor Joel Klein and the New York City Department of Education made high school choice a central part of their reforms, and many of my 8th graders were able to attend schools that provided them with significantly better opportunities.

In Detroit, the school choice conversation is unique. Detroit’s schools are highly decentralized and as a result, the environment for parents can sometimes be overwhelming. The city’s oversaturation of schools is well-documented and has been debated recently through legislation and in public forums. So here, empowering families is more about arming them with the kind of data and information they need to make an informed choice and less about giving them a multitude of options. I came to the EAA in part because we’re committed to informing families about their choices and providing them complete access to information about our schools.

We’re fairly direct about our performance to date: some progress, but not nearly enough to provide all of our students the first-rate education they deserve. Turnaround does take time, but we’re doggedly impatient.

We hear a lot about the problem areas of Detroit’s education system. What are the areas of promise?

Education leaders from all sectors have found ways to come togetherAs a city, we’re now unafraid of having conversations we used to fear. Education leaders from all sectors have found ways to come together and discuss the incredibly tough issues of quality, accountability, and the greater needs of our Detroit families.

While our schools continue to improve, we celebrate our bright spots that have produced some early returns for students. In the last year, we created nearly a dozen Small Learning Communities, developed and promoted scores of leaders and teacher-leaders through our leadership-development programs, built strong data systems to help our teachers and leaders make smart decisions for students, and set clear expectations and standards for our academic practices. Last year on the state assessment, seven out of nine of our schools grew in reading and eight out of nine grew in math, both larger than the state average for growth.

Who are we most likely to find on your iTunes/Spotify? The Temptations, Eminem, the White Stripes, or Bob Seger?

That question would easily turn a Detroit family barbeque into a food fight. While I’m a huge fan of all of those Detroit artists (and so many more!), it’s hard to beat The Temptations or the Motown sound of the Funk Brothers. Does your website have audio?