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Two days after 55 percent of enrolled students showed up for the first day of classes at Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a Motor City audience Thursday that he “couldn’t be more hopeful” about the future of the city’s public schools.

In a stop along his Midwestern bus tour at the Charles H. Wright Academy in the Motor City, Duncan had kind words for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Roy Roberts, the emergency manager that Snyder appointed to run a new statewide reform district.

“You all have the building blocks to do something remarkable here,” Duncan told Michigan Radio. “Has Detroit struggled? Absolutely, no question about it. But my challenge, and the opportunity here is: Can Detroit become the fastest-improving urban district in the country?”

Since Duncan first visited Detroit in 2009, the city’s official graduate rate has risen 4 percent to 62 percent overall. But an investigative Dan Rather Reports segment about Detroit’s schools that aired in May called “A National Disgrace” said the district’s true graduation rate hovered near 25 percent. Snyder said Thursday that only 17 percent of Detroit’s high-school graduates are “college ready.”

On Tuesday, 43,660 of the district’s students attended the first day of classes out of 79,617 enrolled. Duncan said that if Detroit’s schools have not improved by the time he leaves office, he’ll consider his tenure “a failure.”

From Detroit, Duncan’s caravan headed west to Ann Arbor, where he participated in a panel discussion at the University of Michigan. He has stops planned in Indiana and then another in Chicago, where he’ll find a different atmosphere:

First-day attendance in Chicago Public Schools, according to the Chicago Tribune, rose nearly two percentage points to 94.7 percent.

Pete Bigelow · Are You Afraid of Detroit?

September 7th, 2011

Efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit have been ramped up in recent months.

In July, the city and five of its major employers announced an initiative in which employees would receive cash incentives for relocating to certain city neighborhoods and sprucing up their homes. The plans for “Live Downtown” were modeled after an earlier pilot program that urged others to relocate to the city’s Midtown area.

Downtown Detroit. Photo by David Tansey.

Also in July, The New York Times reported on an influx of “socially aware hipsters” within the city’s borders and a 59 percent increase in college-educated residents under age 35. The migration so great, one resident told The Times, “Believe it or not, there is not enough housing in the greater downtown area for all the young people moving to Detroit.”

Emily Bingham can probably relate.

She’s a writer who moved to Detroit and found excitement in the vibrant city. “The house was gorgeous, the price was right, the neighborhood was charming and yet not gentrified, and the city was anything but boring,” she writes on her Found Michigan blog. “What an interesting place to start the next chapter of my Michigan life.”

And then came The Fear.

After she moved into her place, second-hand stories arrived from friends and strangers alike that recounted crimes committed against residents and stoked her unease. Her own fears, embedded in childhood anxieties that her parents’ generation associated with Detroit, rose to the surface. “I’ve known lots of people like you; people who have, you know … the fear,” a friend said.

Bingham’s experience is not unique. Fear and apprehension has given prospective residents pause and steered away prospective visitors for decades. Have you experienced similar feelings about either living in or visiting Detroit? Do you think those feelings are merely rooted in the city’s reputation or founded in current reality? We’d like to hear from you.

What Bingham’s experience may demonstrate is that, despite renewed reinvention efforts and the best of intentions from new residents like herself, the fear is still something the city’s leaders must still confront and combat.

Ray Gauss II

This week, we heard from three people around the region forced by a tough economy to change their lives. Here are a few more stories of reinvention by necessity, told in only six words.

Six word poets: Danielle Benson Fennel, Mark Salke, Mark Augustine, Stuart Hall, Kate Schmidt.

Music by Steve Osborne, produced with Cade Sperling.

Dan Bobkoff · Stories of the Plan B

August 31st, 2011


Whether you think the recession is over or not, it’s been hard on many people in the Midwest and the country. So, our Changing Gears team went out to find some people whose circumstances have forced them make some tough choices that are, perhaps, working out for the better. Here are three stories of the Plan B.

Dustin Dwyer

Beth Coats

  • Name: Beth Coats
  • Lives: West Olive, MI
  • Plan B: Peace Corps

Beth Coats had worked in a medical practice for years. Divorce, job loss, and foreclosure added up to a bad situation. With little to lose, Coats is hoping to do something she’s been thinking about for decades: the Peace Corps. She loves travel, so why not?


Dan Bobkoff

Katlin Petrow

  • Name: Katlin Petrow
  • Lives: Chagrin Falls, OH
  • Plan B: Pooch Parade

Katlin Petrow always loved animals. When her husband’s salary was no longer enough to support the family, Petrow decided to turn her interest into a career. She created Pooch Parade as a full service pet sitting, walking, and care provider. With a growing number of clients, it’s turned into a significant revenue stream for the family.


Niala Boodhoo

James Foster with his son, Harry

  • Name: James Foster
  • Lives: Chicago, IL
  • Plan B: “I stay home, my wife works”.

Prior to being laid off in 2008, Foster had been a textbook editor. He and his wife had just had their first child, Harry, and she was planning to stay home with him. They both hit the job market, and she got hired first. While Foster said misses the intellectual stimulation of his career, he treasures the simple everyday moments he has with Harry, who’s now two. “I get to see all the firsts,” he said.


This story is informed by the Public Insight Network. It was produced by Dan Bobkoff with help from Niala Boodhoo, Sarah Alvarez, and Dustin Dwyer.


Rahm Emanuel reached the 100-day milestone of his tenure as mayor of Chicago earlier this week. All week, our partner station WBEZ has examined the early accomplishments and shortfalls of the Emanuel administration. Using his own 72-page transition report as a checklist, WBEZ graded his progress. Here are some highlights:

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel meets with WBEZ's Alison Cuddy during a recent talk. Photo courtesy Micki Maynard.

  • Goal: Structural changes totaling $75 million savings in 2011 budget. Progress: Complete. Emanuel cut $75 million from the budget on his first day in office.
  • Goal: End revolving door between government service and lobbying. Progress: Complete. Emanuel signed an executive order banning mayoral appointees from lobbying former colleagues for two years.
  • Goal: Develop data-collection plan regarding gun usage and crime, develop plan for use and dissemination of data. Progress: Partially achieved. On day 99, Emanuel announced completion of a gun report that includes data for guns recovered by Chicago Police Department, but has not provided copies of the report.
  • Goal: Develop plan for retaining and recruiting high-performing school principles. Progress: In August, Emanuel announced creation of a strategic plan and establishment of financial pool for merit raises and report cards for Chicago Public School principles.

How has Emanuel done so far? WBEZ asked his competitors for the job.

  • Miguel Del Valle, a former city clerk and mayoral candidate doesn’t like the concept of a 100-day evaluation. “I don’t think it’s a benchmark that should be used at all,” he said. “It takes time.”
  • “He has surpassed by expectations,” said Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, another mayoral candidate. “I did not expect him to get out in the neighborhoods like he has, and talk to the people, because he shied away from all the forums.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel marks his first 100 days in office this week. Tonight, he’ll be taking

part in The First 100, a forum put on by our partner station WBEZ. Changing Gears will be there and we’ll be paying close attention to what he says about the city’s economy.

But there’s already a report card on his performance — based on the goals Emanuel set out in February — and the results are mixed.



Using Emanuel’s transition report, WBEZ’s staff analyzed the steps he’s taken on government, communities, growth and children. Here’s how he’s done on the steps that affect Chicago’s economy.

1) Cutting spending. In his first action as mayor, Emanuel signed an executive order cutting $75 million in city spending, a key promise of his campaign.

2) Performance benchmarks. As he vowed to do, the mayor has set out benchmarks for city services like garbage collection, construction, maintenance, repairs and and infrastructure services. Many are posted on a city Web site. But he has not posted performance benchmarks for refuse service, WBEZ said.

3) Target industries. The mayor promised to identify targeted industries that will be supported for development, which he has done. They include technology, tourism, manufacturing, financial services and advanced materials. Emanuel has been appearing with companies like JP Morgan Chase that announce investments in the city.

4) Pilot communities. The mayor promised to pick out communities within the city for special economic development attention. But WBEZ said there was “no evidence” that he has done so, apart from two weekend working sessions with the University of Chicago and Loyola University.

Read the entire report card and tell us whether you’re satisfied with the way Emanuel is doing his job. Is he a model for other mayors around our regioni?

GTJ's Frank Oliver clears out a foreclosed home in Roseville, Michigan. Photo by Kate Davidson

Foreclosure activity dropped by more than a third this past year, according to the group RealtyTrac. But despite the national slowdown, regional companies that take care of foreclosed homes are still thriving. Their job is to keep empty houses clean and safe from the forces that depress local property values: squatters, thieves and decay. Dawn Hammontree probably never expected to see their work firsthand.



The first part of Hammontree’s story is familiar in Michigan. Her unemployment ran out in December.

“Got the foreclosure notice in March. Which is very scary,” she said.

Hammontree used to work for a property-tax firm that did business with the Big Three automakers. They took a hit. She was laid off. She says that for the next three years, she sent out 60 resumes a week. She was desperate to keep a roof over her son’s head.

By January, Dawn Hammontree couldn't pay her mortgage. She got the foreclosure notice in March. Photo by Kate Davidson

“I felt like I was being sucked into a black hole,” she said. “I had trouble sleeping. Wasn’t eating well. Just a general feeling of despair and despondency.”

Then, just three days before her time was up, Dawn Hammontree’s bank agreed to a trial mortgage modification. She’d finally found a job. And the one place she could get in … well…

“The job that saved my house from foreclosure is working for a company that maintains and preserves foreclosed homes,” she said. “It’s been three months that I’ve been there and I have not gotten over the irony of this. I chuckle whenever I think about it. We’re not short of work.”

Foreclosure rates may be generally falling, but you wouldn’t know it in the trenches.

Brandon Johnson runs a property preservation company called GTJ Consulting. We’re walking through a single family home in Roseville, Michigan. Yesterday was the eviction.

Today is the “trash out.” Johnson’s crew removes debris so the bank can eventually resell the house. Garbage bags fill up with the remnants of family life. A volleyball net. A rubber spatula. Children’s drawings. A little yellow book called “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day.”

Brandon Johnson made a business out of maintaining foreclosed properties. Photo by Kate Davidson

Though their overall foreclosure rates fell, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois were among the ten states with the most foreclosure actions last month, according to RealtyTrac. The firm includes everything from default notices to bank repossessions in its count. In Illinois, that final stage of foreclosure — bank repossession — actually increased 20 percent from June.

Johnson says it’s been bad enough in Michigan that he sometimes sees houses two or three times.

“The same home,” he said. “We’ve come in; we’ve cleaned it out; we’ve cleaned it up; we’ve maintained it. It’s sold. And then 24 months later, we’re right back to the same house again. It’s mind boggling. It really is.”

When Johnson started the company ten years ago, it was just him and his dad. Now they have two offices, 120 full-time employees and a network of contractors who change locks, mow lawns and winterize pipes, among other things. A few years ago, the Johnsons started a foundation to give away items left behind in foreclosed homes.

GTJ isn’t the only expanding business in the field. In December, the group Safeguard Properties was recognized as the fastest-growing company in Northeast Ohio with net sales of more than 100 million dollars. They’re up to 900 employees. The company’s founder says business is still increasing.

Back in Eastpointe, Michigan, Dawn Hammontree sits in the kitchen that’s still hers for now. She’s profoundly grateful. But she says there’s no guarantee it won’t all fall apart again tomorrow.

“I’ve got this great job,” she said. “I love the job. I love the people I work with. And I know, now, there’s no such thing as security.”

This story is informed by the Public Insight Network.

Ray Gauss II

Changing Gears is kicking off a new feature. Inspired by Smith Magazine, and possibly Ernest Hemingway, we’re asking people to share stories of what the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest means to them. But there’s a catch. We want these stories in six words.

Listen to the result of our request for stories about the housing crisis. Take Mary Beth Matthew’s submission for example, “2007 bought ex’s half, 2011 underwater.” Set to music, it’s creative, poignant, and even funny.

You can also contribute to our current six word story-your “Plan B.”

Six-word poets: Marcus Bales, Amanda Thomas, Becky McRae, Matt Lechel, Christopher Lada, Manuel Magana, and LaGaspa McDougal.

Music by Steve Osburn, produced by Cade Sperling.



Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Agriculture potential expands in Michigan. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow met in Western Michigan on Monday to discuss ways to grow Michigan’s agriculture industry. Vilsack anticipated this will be the best year for farm income in U.S. history, and Stabenow said Michigan can grow its second-largest industry into biotechnology, reports our partner station Michigan Radio. As a farmer told them at their meeting, “agriculture is doing things,” in Michigan, he said. “Industry is not.”

2. President plans Detroit visit. In what will be his eighth visit to Michigan since becoming president, Barack Obama will join union members during Labor Day festivities in Detroit next week. Organizers do not believe the President will walk in the city’s annual parade, but expect he will make a speech at a to-be-determined site afterward, according to the Detroit Free Press. Obama may use the visit as an opportunity to highlight the government’s intervention in the auto industry in 2009.

3. Rock Hall shows some Respect. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will honor Aretha Franklin this November, during the venue’s 16th annual American Music Masters this November. Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Hall in 1987, and wrote in a statement that she is “thrilled and delighted to be honored.” The exhibit, “Lady Soul: The Life and Music of Aretha Franklin” will be a week-long celebration and work in conjunction with the museum’s ongoing “Women Who Rock” series.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Milwaukee’s employee-benefit conundrum. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Common Council are unsure whether the city is exempt from a new state law that requires public employees contribute more toward benefit costs. The city’s attorney says Milwaukee should not comply. The governor’s chief counsel says yes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disagreement centers around the state constitution’s home-rule provisions and terms of a decade-old legal settlement. Following the new law could save the city $8.2 million annually, but risks a lawsuit.

2. Chicago schools’ financial trouble. An 82-page analysis of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 budget says that a “fiscal calamity” lies in the district’s near future if cuts are not implemented, according to the Civic Federation, which released the report Monday. The organization endorsed decisions like denying teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and raising property taxes, according to our partner station WBEZ. The Federation said those decisions will look small if other remedies are not implemented to the $5.9 billion annual budget by 2014.

3. Urban garden potential. Two Ohio State researchers say as much as $115 million in produce could be grown on vacant land in Cleveland, enough to meet 22 to 100 percent of the city’s fresh food demands. “We were definitely shocked it was really possible to be self-reliant,” Parwinder S. Grewal, co-author of the study, told the Columbus Dispatch. Cleveland holds 5.3 square miles of vacant lots, and the city has recently loosened regulations to make urban gardening more palatable.