Page last updated at 21:44 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 22:44 UK

Detroit's long road to ruin

In the third of his special reports looking at the current state of the US economy beyond Wall Street, BBC correspondent Matthew Price reports how education may be the key to reviving Detroit.

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Taxi driver Don Witt on his experience of boom and bust in Detroit

It was another normal day in one of the most economically deprived cities in the United States.

Mearon Lewers asked one of her pupils why he had not done his homework.

BBC correspondent Matthew Price is travelling across the US, reporting from a new city every day, to assess the state of the economy as President Obama approaches 100 days in office. See the Beyond Wall Street route here.

"I was fussing at him and he said, 'Mrs Lewers, I couldn't do my homework because we don't have any lights and it was dark in the house'," Mrs Lewers recalls.

"I was crushed."

This is just one story in a city where poverty and economic decline are rampant.

"We're mum, dad, doctor. We're social workers, psychologists," says Mrs Lewers, who teaches at Joyce Elementary Public School in Detroit.

"We have to know when there's a communicable disease."

Teachers pay

Teachers are trying to fill in the gaps in Detroit, even the budget gaps.

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Teacher Derek Holland's optimism for the future of Detroit

Outside Derrick Holland's classroom is a sign stating that education is a "priority".

Once inside he switches on the four computers the class has. The start of another day teaching fifth graders, aged nine and 10.

Mr Holland hopes to be able to buy "some pens, pencils, chalk, sometimes a different type of computer program", for the class.

"Most of the things that I can use to supplement whatever the curriculum is. The teachers have to dig into their pockets." he says with a shrug.

Closing schools

The old wooden floors at Joyce Elementary Public School are gleaming; a result of layers of varnish applied during its 80 years' history.

Light blue metal lockers line the corridors. You can almost hear the decades of education echoing down the hallways.

This year, though, will most likely be Joyce Elementary's last.

It is one of 23 public schools to be closed. Another 30 to 40 will be shut after next year. 600 teachers are likely to lose their jobs.

Out of a total 194 public schools in the city, about a quarter will be lost.

The city's public school system is $306m (£210) in debt.

Dwindling population

Two early arrivals ring the bell at the front entrance to Guyton School in Detroit on Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Detroit Public Schools is to close 23 schools and lay off 600 teachers.

Detroit's problem is rooted in the transformation that the US economy is undergoing.

Old manufacturing regions such as this have been declining for some time.

There is a budget crisis. Rising unemployment and population loss have reduced the amount of tax revenue coming in. Vehicle sales are falling in an area whose economy is dominated by the so-called "Big Three" car manufacturers. House prices have been tumbling.

In Detroit, the population too has been falling for years. In the middle of the last century almost two million people lived in the city. Today it is less than a million, as people have moved out to the suburbs.

Detroit's challenge is to manage the loss of people, jobs and revenue, without allowing the city to fall further into despair. It is a tough job.

Valuable education

The fabulous art-deco Fisher Building in downtown Detroit was built in richer times.

The high vaulted ceilings make the foyer feel like a cathedral. The brass in the elevator gleams during a ride to the 14th floor, where Robert C. Bobb, the Emergency Financial Manager for Detroit Public Schools, can be found.

Mr Bobb was recently appointed to find a way out of the financial mess.

It is his plan to slim down a school system that was built for a population twice the size. His bigger plan is to use education to re-launch this city's economy.

"What children are being taught today may not be giving them the kind of skills that they require to compete in the global and worldwide economy," he says.

That means, he says, "a large focus on world languages and world history. It means a much greater focus on technology".

How, though, to make up the huge debt the system faces? That is where President Barack Obama's stimulus spending plan comes in.

Many of the billions of dollars that have been appropriated to kick-start the US economy will be spent on infrastructure projects.

Mr Bobb wants to spend some $200m of Michigan's share on education.

"We want to use the public school system as an important vehicle to improve the quality of life," he says.

Education is key

Down the road, as Detroit basks in the spring sunshine, Don Witt is driving his clean black and white taxi, a Ford Crown Victoria. The only blemish; a small cigarette burn on the back seat.

Mr Witt is a softly spoken man who was born in this city in 1937 when the Fisher Building was less than a decade old.

As Mr Witt grew up, so did Detroit. The car industry boomed. No one had to worry about a job. Now people have to worry about everything.

Mr Witt's eyes are sunken, and a little sad as he speaks of the city he loves, which has changed so much.

"In 1955 - I know this for a fact - 95% of all young black males had a high-school education. We'd better go to school [or] our mothers would kill us."

And now?

"They come home and tell a lie on the teachers, the parents go up the teachers and beat them up. Education now, it's bad."

As he drives, Mr Witt says he believes education is the key to rebuilding this city.

The teachers and the administrators would not disagree.


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