Exclusive Interview: Hussein Berry Talks Education in the COVID Era

By Brian Stone

YAN: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hussein Berry: I’m the President of the Board of Dearborn Public Schools. I’ve lived most of my life in Dearborn, grew up in the South End of Dearborn, I work in Dearborn. Many of my families, my sons and sisters live in Dearborn. Dearborn works for me – it’s a very special place. I started serving in Dearborn maybe 40 years ago – I started with East Dearborn Youth Football organization. People liked my inclusive leadership style, and soon, you know, people were asking me to run for school board.

YAN: What kind of preparations has DPS made for students?

Before we go there – I’m going to go back to March. Primary election day. We heard there were two cases. Then the Governor came out and said there were two positive cases. Pretty soon we found out a staff member, one of her family members were one of the positive cases, and we shut that school down. Those decisions were easy. Shutting schools down for health reasons was easy. Now, the hard part is bringing students back in the classrooms. There’s no doubt in my mind – no doubt whatsoever – that the best way to deliver education is face-to-face. There’s many other life lessons kids learn in schools – but until it’s safe. Until the county says it’s safe, we’re just not ready to.

Dearborn Public Schools is the third largest district in the state of Michigan, and what I say is, we’re going to crawl into this. Some day we’re going to get kids into the classroom and teachers back in the classrooms and life will be normal. I can’t wait for that day to happen, but we’re not here yet.

YAN: For students who are special needs, who are going into the learning labs, what are they going to see when they come in?

Our school year started online. We created an online learning academy. Our survey showed about 20% of the students would take advantage of it – and that survey turned out to be true. But now all classes are online. We are also going to be having the learning labs, and the learning labs will be face-to-face. We already ordered all the equipment we need – the face masks, gowns, gloves, and we are ready.

People have questioned it, but we are ready. Obviously, we have a lot of English language learners in this district who need extra attention, and our special ed students coming into the classrooms, depending on what their parents say. And there will be other students coming into the learning labs – if the teachers feel they need the help, or the parents. Parents are able to contact an administrator and take advantage of the learning labs.

YAN: What do you think has been the thing you’ve learned the most from the process of hearing from parents – and what things are they concerned about going into the school year?

With the parents and our staff, I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is back to the basics – communicate with people. Talk to people. Ask them what they’re feeling. You know, I get calls from parents from one end to the other, from one extreme to the other, with what they want for their kids to go through. And I always say – you are right. Whatever you feel is right for your kids is the right decision, as long as you’re making it. But, we’re responsible for 23,600 students – we have to kind of figure out what is in the best interest of most – and we will serve all.

As for staff – wow. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the posts about teachers and what a great job they do. Because the parents – they learned overnight what the teachers do. They’re mentors, the nurse, and everything you can think of, the teachers become it. So, in March, we were loving our teachers, but now people are forgetting about our teachers. We also need to listen to them. Not just the administration, but the parents – we need to listen to them. What they’re facing, the anxieties they have: some of them have young babies at home; some of them live with elderly parents; so the anxiety is real.

The most important thing is in communication. I think the Dearborn Public Schools administration, including Dr. Glenn Maleyko and the administrators have done a great job communicating with the community. This is a diverse community. And I don’t just mean diversity as ethnically – there are so many moving parts in this community. The administration has done a great job. And you know, I’m the guy who will hold your feet to the fire, but I’ll also give you praise when you do a good job. And the administration has done a great job.

YAN: Right now, we have a big breakdown in trust in public institutions. Whether it’s the police or the President – some people don’t believe medical professionals, and some don’t know what to believe. What are you doing to build trust in the community?

You know, in a community like Dearborn, it’s all about communication. What’s going on globally, what’s going on with the federal government, there’s not much we can do. We can do phone calls and send emails, but there’s not much we can do beyond that. But, locally, it has to come back to talking to your neighbors, talking to your teachers, talking to your community members – and that’s the way to build that trust. If people feel like you’re making a decision – they might not agree with you – but if they think you’re making a decision and you have their children’s best interest at heart, they’ll trust you.

With this COVID-19, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re still learning a lot. You listen to three different stations and get four different opinions. But who I trust – who I listen to – are the people at the hospitals. I trust the doctors. I have a feeling they know what’s going on right now. They know what they’re dealing with, finally. It’s not like mid-March or April where people go and they get diagnosed and it’s a life sentence, basically. Those are the people I listen to and who I trust.