Pop Quiz

A conversation with Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools
Photograph by David Lewinski

How did you spend your summer “vacation”?

I’ve not had a summer vacation.

What’s your current homework?

Launching a major program on student retention.

This might be the toughest exam of your career. What can parents and citizens do to help?

We have many parents, [who], for good and sufficient reasons, choose to keep their kids out of school or hold their kids back. … The major thing that they can do for us is — no matter how challenging or how difficult situations are at home — to get their children to school.

Where do parents rank in the effort to fix the schools?

They’re number one. A parent is a child’s first teacher. In many cases, particularly in our most challenged neighborhoods, we have grandparents who are raising children. We have a number of children who are homeless. What we want to encourage parents and everyone to know is that this is really free public
education. This is the last thing that we can receive [on] a large scale for free.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a lawyer. I grew up on a sugar-cane plantation down in southwest Louisiana. Where I grew up, if you were an African-American and you wanted to join the middle class, you either became a teacher, minister, or undertaker. But for some reason, I wanted to be a lawyer.

What were your best subjects?

Political science and philosophy.

Were you into sports or the arts in school?

Baseball. [I] love baseball. I played baseball from Little League to sandlot. Now [it’s] baseball and golf.

Between sports and the arts, is one or the other more important?

I think the arts are more important, although I don’t spend as much time [involved with them] as I did early on in my professional career. I was a member of a board of a symphony orchestra. [I was a] season-ticket holder to the symphony and the opera.

How important is it for a teacher to mentor students?

[A] teacher can shape or hurt young minds. Even in my own experience — in one of the schools one of my sons attended — the teacher had little or no respect for young African-American boys. That had a negative impact on those young African-American boys’ ability to learn and to succeed in [her] classroom.

How does your own experience as a public- school student yourself affect your decision-making?

If it were not for the public-education system — because that was the only option available to me — I know that I would not be where I am today. That’s why I do whatever I can to encourage parents to send their children to school — because that’s the only way out for many of these kids.

The bell is going to ring on your contract in March. How will you know if you’ve received a passing grade?

Well, if I’ve reformed the system and set forth a good platform. I think we’re off to a good start — a great start — in terms of identifying the financial weaknesses in our system: Putting in place strong academic programs to go forward, giving — to the extent that we can — parents hope that things can be better, changing the culture where children are at the center of the universe of all the work and everything that we do.

Did you have a nickname growing up?

When I went to Hartford, Conn., to work … people started referring to me as ‘Bob Bobb.’

Did your parents intentionally give you the same first and last name?

I don’t think they even thought about that at all. My mother named me after one of her favorite uncles.