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Flint schools superintendent confronts water crisis

Water crisis erupts during Bilal Tawwab's first month at the helm
First-time Superintendent Bilal Tawwab took over Flint's public schools just a month before the city's water crisis erupted.
First-time Superintendent Bilal Tawwab took over Flint's public schools just a month before the city's water crisis erupted.

First-time Superintendent Bilal Tawwab started work at Flint Community Schools in September, prepared to take on the district’s budget deficit of $10.5 million and a number of poor-performing schools.

The city’s infamous water crisis erupted during his first month at the helm of the district of 7,000 students. Tawwab, formerly assistant superintendent at Detroit Public Schools, was thrown into emergency response mode, having to find safe water for his students and contemplate the future education impacts of lead poisoning.

Here, he spoke with DA News Editor Alison DeNisco in late February about confronting the emergency, and how administrators can proactively protect their students from a community health problem. 

When did you first become aware of the water problems?

I was informed of the crisis at a press conference in September. I immediately made a decision not to allow our students to consume the water at school. It was a major decision, but I know the impact water has on the development of children, and I’m here to protect kids.

I had to make that call understanding that we’re a district with a deficit and limited funding. We asked, “If we cut off that access to water, how are we going to meet that very basic need?” We’re grateful to see the response from the community, the state and folks out of the state in the form of water donations.

All of the district’s water has been donated?

The water is all donated—we haven’t had to purchase any. We’ve been providing bottled water since September. Water is delivered to our schools, and our main warehouse is full of water.

We’ve been able to meet that need even before all the attention on Flint. We had to look at food preparation—we bring in bottled water to prepare lunches, and now provide our students with fruit you can peel rather than rinse. We made sure all bases were covered.

Can you describe how the schools have become a community hub during this crisis?

Flint is the birthplace of community education. We’re now engaged in a resurgence of that community education—this water crisis has returned the school to that center.

We’ve been providing support to the community—we had a lead awareness night, and performed lead testing for families in schools [paid for by the county health department]. I believe the community is starting to see the school as that resource partner and beacon.

What special services do you expect will be needed in the district if students have been harmed by the contaminated water?

That’s the million-dollar question. We really don’t know the full impact yet, but do know there will be some impact. It’s important now that we are putting the right systems in place to be able to meet those needs. We want to be proactive.

We’re now expecting that some students may experience some type of cognitive delay, and we want to provide intervention opportunities for them. We know that various diets help mitigate the impact [of lead poisoning], so we’re going to increase the amount of calcium, iron and Vitamin C in our lunches.

What can other school leaders learn from this? 

Remain calm. This is my first year as a superintendent. You approach a crisis, and everyone is looking at you. How you respond will dictate how others respond.

The other piece that’s key is understanding you’re not alone. You have to be able to maximize the resources around you and tap into the community. So many folks want to help—don’t hesitate to reach out and utilize those supports. With a crisis, especially one of this magnitude, you can’t do it on your own.

Also, always keep in mind what we’re here for—to educate kids. Even in the midst of a crisis, we have to stay focused on that.

And have a very strong communications person—that’s been key. Build a positive relationship and be transparent with the community.

Is there anything district administrators can do proactively to protect their students from a community health problem?

Having a close relationship with the medical community would be beneficial to any school or district administrator. Because then you’re hearing what they’re seeing in the community, and can be part of the conversation.

If I had a prior relationship with the medical community here, I would like to believe I would have chatted with doctors, who would have told me they were seeing increased lead levels [in some children]. Then I could think more about what was going on and what impacts it will have on my children.