Elementary: Southfield attorney helps school transition, build on storied past


by Linda Laderman
Legal News

Growing up in post-World War II Oak Park, attorney Mark Jacobs viewed the John Dewey neighborhood elementary school as an anchor in the community.

Jacobs remembers Dewey as a place where lifelong friendships were made, where the halls were filled with the noisy sounds of childhood, and the seeds for a lifelong love of learning were planted.

“It was an idyllic time,” Jacobs said.

As the Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel for the Mars Agency in Southfield, Jacobs believes his early education instilled a love of learning in him that continues today.

“Every child needs a solid and secure foundation for early learning,” Jacobs said. “Although I didn't know it at the time, those elementary years at Dewey provided all that and more to many others, and me and certainly that propelled us throughout our careers and life.

“There were so many great life lessons all around us: curiosity, patriotism, intellectual stimulation, academic competition, respect for teachers, pride in the school and the community. Just good wholesome values that, I now recognize, are tremendous gifts for any child in a learning environment. They certainly were to me,” Jacobs said.

So when Jacobs learned that the long dormant John Dewey Elementary School building was going to receive a $2.5 million makeover as the Frederick Douglass International Academy Charter School (FDIA), he reached out to see what he could do to reignite in the new school’s occupants the kind of excitement he felt at Dewey.

“I hope to get involved with alumni through avenues like social media and to garner financial support for the school,” Jacobs said, noting that the building was constructed in 1954 and was sold by the Oak Park school district in 2003 due to declining enrollment.

Founding principal Rashid Faisal shares Jacob’s belief that the school should inspire its young pupils, while serving as a community resource.  Faisal, a Detroit native, earned his master’s from Columbia University Teachers College. He is a candidate for his doctorate in urban education and leadership from University of Michigan-Dearborn.

“As the school leader my vision is to make the Frederick Douglass International Academy a leading resource for pre-K education, quality primary education, and elementary education for the residents of Oak Park and the surrounding areas.” Faisal said.

To that end, the school has adopted Michigan’s Model for Health and Curriculum.

“It’s important to be a part of the international conversation on education for best practice in preparing students for success in the global village,” Faisal said.

Faisal aims to raise the profile of the FDIA by bringing educational resources directly to families via community outreach efforts such as a parent academy which will serve as a community resource to help parents understand the educational system and how to access and resources to help their children.

For Faisal, the school’s past is as important as the present. With participation from alumni, Faisal sees opportunities for former students to act as role models for the students.

“You have to make a connection to the past so the kids know they are a part of something bigger.  When students interact with the past, it helps bring meaning to the present,” Faisal said. 
“I’ve had a chance to walk the community and its residents are excited to see the revitalization that’s taking place. The school will give the kids an opportunity to walk to school, like its former students did,” Faisal said.

Like Dewey was to many of its former students, Faisal wants the FDIA to be “a community based school that will serve as an anchor institution for the Oak Park community.” 

Said Faisal, “We will be imbedded in the community, bringing various stakeholders together to further the objectives of the school.”

FDIA is authorized through Ferris State University’s Charter Schools Office, said Dr. Ronald Rizzo, director of Charter Schools at Ferris State.

“Frederick Douglass is one of 24 public school academies authorized by Ferris State University.  We are looking forward to strong interest and an exciting future for the new school,” Rizzo said.

Besides Jacobs, a few other notable alumni have come forward to offer their experiences and ideas to help Faisal implement his desire to make the school a place where kids have an education that prepares them for future success.

Deputy Director of the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., Nancy Fagenson Potok, went to John Dewey Elementary School from 1960-67. 

“Dewey was physically and mentally the center of my universe as a kid.  Every day when I looked out my bedroom window, I saw Dewey,” Potok recalled.

Echoing Jacob’s experience, Potok said, “attending Dewey set me on a course of intellectual curiosity and achievement, because the educational program was progressive, and the parents and teachers were deeply involved, competent and caring.” 

Potok’s brother – Grammy Award winner, musician and music producer Don Was (Fagenson) – credits his early education at Dewey for steering him towards a successful career in the music industry.

“Dewey had a really great music program that fostered creativity,” Was said. “It led to my first gig in 1964 at the school’s hootenanny. I was 11 years old. Our group was called the Saturns. I’d love to reunite the Saturns and do a fund-raiser for the school.”

In the meantime, the school is set for a September 8 opening, with an official groundbreaking sometime in October. Nearly 200 students already have enrolled, Faisal said. Fund-raisers to support the school also are in the works. To support Frederick Douglass International Academy, formerly John Dewey Elementary, please visit the website at www.fdi-academy.org and click “Donate Now.”

Jacobs plans to continue his efforts to connect alumni to the FDIA.

“I do feel an obligation to give back, to support and inspire, to make a connection between the alumni and the charter school’s administration,” Jacobs said. “Giving back to the neighborhood where you were raised sends a good message. It’s a labor of love.”