Bill Cosby had heard about the tough-as-nails, uncompromising man tackling fraud and improving education throughout the Detroit's public schools, and wanted to help.
So the 72-year-old actor, comedian and activist decided to loan the district his celebrity as Detroit tries to hold off plummeting enrollment amid a fiscal crisis that a few weeks ago spurred suggestions of a possible bankruptcy.
"All around the United States of America — in the cities and the counties — our public education is suffering and has been suffering. Cuts, cuts, cuts," Cosby told reporters Tuesday as he began a day that would take him from shooting commercials to visiting homes in a far northwest Detroit neighborhood.
He has joined "I'm In," emergency financial manager Robert Bobb's $500,000 campaign to stop the flow of students leaving the district — and maybe persuade parents who have sent their children elsewhere to give Detroit another shot.
The district begins classes next Tuesday.
Trying to persuade parents
Last month, Bobb began visiting city neighborhoods, meeting with parents who have opted to send their children to either private and charter schools or schools outside Detroit.
He took Cosby late Tuesday afternoon to a lower middle-class neighborhood of brick and wood-frame bungalows.
Dozens of residents swarmed Cosby as he and Bobb visited homes there. Several parents approached them and said they want to enroll their children in public schools.
Sarvita Jones, 41, said she would send her 4-year-old to a district pre-kindergarten class.
"It's good that Cosby came to Detroit. We need the recognition and help," she said. "So many people are going away from Detroit schools, and Detroit schools are not as bad as everyone thinks."
Cosby asked one parent if she was willing to support the district.
"It's nothing like it when you see them cross the stage at graduation," he said of successful students.
$259 million deficit
In recent years, the district has mismanaged its way to a $259 million deficit. Its graduation rate is among the lowest in the nation, the dropout rate among the highest.
And students are leaving — by the thousands.
Last fall, enrollment dropped below 100,000 and is expected to dip under 90,000 this fall. Bobb has budgeted for an enrollment of 83,777.
Bobb, appointed in March by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to fix the district's finances, has laid off more than 1,000 teachers and hundreds of other employees, and closed 29 schools to cut costs.
About 40 schools are being restructured, and class sizes are shrinking.
But Cosby made it clear that it would take more than his name and Bobb's dedication. He challenged parents to be more active in their children's education and ensure they get to school each day.
"We've got to really speak to parents — in a way they can understand — that the prison system is smiling, waiting on your child," Cosby said.
Later, during a nearly half-hour performance at a district rally, Cosby praised Bobb's work.
"This man comes to Detroit like a hired gunfighter," Cosby told several hundred parents and students at Henry Ford High School. "He's going to get people who've been stealing from you."