From Phoenix to Wolverine: UM students share their experiences coming from Detroit Public Schools

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 10:56pm

Growing up on Detroit’s West Side, Walter Stevenson, an engineering junior at the University of Michigan, never saw anything wrong with the Detroit Public Schools district. From kindergarten through sixth grade, he thought all schools wouldn’t let students stray too far from the playground because it was centered in a rougher neighborhood. He thought all schools had books that were “not only outdated, (but) usually dilapidated and ripped up.”

It wasn’t until seventh grade, when Stevenson transferred to a private school, that he began to notice discrepancies between DPS and other school districts.

“I saw the difference in the quality of education and the quality of schooling … you have to grow up quickly,” Stevenson said. “If you went to a private school, at that age, you’d think that the world was kinda perfect and you didn’t really have to worry about anything.”

To Stevenson, the length of one’s childhood seemed to depend on the income bracket their school was surrounded by.

Michael Chrzan, a University alum and current high school geometry teacher at Voyageur College Prep in Southwest Detroit, attended classes alongside Stevenson at Renaissance High School. Though Chrzan lauded it as “the top magnet school in the city,” he said even Renaissance lacked teaching materials that students consider to be crucial in a 21st-century education.

“Every foreign language classroom has a computer lab,” Chrzan said. “If we were lucky, half of the computers (at Renaissance) worked. Even the top school in the district was facing slight disadvantages.”

For DPS students, the journey from city to the University is often not an easy one because of factors such as the neighborhood the school is located in, availability of materials, infrastructural problems and even the salaries of its teachers. Chrzan and Stevenson, as well as other students interviewed who have traversed that path, said it requires immense amounts of determination on behalf of the students to want to receive a higher level of education.

Erica Sanders, director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University, is a DPS alum. She acknowledged there has been a decline in DPS enrollment at the University, attributing it to the local effects in the city of the 2008 economic downturn. However, she noted that the University takes into account the varied availability of pre-college programming — like the computer programming class Stevenson found he was lacking — when offering admission to students.

“Michigan is doing everything we can to encourage and attract the students who have challenged themselves by taking advantage of the educational opportunities available to them in the context of their home high schools, and providing academic support where we realize opportunities may not be as abundant,” Sanders said.

Upon arriving at the University, Chrzan and Stevenson both noticed DPS had not adequately prepared them for the college application process, or the caliber of education on campus.

“Coming from a family where I’m one of the first to go through the process of applying to numerous schools, there was a large learning gap that my school didn’t necessarily help me fill in terms of the things I need to know and be ready for such as how to fill out the FAFSA …  and there was a large learning curve at the beginning of my senior year (of high school) of things that I actually need to have to complete a college application,” Chrzan said.

Stevenson said he noted certain requirements for the Engineering college, like computer programming classes, were out of reach. Additionally, he noticed significant discrepancies in applicant placement test scores in math between him and his peers.

“There were certain classes that we just didn’t have,” Stevenson said. “I noticed that the kids that came from Detroit Public Schools — they are typically in the lower maths. We were either taking pre-calc or calc 1. … It felt unfair because a lot of (other students) already knew how to program and it was our first time so it made learning a lot more difficult.”

Many students, including Stevenson, have charged that coming from a low-income district puts Detroit students at a disadvantage regarding both academic success and mental health. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education reported that “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding, leaving students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” Citing new school-level spending and teacher salaries, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the 2011 press release that educational red tape is stopping the students from receiving the aid they need.

“Educators across the country understand that low-income students need extra support and resources to succeed, but in far too many places policies for assigning teachers and allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it,” Duncan said.

For both Chrzan and Stevenson, a specific pressure in the college application process began when they got to high school — the quickly arriving ACT.

The average ACT score of the entering 2016 class at the University is between a 30 and a 34. According to the Michigan Department of Education, the average score for the state of Michigan in 2015 was 19.9. The average score at Renaissance High School was 20.9, the highest average ACT score in DPS for 2015.

Stevenson said many students are discouraged from trying their best and attempting to get to a school like the University because if a student receives any score above the average, it is considered exemplary by DPS standards even though it isn’t by the University’s standards, creating a culture aiming for the average instead of encouraging students to excel.

“I looked at the average ACT at U of M in 2014 and said, ‘OK, that’s what I need to reach,’ ” Stevenson said. “Then you have all the staff and teachers, since typically the students never get anything near that, they say, ‘OK, guys, just shoot for a 21. Shoot for that. At least get that.’ They’re telling us to aim so low because they don’t expect much out of us so people like me who were trying to go for 30s, they think, ‘Oh, they’re not really expecting me to do well anyways.’ Mentally, it wears on you.”

Since the educational culture children are subjected to affects their education immensely, the Detroit Federation of Teachers took to the streets to garner attention surrounding the physical deterioration of DPS schools. In January, teachers staged multiple “sickouts” —- a form of protest where teachers call in sick in large numbers so that school is cancelled — to draw attention to the working conditions they operate in.

While the DFT used physical marches and sickouts to draw attention from the city, photos of classrooms with moldy and cracked walls, missing tiles and a lack of insulated windows were also shared on Twitter to further raise awareness.

Chrzan said he saw the infrastructural issues in DPS as an injustice to the children in the district, who deserve an equal opportunity as anyone in a public school district to receive an education.

“What’s going on in a lot of DPS schools is criminal, in my opinion,” Chrzan said. “These are things that children should not have to deal with at the one place that should be safe for them.”

Along with the infrastructure issues, teachers have also protesting their wages. According to the Michigan Department of Education, the average salary of DPS teachers, which is $5,095 per pupil, was ranked 462 out of 581 school districts.

The cry for better wages did not come as a surprise to Marion Berger, program coordinator for Semester in Detroit at the University, who said she saw the effect of low salaries for DPS teachers through her mother’s career as a teacher in the district for 30 years.

“I remember her taking cuts and her salary diminishing every year even though she had been working more and more years in DPS,” Berger said.

Stevenson said DPS teachers have more responsibilities than those in high-income neighborhoods and therefore deserve compensation for their work.

“Not only do they overall not make enough money, on top of that, they have to deal with students from lower-income families so a lot of (students) aren’t motivated to aspire to do something greater,” Stevenson said. “Some students, their biggest accomplishment is graduating high school. You have a lot of rowdy students at times and that’s a lot of extra work that most teachers don’t even have to deal with.”

Responses from the government to the protests have been varied. In a May speech in Flint, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) condemned the sickouts, saying, “That’s not a constructive act with respect to getting legislation through.” Several Republican members of the state legislature have stated similar sentiments in response to the protest.

This past June, before the sickouts, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a $617 million state aid package for DPS. The package called for paying off $467 million in debt accumulated by DPS and allocated an additional $150 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, as well as pay for transitional costs and new programs. Under the structure of the aid package, two school districts will essentially exist — one to hold the debt, and one to function as a school district day to day.

During a press conference, Snyder said the package “promises a brighter future for all of Detroit’s children.”

However, Democrats and Detroiters have opposed the bill, saying it lacked components like the creation of a Detroit Education Commission, an organization that would have authority over both public and charter schools in the city. This commission was seen as crucial by Democrats and Detroiters in negotiations over the aid package.

In November, as a result of the new law, Detroiters will elect a new school board for DPSCD who will take office in January and will then hire a permanent superintendent.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Steven Wasko, DPS executive director of academic enrollment, said he sees the future of DPSCD as bright and positive.

“We have nothing but hope that we are heading in a positive direction and we do have a fresh start in that we have local control,” Wasko said. “Frankly, being in the district, being in schools, being in the classrooms every single day, there is a very hopeful attitude ... on the part of all.”

When asked what they believe the future holds for the students of DPSCD, both Stevenson and Chrzan said they had faith students wouldn’t let a lacking educational environment keep them from succeeding.

“Although DPS has had its struggles, I still feel like there are a lot of gifted and talented students that live in Detroit and that may be going to DPS,” Stevenson said. “I think that in a sense, those students that still can push to do their best and overcome obstacles … that says a lot about those students.”

“For all of its troubles, there are still amazing teachers and students here, and regardless of the conditions, from the motto of the city itself ‘From the ashes, it will rise again,’ ” Chrzan said. “I very much believe that over the next five or 10 years, there will at least be the same amount if not more students coming from DPSCD to schools like Michigan … because I think district is only going to go up from here.”