The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan singled out the Detroit Public School district in February 2009 during a nationwide discussion on the quality of education in America by stating his extreme concern over the education Detroit Public School students were receiving.
Two years after making those comments, Duncan has yet to provide any concrete plans for the district.
It’s not uncommon for politicians to make blanket statements regarding the Detroit Public School system. Based on test scores, grade point averages, attendance records and dropout rates, Detroit Public Schools are a struggling educational system. But according to DPS alumni who currently attend or have graduated from the University of Michigan, these numbers only tell half the story.
The Detroit Public School system comprises zoned, alternative and optional schools. As early as kindergarten, students may attend “optional” schools in which an examination is required before students are admitted. In middle schools like Bates Academy and Hally Magnet, students are placed in accelerated reading and math courses, which are rigorous academic programs compared to the average neighborhood school in Detroit. In the eighth grade, every Detroit Public School student takes an examination to determine whether he or she will gain acceptance to one of the district’s college preparatory high schools —King High School, Cass Technical High School and Renaissance High School — commonly referred to as “The Big Three.”
University alum Byron Conway, who attended the University on a full academic scholarship and is currently attending Boston University Law School, was the only student from his class at Kettering High School in Detroit to gain acceptance to the University in 2006. Conway said the distinction between test-in schools and neighborhood schools greatly affects the mentality of DPS students and their decision to continue on to higher education.
“Those schools were already bringing in students that have the successful mentality. They have the ‘I want to succeed’ mentality, whereas a lot of the other high schools were community-based high schools — which means they took in anyone from their community — and so they see a lot more of the ‘I just don’t care mentality,’ ” Conway said. “That’s what really separated the caliber between the Cass and Renaissance and Martin Luther King schools from the Mumfords, the Murray Wrights and the Ketterings.”
LSA Senior Bianca Renae Lee, a Renaissance High School alum, saw the negative effects of this kind of mentality firsthand.
“I’ve known people that took the exam and didn’t get in (to a ‘Big Three’ school), so when you throw people off like that, they have that mentality for the rest of their high school career,” Lee said.
Andre Criswell, a University alum and current School of Social Work student, graduated from Renaissance in 2006. He said there is a large disparity in the academic curriculum between test-in schools and neighborhood schools.
“The academics at Renaissance were extremely challenging. And it has the reputation in Detroit as being more challenging than Cass because it’s more difficult to get into, so Renaissance helped me a lot,” Criswell said. “I can’t imagine how it would have felt coming from a place like Mumford or Central to Michigan.”
The dichotomy between Detroit’s college preparatory and neighborhood schools is on display in the admissions data for the University of Michigan provided by the University’s admissions office. In 2009, Cass Tech and Renaissance high schools sent a higher number of students to the University compared to neighborhood schools like Mumford, Denby and Kettering. Based on the 2009 data, only a small pool of students from neighborhood schools applied to the University. At some neighborhood schools, no students applied.
Ford High School — a neighborhood school in Detroit with an enrollment of more than 1,200 students during the 2008 to 2009 school year — had only four students apply to the University in 2009 compared to the 73 students who applied from Renaissance, which had a comparatively lower enrollment of 1,031 students during the same academic year. During the same school year, more than 130 Cass Tech students applied to the University.
Not one student out of the 2,147 enrolled in Detroit’s Southeastern High School during the 2008-2009 academic school year applied to the University, according to data provided by the University’s admissions office.
Conway attributed low application numbers among DPS students to his peers’ realistic attitude. Conway said that though he graduated with a 4.0 GPA, the next highest grade point average was a 3.5 and the next highest ACT score was 10 points below his.
James Logan, who graduated from the University in 2008, is the only student out of the four accepted from his Mumford High School class who decided to attend the University. He believes many DPS students outside of “The Big Three” are apprehensive about applying to the University largely because they didn’t think they would receive financial aid.
“So I think I was the only one that decided to come to Michigan because I said, ‘I don’t care how much money I get, I got into the best school in the state, let alone one of the best schools in the nation, and I’m going.’ ”
Logan also described a stereotype he believes many DPS students associate with the University.
“They feel the stereotype of Michigan is not welcoming to Detroit Public School students — more specifically, blacks, to put that out there, and I think that a lot of students may not consider Michigan as an option,” he said. “I would say they have an inferiority complex. There were 500 seniors my senior year. If 400 graduated and only five applied, and only one went in 2004 — that’s pretty shocking.”
According to several former DPS students, there is a public relations problem between the University and the Detroit community. Former DPS students say the only thing their classmates knew about the University was what their parents said about it and that they perceived Michigan as a huge University that was essentially an Ivy League school. But the most common perception students from DPS share is that “being a young person from Detroit, they would have no place there,” Logan said.
WHERE IS THE ‘U’ RECRUITING?
For years, the University has actively recruited students from Renaissance and Cass Tech. From an efficiency standpoint, the University officials look to these schools because they can recruit and admit qualified students. But this causes a disadvantage those DPS students who, for other circumstances beyond academic qualifications, did not attend the city’s premier high schools.
According to Conway, the University did not actively recruit students from Kettering during his time at the high school from 2002 to 2006.
“It’s a little disturbing and a little unnerving to know that, as much as I love the University, that they don’t necessarily think that it’s worth the time to go into schools like (Kettering),” he said.
But Ashley Spratling, an LSA junior and the 2008 valedictorian at Mumford High School, said that the University actively reached out to the students of her Mumford class. She recalls University staff coming to Mumford with applications and pointers for the application process.
According to Spratling, the University also conducted an on-site admissions process at Mumford where University staff looked over students’ transcripts. Though they would not tell students whether they were accepted, they would tell students if they were likely to gain admission or what steps to take if they weren’t likely to gain admission.
Erica Sanders, director of recruitment and operations in the University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions said when reading applications, the University reviews students’ academic performance in the context of their academic environment and their school’s resources.
“This ensures that we have students from a variety of academic backgrounds who are able to learn from each other both in and out of the classroom,” she said.
The University’s Detroit Admissions Office focuses on students from DPS by working directly with the community through outreach programs. Through these programs, DPS students and their families are informed of the University’s academic expectations of students. The office also holds college planning workshops, application review days and workshops.
THE CULTURE SHOCK
Beyond recruitment, the University takes steps to ensure that students coming from districts like DPS feel socially and academically comfortable when they arrive on campus.
Many DPS students admitted to the University join the Comprehensive Studies Program — a Michigan Learning Community within LSA that provides academic support for students. Students in the program can enroll in CSP courses on subjects ranging from English to chemistry. In these settings, students learn in smaller groups with other CSP students and have more one-on-one time with professors.
One of the most beneficial CPS programs is the Summer Bridge Program. An intensive, highly individualized academic program, the Summer Bridge Program allows a limited number of students from across the country to develop their academic skills and become comfortable in the University’s social environment before the fall semester. Students in the program typically enroll in an English course, a mathematics course and a freshman seminar. These courses help students develop the fundamental skills they didn’t learn in their high school curriculum. Each of these courses contributes to the number of credits students need to graduate.
Ralph Story, associate director of the Comprehensive Studies Program, said it helps students develop a sense of camaraderie with their peers.
“It familiarizes them with both institutional and human resources,” he said. “It gives them a firm handle and understanding of classrooms, buildings, and the physical lay of the land of the University. And they take small classes with very empathetic teachers who spend a lot of time with them inside and outside of class.”
Spratling, a Summer Bridge Program participant, believes the program reduces the “culture shock” that many underrepresented minority students and students from inner-city schools feel upon arriving at the University.
“The neighborhood I grew up in was a predominantly black neighborhood. All of my schools were predominantly black, so when I came to U of M for Summer Bridge, I thought, ‘Wow this is an entirely different environment,’ ” Spratling said. “I felt — I’m not going to say alone — but I didn’t feel like the diversity that Michigan was supposed to aim for was what I was witnessing at the time.”
The Summer Bridge Program has helped the University ease the potentially difficult transition period for incoming students from areas like the inner city of Detroit.
“The Summer Bridge Program helps get (DPS students) to a place so they can say, ‘OK, I’m adequately acclimated to my surroundings, I know what to expect, I can succeed here,’ ” Conway said.
Other resources work to ensure that students’ time at the University is positive.
Intellectual Minds Making a Difference (IMMAD) is a voluntary student organization that aims to eliminate the academic achievement gap in the state of Michigan. While the organization largely focuses on preparing students for the ACT, it also serves as a mentoring opportunity. Students in IMAD go to Detroit Public Schools to encourage students to attend college.
Logan said IMMAD was what ultimately motivated him to apply to the University.
“One of the reasons why I did go to Michigan was because I met people in IMMAD who were just like me, who came from the same place that I came from, who experienced the same struggles, and actually were excelling in life,” Logan said.
THE ACADEMIC CHALLENGE
Still, some former DPS students feel they are at a disadvantage because University professors assume students have certain fundamental skills that should’ve been taught in high school.
“I very much had to work twice as hard to get half as far for the first couple of semesters … I had to show them I’m a black man from DPS, and yes, I am still intellectually capable of doing the work that you assigned,” Conway said.
Despite students’ various academic backgrounds, the University strives to accept applicants who can handle its rigorous academics. Sanders explained that the University doesn’t want to set students up for failure.
“All students admitted to the University are prepared for the academic environment the University of Michigan offers,” she said.
But several DPS students, whether they graduated from a “Big Three” school or a Detroit neighborhood high school, felt they were often playing catch-up during their first semesters at the University.
Ross School of Business junior Tangela Cheatham graduated from Cass Tech, but doesn’t feel that the college preparatory high school adequately prepared her for college.
“Academically, I think I’m at a disadvantage … I struggle with how to study effectively. I don’t feel as prepared as my counterparts who had more preparation with study habits in high school,” Cheatham said.
But LSA sophomore and Cass Tech graduate William Campbell explained the DPS system is not entirely to blame.
“I’m not saying the Detroit Public School system is a great system because it’s not,” Campbell said. “The resources are terrible, but you are your own person, and you can always make something out of nothing wherever you go.”
Despite frustration over their high school curriculum, most DPS alumni did not regret their DPS roots and see themselves as ambassadors for their district.
“I look at it a lot like, no matter where you come from, you can get to the same place, and I use it as an inspirational tool because a lot of people did come from better schools than me, but we all ended up at the same University,” Spratling said.
For the DPS alumni, returning to Detroit is a definite part of their future. Many of these University students claim one of the key problems with the DPS system is that the most motivated and capable graduates leave the city and often don’t return.
Current University students and recent graduates are ready to change this precedent, be it through non-profit organizations, teaching, mentoring in Detroit Public Schools or simply having a job in Detroit and paying taxes.
“If it weren’t for Detroit, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” Logan said. “I feel like Detroit has helped raise me … And I owe so much to the city of Detroit and its people. My wife and I are moving back to Detroit, and I don’t have any qualms about it and I won’t think twice about raising my kids in Detroit Public Schools.”