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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reflection on Detroit school visits

I had the opportunity over the past couple of weeks to volunteer and visit and evaluate some of Detroit's schools as part of an initiative (School Quality Review) by Excellent Schools Detroit ( Despite several attempts to volunteer with Detroit schools before, this was probably my first opportunity to observe firsthand the reality of Detroit public schools. I'm glad I did it – the experience was quite an eye-opener. I feel like I must have seen the best and worst of Detroit schools, as well as what the typical experience looks like, at least at the high school level.

Some observations:

  • At its best, a Detroit high school can be pretty great – key elements like motivated students, engaged teachers, great facilities, strong administrators, safe and secure premises, robust curricula, varied enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities make for an excellent school when brought together

  • At its worst, a Detroit high school can be pretty depressing – with absenteeism, gang tension, student murders, deteriorating facilities, dangerous neighborhoods, minimal creative or extracurricular outlets, and a jail-like security atmosphere, it is a wonder any kids can thrive in such schools (and some do thrive)

  • Even in the better schools, the security presence is there and you can feel it; I guess it would make me feel safer, but it also feels less like a school; the realities of being in the D, I guess; in some places, it is a bit stifling, with walkie-talkies going off loudly

  • The effects of budget deficits and cutbacks are clear – schools seem to lack much in the way of electives; now, a school doesn't need a lot of electives to be great, but with some kids, it is a music teacher or an art teacher or something that can really help set them on the right path and that class motivates them – if it isn't there…well, some kids won't show up

  • Some schools had a lot of extracurricular activities going on, while others had hardly any, which is strange (see below for my thoughts on why)

  • Every student had free breakfast and lunch (and sometimes dinner) available to them, which I thought was brilliant, given the hunger situation in the City; some students chose not to partake in free lunch and didn't eat at all (or just bought junk food), which I thought was unfortunate and a bit hard to understand

  • Given the drastic school closures over the past couple of years, space utilization is almost tragic – in some cases, multiple schools are often crammed into one building, and then in other cases, some schools have whole wings that don't seem to be used much

  • Computers and other technology seem to be present in the schools, but I was a bit disappointed in the lack of emphasis on books (some schools didn't have a library)

  • The teachers and administrators seem to be doing what they can (and in some cases are exceedingly supportive) - if a student wants to learn and is in a position to learn (given his/her home environment and other influences or circumstances), they should be able to succeed...however, it is that home life and outside pressures that I think might be at the root of the problem

  • Another big variable was school spirit - some schools had uniforms but no school spirit or positive culture, while others had a more lax interpretation of dress code, but a lot more school pride

Some thoughts:

  • I wonder if a deficit in student leadership at the non-magnet schools is contributing to the poor performance and atmosphere at those schools; a lot of learning is peer learning, and if students at the typical Detroit high school don't have any academic role models or student leaders because their stars are all at one of the magnet schools…well, they are left with no peers to help them in study groups and no organizers that take the initiative to form student groups and clubs; it is great for the top students who can leave poor performing schools for a better environment, but there may be some unintended consequences, I think…

  • Given the decimation of student leadership at the non-magnet schools, it might make sense for student groups led out of the magnet schools to operate in partnership with some of those other schools; high school clubs are really driven by students, and if the "go-getters" are all at a couple of schools, that is where all the student organizations will be formed

  • Even in the rougher schools, the building and teachers are there, as are basic resources; some could be better, but I can't imagine those are the real issue with performance; I think part of the issue may be student attitude, but the greater part is probably what they have to deal with at home and outside of school