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Southwest Comes Alive With Arts Education

Southwest Detroit attracts people with its ethnic food, its early 20th-century architecture, and, increasingly, its innovative learning projects. 
When you think "growing, thriving Detroit neighborhood," Corktown or Midtown probably come to mind. And without discounting the transformation of those increasingly trendy 'hoods, Southwest Detroit is actually the real success story. Anchored by the Latino community, the collection of neighborhoods that make up Southwest Detroit started booming in the 1990s and just keeps growing, fueled by immigration and high birthrates. 

While explosive growth is a good problem to have, it means that young people in the neighborhood need opportunities to grow and to shine. And a phalanx of community agencies, focusing on everything from arts to leadership to tutoring, has stepped in to close the gap for neighborhood young people. 

One exciting development earlier this year was the announcement that Living Arts, an arts and cultural organization that serves Southwest Detroit, will be a Wolf Trap site. Wolf Trap is a national arts and culture educational program, and their partnering with Living Arts will double the scope of their El Arte arts-infused education program to schools throughout Southwest Detroit. El Arte brings visiting artists into the classroom, who then use art to illuminate the teaching taking place within the curriculum.

For example, a preschool class might learn about colors, letters and shapes from singing and dancing with a teacher, or an older class might create a song about something they are learning in science. One aspect of the Wolf Trap partnership is that it will provide some training to visiting artists in STEM education, among other things.  

The visiting artists work with teachers, so that when the visits end, teachers have some tools in their toolbox to teach their students. "It will help our artists go deeper into the work they are doing with children," says Roberta Lucas, El Arte Early Learning Program director for Living Arts.

School is where the action is for many programs that target Hispanic youth. For example, United Neighborhood Initiatives in the Springwells Village neighborhood employs parent-school liaisons to organize the communities around neighborhood schools. Vania Ruiz does that job at Phoenix Academy, part of the newly-created statewide Education Achievement Authority. She pulls together a dizzying array of programs, from Scouting to workshops focusing on healthy relationships, self-esteem and conflict resolution to English classes for parents and young children. There’s also a health clinic and a Department of Human Services worker on site so that families can access services in a place they are already going every day.

"The biggest challenge hasn’t been identifying needs and finding people who are willing to help, it’s trying to find a way for participation to increase in these programs," Ruiz says. "We’ve been really lucky at having people work with us and building partnerships." Students and parents want the programs, but overcoming barriers for families to get to school and what would be the optimal time to keep them there can be a difficult balance. "Our ultimate goal is academic success and academic achievement," she says.

Another program that reaches young women in the community, Mercy Education Project, handles the participation problem by transporting them by bus to the Mercy Education Project site, where they participate in Mercy Education Project’s tutoring program. It takes one of two forms: traditional, more tailored tutoring for girls grades 1-8 and ACT classes and college preparation for girls in high school. Both offer one-on-one tutoring, which is uncommon -- and effective, says Melanie Ward, Girls Tutoring Program coordinator.

"Traditionally, in the six years I have been here, they make at least one grade level of progress in the eight months of tutoring each year," she says. "It varies a little, but even if they are starting out behind and they may still be behind, they’ve made a full year of progress."

Tutors will also help parents advocate for girls who might need special education services, Ward says. The program serves only girls for two reasons: back when it was founded in 1992, there were few program targeting only girls, and the Sisters of Mercy religious order that founded the program traditionally serves girls and young women. And, Ward notes, research shows girls tend to learn better in an environment free from the distractions of boys.

Of course, education -- and really, preparation for a successful adult life -- can happen in myriad ways and places. Strengthening collaborations among a diverse community is the role of the Coalition of Hispanic Agencies, made up of six major Latino organizations. The CHA and its partners have created a Latino Agenda, laying out several areas of concern for Latino residents of the city. An important piece of that is working with youth, says executive director Norman Bent. One of the bigger projects CHA has undertaken is leadership development for youth. In one project, youth were able to choose to give out mini-grants to young people; they actually managed the project and evaluated the grants written by peers to determine who got funding for their project. 

They've also developed a series of YouTube videos in order to tell their story and the story of their neighborhood, Bent says. "We think as a community we have not been too good about telling our story," he says. You hear all the negative things here -- a lot of the violent stories -- but you don’t get to hear the positive things. This is the teen’s chance to say 'this is where we are and what we're like, and where we are going to go."

Immigration is a major issue facing youth in the community, Bent says. For example, when INS arrests undocumented parents outside a school or church, as has happened in the past, undocumented families are afraid to send their children to school. And if they do get caught up in the immigration net, children can end up going into foster care, which does not always provide culturally competent care or even Spanish-speaking caregivers. 

That’s all part of the reason CHA is working to engage youth in shaping their future, Bent says. "Youth involvement in the change-making process is just as important as adults are," he says. "It's important for youth to be change agents within politics, but also within their own schools, their own classrooms, their own communities and even their own homes. We have a lot of things happening to move forward in the next generation."

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