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Bright Ideas

Opinion: School Success for All

Can we turn dismal statistical projections and empty rhetoric around education into constructive dialog and real cooperation? Vulnerable kids in Michigan and Detroit give us inspiration to try.
Late last summer, the National Institutes of Health announced results of a study showing that the stresses of poverty lead to impaired learning ability in children. In short, poverty and school failure are related.
Statistics like this are not surprising, but they are disturbing. And, most of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, truly believe that every child deserves an equal chance to learn.
It is part of our national spirit and in our national interest that when children enter this world at a disadvantage, we give them a lift, a fair shake, an open door to further their success – we do not ignore their collapse.
Have we gone wrong by our impoverished kids? By golly, it appears so. Not only do the national statistics make the correlation between low-income students and academic deficiency, but statewide and regionally our kids fare no better.
According to the 2011 results of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Promise) in math aptitude for low-income students, Michigan ranks 42 out of 50, scoring well below the national average. When looking at the largest school districts in the country, Detroit ranks last in low-income student performance in grade-four math and second to last in grade-four reading. As compared to the rankings of other large U.S. cities, Detroit is in the dumper.
And, we’re deep in the dumper. Last July, our disregard for impoverished kids was magnified as the ACLU of Michigan filed a class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind, against the Highland Park School District and the state on behalf of eight students who are clearly not meeting literacy standards. In a city with a 43.7 percent poverty rate, Highland Park students are not receiving a satisfactory education and are reading nowhere near grade level. In fact, less than 10 percent of students in Highland Park are proficient in reading and math based on MEAP and Michigan Merit scores.
With statistics like this, we need to find solutions to leveling the playing field for low-income students. These three tactics provide a place to start.
GOOD PARENTING: The NIH research says that finding ways to reduce stress in the home and school environment can improve children's well being and allow them to be more successful academically. One of the most obvious ways to do that is through parenting support and training. Metro Detroit’s Early Learning Communities, city-based agencies like Detroit Parent Network, and training program’s like the Parent Empowerment Program at Starfish Family Services in Inkster, offer support to parents to alleviate the strain and help them better prepare their children to learn.
MEETING BASIC NEEDS: Living with food insecurity, inadequate clothing, or cramped or unsafe housing creates huge stressors for families. Clothing banks, housing services, utility assistance programs, and feeding programs can provide relief for families. Baldwin Center’s Clothes Closet in Pontiac and Gleaners Community Food Bank’s school-based mobile pantry and BackPack programs in metro Detroit are examples of services that help to meet the most basic and immediate needs of families.
EFFECTIVE TEACHING: According to Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, “Teachers are the number one in-school indicator for academic success.” Studies have shown that having high-quality teachers during the elementary school years can significantly counterbalance or even obliterate the disadvantage that low-income students face.
TNTP, a national group behind the movement for better teacher evaluations, states that “all children can master academically rigorous material, regardless of their socioeconomic status.” This leads me hopeful that the NIH study isn’t the be-all, end-all for disadvantaged kids and that good teachers can help children succeed, despite challenges outside the classroom.
While these are some of the tactics that I believe may help, the solution is complex. No child chooses to be poor, or poorly educated. And we can’t make headway if we just point blame on parents, schools, teachers, school districts, or government programs.
Thankfully, the trajectory for Michigan children may be changing a small amount thanks to a little less blaming and a little more action and cooperation.
The Education Achievement Authority, the entity that took over Michigan’s worst performing schools, announced gains in student academic growth since the start of this school year. Another bright spot: Michigan and Detroit Public Schools high school graduation rates are on the upswing.
Also, communities are getting involved. As an example, Brightmoor Pastors Alliance, a group of Detroit faith leaders, is spearheading a campaign to address its neighborhood’s abysmal school attendance. The “Present in Brightmoor: Our School Attendance Movement” campaign, announced in February, came on the heels of student count results from last year showing that more than 60 percent of Brightmoor students missed 10 or more days of school.
And, students are becoming more vocal, as evidenced by the YOUTH VOICE rally in Detroit last Saturday to draw attention to the school-to-prison pipeline and raise awareness around how much the state spends on prisons vs. schools. YOUTH VOICE is an organization of Detroit youth who tackle community and political issues to create change.
But, perhaps, the most hope for impoverished kids and their education can be found in a shift in the dialogue among educators, politicians, and nonprofit leaders.
Last Friday, March 22, 2013, I was privileged to attend the NBC News Education Nation Detroit Summit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Moderated by NBC’s Chief Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis and Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton, this four-hour, multi-part conversation about education covered early childhood education, K-12 learning, higher education, and finally education’s impact on the economy. It was sponsored by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, GM Foundation, and University of Phoenix.
While I was expecting much of the same rhetoric and finger-pointing, the tone was focused more on children and a need to change the culture of learning in our state. That makes me feel hopeful.
During the summit panel discussions, we heard from Tony Briggs, owner of Kristy’s Early Childhood Development Center in Detroit who removes one obstacle to learning that children in poverty face: getting to school. Briggs and her staff members will help parents with transportation challenges, picking up or dropping off children to and from preschool as needed.
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, talked about the need to better address issues of poverty with better wraparound services for students.
Dr. John Covington, chancellor of the Michigan Education Achievement Authority, said, “We have to make sure that there is a system in place, positively and without question, that is accountable for the progress children are making in school.”
Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of Detroit Parent Network, and Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, discussed the importance of better equipping parents with resources and tools to make more informed school choices for their children. And they both emphasized the need for more quality schooling options for kids in Detroit.
During Rehema Ellis’ interview with Governor Snyder, he reiterated his promise for early childhood education for all Michigan youngsters, but cautioned: “It’s not about one segment. It’s about a P to 20 system of education, which is prenatal through lifelong learning.”
From the for-profit sector, the conversation focused on better alignment between educational institutions and business needs. But even that dialogue had a more holistic approach than usual. As Mary Barra, senior vice president of Global Product Development at General Motors noted, “To have a successful community, we need to have a successful school system.”
Audience member Carol Goss, president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation, summed it up quite well: “Now is the time. You can see from the panel conversations that we’re talking about children as opposed to governance.” 
While we have a long path to travel, last Friday’s NBC News Education Nation Detroit Summit left me more optimistic. The dialogue was reflective of a change in attitude; we are all beginning to understand that quality education for low-income, marginalized children in our region is a community issue -- everyone’s issue. 
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