Don’t Doubt Detroit

It’s true that there is a lot of work to be done in Detroit — from rebuilding the city to addressing longstanding issues of equity and access. It’s true that over 200 schools have been abandoned and closed in the last couple decades (for a full report see A School District in Crisis: Detroit’s Public Schools 1842-2015). It’s true that Detroit has the highest level of concentrated poverty amongst the top 25 metro areas in the U.S.

But what’s also true, is that there are incredibly dedicated educators and families in Detroit working to revive their schools and communities. The heart and resilience of the people in Detroit is palpable.

There are layers and layers of history, narrative and context that weave a complex Detroit quilt. Take it from Casco Bay High School students who traveled to Detroit to understand the stories of people in the community as part of their Listen to Detroit Documentary project. They unpacked the trials and tribulations of those who have endured the bankruptcy, corruption and systematic design that has perpetuated the struggles many Detroit residents face.

Students also shared the dangers of coming into Detroit with preconceived ideas about the city and the people without really listening to their experiences. Because what they learned and what I saw on a short visit to Detroit, was that there are positive and empowering stories that also need to be told.

Image courtesy of LOVELAND Technologies and is from their Detroit Schools Report

I recently visited Detroit, and while I was there for less than 72 hours, in that short time it was readily apparent that there is progress, growth and desire for all students to receive the high quality education they deserve. While I can’t even begin to understand or unpack the entire story of the school system (nor would I ever try), I can offer a story about one school I visited.

Founded by Jen McMillan and Kyle Smitley in 2015, Detroit Prep opened its doors in 2016. The school is currently located in the basement of a church in the Indian Village neighborhood. Detroit Prep uses Responsive Classroom, an approach that encourages positive school culture and behavior reinforcement. They also are an EL Education school, working to investigate cross-curricular topics and engage students in expeditions.

McMillan, 2015 Michigan teacher of the year, and Smitley, former successful business leader, make a power team and complement each other’s strengths well. They’ve both received EdSurge kudos for being two women making history in education.

Committed to serving and working with the families of Detroit, they intentionally work to keep the school diverse. While Detroit Prep has seen its fair share of push back (charter schools remain a large point of contention), they continue to advocate and strive for providing the students and families in most need with a rigorous and caring learning environments.

Detroit Achievement Academy, the flagship school in their network, was opened by Kyle Smitley in Fall 2013 and will eventually serve students in K-8th grade.

The schools are NewSchools Invent Grant recipients and have clearly put their investment to good use, already outperforming most schools in the district and averaging 140% of the national average growth in a year. This may be in part to the teams savvy sense and highly effective planning. They have networked with their partner school in Chicago, Polaris, to learn from their successes and challenges and ensure that Detroit Prep stays focused on their mission and values. Every student I got the opportunity to chat with was happy, energetic and seemed full of joy that they were starting their year at Detroit Prep.

Detroit Prep is just one of many examples of the commitment to quality education. Many Detroit students also attend a Linked Learning school, which is an approach developed by ConnectEd California. Linked Learning offers students a sequence of courses and experiences called pathways. These multi-year pathways are organized around major industry themes to deliver 1) rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards, 2) sequenced, high-quality career and technical education, 3) work-based learning, and 4) personalized student supports. “ConnectEd partnered with Excellent Schools Detroit to launch Linked Learning Detroit in 2012. In 2016, the United Way for Southeastern Michigan incorporated Linked Learning Detroit into its ongoing operations (see Game Changer: Linked Learning Detroit for more).”

Downtown Detroit is also bursting with this same energy and life. From the opening of Campus Martius Park this summer, to the new arena downtown, there is lots of development and attention to making downtown a place to hangout and stay a while. A good number of tech and startup companies have found their home in Detroit. It would be wrong to not acknowledge that this rejuvenation is not omnipresent and for every new building, there is seemingly another one abandoned.

I’ll close this post just as I started by saying that to understand Detroit, you can’t just read one story. I encourage you to try and better understand the quilt (be it in Detroit or your own hometown), talk to the people in your own community and truly try to listen. I need to heed this advice, too.

Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation for sharing resources included in this post and for facilitating powerful discussions and learning experiences about the great city of Detroit.

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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