being heard

Joining national gun protest, Detroit students plan a two-mile march, speeches in three languages, and somber memorials

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti met with student leaders about their plans to participate Wednesday in a nationwide student walkout to protest gun violence.

When Detroit students join their peers in cities across the country Wednesday in walking out of school to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, Ridgeley Hudson is planning to be at the front of one rally.

Hudson, a sophomore at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, has helped lead the planning for a two-mile march from the city’s east side to the Spirit of Detroit statue in front of the city and county building downtown.

Students’ goal, Hudson said, is to protest one of the solutions that lawmakers — and Detroit’s police chief — have proposed to keep schools safe: arming teachers.

“We’ll stand down there for about 20 minutes and let our voice be heard so that lawmakers know that we do not support teachers having guns in our school,” Hudson said.

At some schools, including Hudson’s, the protests have the support of administrators, who are offering buses, extra security, and other resources to help students participate. At others, officials are trying to rein students in, worried about their safety and lost class time.

Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he sees the protests as an opportunity for students to learn leadership skills.

“I want you know that I’m on your side,” Vitti told a group of more than 20 student leaders, each representing a different high school, whom he brought together last week for a lunchtime meeting at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men.

The students had come by taxi from their home schools to attend the meeting, where Vitti asked them to share their plans for Wednesday.

“I want to help,” Vitti told them. “I don’t want to become the voice of this. I don’t want to take your voice away. I want to only promote your voice and give you space to lead on this issue.”

Hudson shared his school’s plans. Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit, who is on a national organizing committee for Wednesday’s protest, said her school is planning a 17-minute walkout “to bring awareness to how, in Detroit, we’ve actually normalized gun violence in the last couple of years,” she said.

And student leaders from other city high schools, including Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School, and the Detroit International Academy for Young Women also shared plans for walkouts, memorial ceremonies and marches near their schools.

The students at Western are planning speeches in three languages — English, Spanish, and Arabic — and the release of 17 balloons to commemorate the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 when a former student with an assault rifle opened fire there.

Vitti told students that the district would provide extra security to schools planning walkouts as well as transportation for students who want to participate in another school’s event.

Students from several high schools expressed interest in buses that would take them to the Martin Luther King High School march. The students also discussed a larger, citywide student march on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and another planned national protest.

“We will work with those principals to organize a way to have you be connected to King’s process that will get you to the Spirit of Detroit,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the meeting last week was the third time he has brought student leaders together to discuss issues facing their schools since his arrival in Detroit last spring.

The meeting began as a discussion about plans for Wednesday before veering into a range of issues including school safety, the value of school metal detectors, and whether high school students should have to wear uniforms.

Also discussed: the quality of cafeteria lunches and the district’s plans to start giving students ID cards that they’ll swipe in the cafeteria as part of a new system that will keep track of what students are eating — and which foods should be removed from the menu.

Next year, Vitti said, he plans to make the student gatherings more formal, with students at each school electing a representative to join the citywide forums.

“I want the district to allow you to continue to grow as leaders,” Vitti told the group last week. “I want to create space that you can feel safe, well organized and supported.”

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.