City kids: Diversity is a strength in Hamtramck Public Schools

Hamtramck looks like a throwback to another era in some ways – two-flats crammed onto small lots, the kind of street parking customs that start generational neighborhood feuds, and commercial strips almost completely unmarred by strip malls and chock full of the kind of neighborhood businesses that have been Wal-Marted out of existence elsewhere.

But in other ways, it’s very much a preview of America’s future, where no one race is the majority. Once known for its heavily Polish population, Hamtramck is still a home for immigrants, but now they are from all over the world. You’re as likely these days to hear Bengali or Yemeni as you are to hear English or Polish. 

For adults, the mix of cultures and races in the city can be both exciting and challenging.

For the kids growing up here, it’s just how life is -- having friends of varied races and ethnicities is as much a part of school to these young people as worksheets and times tables. And school officials believe it will help prepare them for an increasingly multicultural future.

"We believe diversity is a strength, and we respect all ethnicities," says Thomas Niczay, the district's superintendent. "We are preparing kids to function in a very diverse society where you can have anyone and everyone working with you. You have to be able to get along."

Hamtramck faces the same struggles of any urban district -- graduation rates are still below state standards, although they've improved greatly in the last several years. Students have one of the highest poverty levels in state. And there are a large number of English Language learners -- typically, one-third of students at the high school are learning English and a proportion of those speak no English at all when they arrive. The district must address those students' needs with little extra funding. That funding is constantly under threat, even more so now that several charters have moved into the city; many cater to the Muslim communities with single-sex classrooms.

Amid all that, graduating seniors earned more than $2 million in scholarships last year, Niczay says, and the conservative think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy rates the district 120 out of more than 585 district's in terms of overall performance.

The largest elementary school in the district does a program every spring where every ethnic group in the school presents a dance or song from their culture.

"It’s quite a sight," Niczay says. "We fill up a playground in the middle of a block with all these different groups and an African-American parent sitting next to a Bosnian parent and they learn from that experience of watching it," Niczay says.

The district uses restorative practices, which helps students build community together. At the high school, that means students are grouped into circles formed of similar ethnic groups of one gender, which are a safe space where, guided by an adult, they can deal with anything they are facing. Later, the ideas are brought to the community at large. Hamtramck High School principal Rebecca Westrate says the students themselves asked that they be grouped by commonalities rather than ethnicity.

"When we are having things we need to deal with, the kids have much better solutions than I do," she says.

Hadiga Alsaedi is a senior and says that "circle" is really meaningful to her. "We form a bond with each other like sisters," she says.

For Alexis Hill, the circle allows her to talk with her friends about meaningful things in a deeper way than the typical school day allows. "Everything said there there can never leave it," she says. "It gives you that privacy and comfort, and also lets you get to know other people." 

One way the school has met the needs of one aspect of the student population, in a way that ended up benefitting everyone, was the Princess Project.

Three years ago, a group of girls who were not able to attend the traditional prom because of religious restrictions asked Westrate to help them set up an alternative. With help from local businesses and large corporate partners such as GM, they ended up throwing a  fantastic event which drew most of the girls in the school, and it's just gotten bigger every year. Girls dress up, have dinner, dance and have fun – and sometimes even bring their moms or their little sisters as their "dates" for the evening. There's a traditional prom as well, but the Princess Project has turned into a tradition at the school.

Westrate says she's worked in other, more homogenous schools where students would head to major universities and stumble, unable to cope with the wider spectrum of people and cultures they encountered. Here, she knows her students can go forward into that larger world confidently, unafraid of people who may be different. 

With all the multiculturalism, however, the high school draws on a longstanding tradition. They are still in the original vintage 1930 building (known until the early 1970s as Copernicus Junior High School, reflecting the community's Polish-American roots) some of the student’s parents and even grandparents may have attended, and photos of distinguished alumni line the walls. "We're building context around a real sense of roots and identity," says Wetsrate. 

Sammy Ashaif, a senior at the school and a student leader, feels he really benefits from the diversity of his school.

"Something that makes me proud about going to school here is how much I've actually learned and matured from learning what people have gone through and how they do things," he says. For example, both he and Alexis likened the stereotyping of African Americans and of Muslims.

"I used to think the media was only portraying me as a bad person," he says. "But for black people, if anything goes wrong they get called thugs and gangsters. I learned I am not the only person that goes through discrimination."

It's that kind of dialogue that is the point of circles.

"It gives them something to think about -- a deeper and more critical thinking," says Dwight Leven, who leads boys' circles at the school. "It's getting them to think things though."

There have been racial tensions at the school in the past, Westrate says, but in the four years she's been there they have eased, which she attributes to the students themselves really embracing the restorative justice plan. 

The goal for her students, Westrate says, is for them to feel they have a choice about their future and the resources to pursue it. "As long as they have the wherewithal and experience to make that choice for themselves, I want them to pursue that," she says. 

Despite their challenges, the students themselves are deeply enthusiastic about the benefits of their multicultural, diverse, delicious stew of a community.

"There's nothing like it. I think it's the best thing ever," says Ashaif. "To me, hate is taught. You're not born with hate. If you are raised in a multicultural place like Hamtramck, it's different."

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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