City kids: Changing the education narrative in Detroit

On a steamy morning last summer, three Model D folks – editor Walter Wasacz and writers Melinda Clynes and Amy Kuras – pondered the question of education in the city of Detroit. After all, anyone raising kids in the city – or even contemplating it – contends with the "schools question." Between rounds of iced coffee at Hamtramck’s Café 1923, we put aside the notion that schools are necessarily a deal-breaker for would-be Detroiters.

We decided it was high time to upstart an alternative narrative, a positive narrative, about educational options in Detroit. Within an hour, we had a long list of amazing "hidden gems" – and some not so hidden – that match anything available in the ‘burbs. Sure, we were a little hopped up on caffeine, but we also felt a genuine energy building as we jabbered about all the cool happenings around education in the city. And it’s that energy and excitement we hope to share with you in an ongoing Model D educational series. Now that we’re in the thick of fall, it’s high time we get started.

We’ll be creating a new buzz, no coffee required, that will be relevant to everyone – even childfree city dwellers and suburbanites – because we all understand the importance of schools to a thriving city. After all, the quality of education in the city affects everything from how much your house is worth to finding decent employees for your business – and yes, that affects people north of Eight Mile as well.

With Model D as the platform, we plan to create a public dialogue about what Detroit does have to offer for folks choosing to live, work, play and educate their children within the city limits. 

Just for starters, let’s put an end to the argument that DPS is an immediate no-go. There are public schools that are doing great work in the D, and we’ll give them the spotlight they so deserve.

Beyond jewels like Cass Tech and Renaissance, there’s Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School (known as FLICS), as well as Burton and Chrysler for the elementary set closer to downtown. At the high school level, Osborn and Cody are doing great things, and the Catherine Ferguson Academy for pregnant and parenting teen girls has drawn the attention of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and been the subject of a wonderful documentary film.

Charter, private, and parochial schools offer an alternative to DPS, and we’ll uncover the good ones no one really knows about. Yes, every middle-and upper-class parent first looks to Friends School or Detroit Waldorf School with good reason; they’re great schools that turn out great kids. But for those of us with skinny wallets, University Prep and the Detroit Edison Public School Academy provide high-quality learning environments without the hefty tuition. And Cornerstone Schools and Most Holy Trinity School, to name a few, serve a more religious purpose along with teaching the three Rs.

And, news flash! You will not spot ruler-wielding nun at these schools, just teachers and staff who care deeply about their students, and educate kids of poverty and kids of college professors equally well.

Sometimes even the best school doesn’t provide all of what you or your kid needs – and we Detroiters certainly don’t shy away from DIY. Options for arts, sports and language enrichment abound if you know where to look. MSU has a Community Music School outpost on Woodward that offers affordable music classes to kids and their parents alike. 

In Southwest Detroit, kids learn flamenco at COMPAS from a nationally recognized dancer as well as other music and dance classes. DPS kids show off their cultural savvy with frequent shows on Detroit Public School’s radio station, and Think Detroit PAL and the Rosedale Park neighborhoods run soccer and baseball leagues for the sportier families; winter brings hockey at Clark Park.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding: Can DPS grads, or Detroit kids, go on to shine? The answer, in a word (well, two) is "Um, yeah!" We’ll introduce you to products of Detroit – some who attended preschool through their PhD program here – who are making the world sit up and take notice.

And lastly, since we all know that good nutrition and ample exercise contribute to academic success (and prevent diabetes, which is a huge threat to U.S. children if trends continue), we’re looking forward to highlighting many of the cool initiatives happening in the green arena. Oodles of independent projects hosted by nonprofit groups are opening Detroit kids’ eyes and mouths to good, healthy local food; building community through food and cooking; getting kids outside in fresh air using available land to grow produce; and even teaching school food-service workers how to prepare and cook fresh vegetables coming from local farmers. Paralleling Detroit’s amazing urban gardening scene, schools, with the support of the private sector, are encouraging students to get their hands dirty.

As an example, many Detroit Public Schools are dusting off and cleaning out their beautiful, well-designed greenhouses to teach science. In line with that, G2 Good Gardens program is advancing science, technology, engineering and math education through school greenhouses and outdoor gardens -- and is working to improve nutrition, diet and health for DPS students along the way.

Now, if these stories don’t dispel the doom-and-gloom myths of raising a kid in Detroit, nothing will. It’s a truism that whenever two or more Detroit parents are gathered, the talk immediately turns to schools: "Do you like where your kids are? Have you heard about this place over here that’s making waves? Can we carpool?" With all that informal dialogue, we know there are even more awesome things going on out there that we should share. Did we overlook your amazing neighborhood school? Does your kid attend a terrific school no one seems to know about? Are you homeschooling? Tell us (Walter will receive your emails and pass it on). We’re eager to tap into your knowledge and share what’s solid, fresh and exciting happening around education in the D.

About the Writers
Amy Kuras has dealt with the education of Detroit children both as a Detroit kid herself growing up in North Rosedale Park, and a mother of two Motor City kids growing up in Green Acres — and is proud to say she’s never lived in the suburbs of her own volition. She started researching education options when she was pregnant with her first child seven years ago and hasn’t stopped since. This is her first contribution to Model D, although she is a frequent contributor to sister publications MetromodeConcentrate and Research Corridor and can be found nattering about parenting and other matters around the Internet.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to Model D, and a suburban mom who believes strongly that every child deserves a chance at success, starting with a solid education. She has been writing about the good work of metro Detroit nonprofits for 22 years, with a passion for telling the often unheard stories of disadvantaged children and families. Once an active travel writer who traversed the globe, Melinda also occasionally pens stories about recreation, festivals, and destinations closer to home.

All photographs at Holy Trinity School by Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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