As Detroit students resume classes, organizations work to address inequities in education

After the pandemic forced the closure of schools this past spring, students were forced to learn from home. While the challenge of abruptly shifting to an online learning environment was a struggle for many, as parents suddenly found themselves juggling homeschooling and working, for those who lacked the devices or internet access or both, the shift further exposed the inequities that many Detroit students face.


Going into this year, students “haven’t been learning, so we’re very aware that there’s some making up to do,” says Pamela Moore, president and CEO of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation.


And there’s a lot of ground to cover considering where students were before the pandemic hit. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ “Nation’s Report Card,” in 2019 6% of Detroit eighth graders performed at or above the NAEP proficient level for reading while 7% of fourth graders were proficient. It’s been a longstanding problem in Detroit’s public schools for years — this April, Detroit students who filed a class action lawsuit in 2016 won after a federal court ruled that students have a constitutional right to literacy.


In terms of the digital divide, according to the FCC, 40% of households lack internet access of any kind and 70% of school-age children don’t have internet at home.


To address these inequities to help students, Detroit organizations are stepping up to promote equity in education, from providing students with free tablets and internet access to fostering connections to support learning.


Through the Connected Futures program, all DPSCD students were given the choice to go to school in person, online at home, or online in a DPSCD learning center. According to Moore, 80% of the district’s 51,000 students will learn online.


[Related: One Detroit student’s view of remote learning.]


All students enrolled, regardless of their choice to go online or in person, have been offered a tablet, six months of free wifi, and technical support to supplement their learning this year through Connected Futures — a package worth $450 per student. The DPS Foundation raised the money to give the tablets and wifi packages to students and their families through a combination of individual and corporate donors.


“It was a $23 million project. If you do 51,000 [students] times $450 [per student], it comes out to $22.9 million. That is what was raised. And really, this is a very generous community.”
Pamela Moore, president and CEO of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation


After the six months of free wifi run out, low-income families who qualify will be connected to a Comcast wifi plan for $10 a month. If a family is unable to afford this, the DPS Foundation will work to cover the cost.


The tablets, which have been distributed to families since June, were instrumental in ensuring students would be able to participate in their curriculum, which was a struggle for many when the shutdown hit in March. According to Moore, prior to the distribution of tablets, 90% of DPSCD students did not have access to either a device, wifi, or both, which made communication and education difficult at the end of last school year.


“The district is doing everything it can to track down these families and get those students this equipment, so that they can learn,” Moore says. “We already know the learning loss, it’s already happened. There were probably four or five months that many of our students were sitting at home … As soon as schools closed, we started distributing food, but you could also pick up photocopies of your curriculum materials, but we just know it was so overwhelming for so many of our families that we know [there was] learning loss during those early months especially.”


While the learning loss Moore mentioned is difficult to track so soon after the closures, researchers have found that missing school for even short periods of time could delay students’ educational development. With the weeks-long closures coupled with family stressors with quarantine and financial pressure, Detroit students lost a portion of the education they should have received.


According to Moore, it was difficult for the district to locate all the students after the shutdown to distribute resources. Although the district offered printed educational materials for families, there wasn’t much of a way to track progress or help struggling students with their lessons without internet access.


Moore hopes that students and families both will use the devices as an opportunity to increase their access to the community around them, not just for school.


Nonprofit Brilliant Detroit is hoping to foster those connections.


Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit, says literacy and equity are the key focuses for DPSCD students going into this school year. Support systems, like the one-on-one tutoring programs her nonprofit provides, will be key to ensuring DPSCD students stay on track during this school year, according to Eggleton.
Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit, says literacy and equity will be key this school year. Photo by Nick Hagen

“A lot of this is an equity issue,” she says. “We need to do something about this.”


While technology is part of the concerns going into this school year, Eggleton believes there needs to be an added focus on recreating the relationships an online student would experience in face-to-face education. Students and families who are participating in the Brilliant Detroit program will be supported through a “curriculum plus people,” rather than just the technology.


Their “curriculum plus people” model is based on the idea that while students will have access to all the materials they need to complete the school year, the relationship aspect is still lost for those going virtual. Brilliant Detroit hopes to supplement social loss through their tutoring programs, as the relationship side is just as important, according to Eggleton.


“We have created a really robust virtual schedule, so we can be where families are,” Eggleton says. “We have set up a system that’s relationship-based, and we have everything they might need.”


Their tutoring program will accomplish this through virtual groups with a one-to-one ratio of students to tutors. These groups have already been filled, with over 600 students involved.


This year will be an opportunity to ensure they get back on track with their learning and excel, Eggleton says.


Aiding in the effort to keep students learning is the group Connect 313, the City of Detroit's digital inclusion initiative that helped with the planning for the Connected Futures project. Connecting students with technology will be key to help students learn, but it will also be important in helping them with their future careers, says Connect 313 Director of Digital Inclusion Joshua Edmonds.


“I think [Connected Futures] is a pathway for learning,” Edmonds says. “It’s a pathway for growth. It’s a pathway for academic exploratory measures for which we can activate the creativity and activate the past that we just have idling away.”


Edmonds hopes the Connected Futures project will help students become more digitally literate and aid them in their lives beyond just this school year.


“I would like to say that everything that we’re doing right now is really meant to invest in Detroiters — invest in kids, specifically, and invest in their futures,” Edmonds says. “So that way, they don’t have to go to Silicon Valley, they don’t have to go to the East Coast, they can stay here, and the tech companies are going to be looking to get talent from Detroit.”


Read more articles by Lauren Karmo.

Lauren Karmo is a reporting intern for Issue Media Group. A student at Oakland University, she is passionate for creative storytelling and the journalism world. Follow her on all social media @laurenkarmo.  
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