How Detroit’s public schools are meeting these families’ needs'I take being a stakeholder very seriously. I have learned to advocate for my children.'

This story is part of the series Exploring Economic Equity, supported and directed by Detroit Future City. This Model D and Metromode series aims to report everyday Detroiters and their experiences as they live their lives and make choices about their neighborhoods, health, education, jobs, transportation, and other factors related to economic equity. All content in this series is created in partnership with Detroit Future City.
In the Black community, there is a saying that folks know how to make a dollar out of 59 cents, describing the yeoman’s task of getting 100 percent of the dollar’s value when you have only been given about 60 percent of it. According to some Detroit Public Schools Community District parents, this phrase describes the district’s task with educating their children.

“I was impressed that DPSCD had the same basic curricula as other school districts,” said Stacey Shannon Johnson, a parent with an 8th grade son and daughter in a magnet middle school. “There are flaws. We knew it going in. Sometimes there are classroom management issues, but they have real good teachers who know how to handle that.”

Johnson, a playwright, human trafficking expert and former Inkster cop, said she and her husband Joel, a postal worker, moved from Dearborn Heights back to Detroit and chose DPSCD for their children “because houses are cheaper and we could not afford private schools.” 

Stacey and Joel Johnson. Photo by Nick Hagen.

They were also concerned about meeting their son's unique needs. The teacher told Johnson there wasn’t a lot she could do to help her son, who has autism. 

“The private school we had our son in was not able to help him with his learning disability. With some private schools you can get services, but you can’t get a full IEP (individualized education plan),” Johnson told Model D. (An IEP is an Individualized Education Program, a written document for students with disabilities who receive special education program services.)

Seeking equity in education

Johnson is one of many Detroit parents who opt not to enroll their children in a private school or relocate to the suburbs but still want a quality education for their children.

Active with the district’s parent groups, Johnson says she knows about various student resources because “I take being a stakeholder very seriously. I have learned to advocate for my children.” Even with a more vocalized fight for education equity, large gaps remain between Black and white students and urban and suburban school districts.

In May 2021, the Detroit Future City Center for Equity, Engagement, and Research published a report detailing economic equity in Detroit and the region as it relates to several areas, including race and education. The report found three main aspects of educational inequity in Detroit: lack of bachelor degree attainment among African Americans; low (but increasing) career and technical education completion rates, career and technical education completion rates; and low third-grade reading and English language proficiency. 

Lack of financial resources impacts a district’s ability to obtain quality textbooks and teachers, and it also impacts a district’s ability to provide outside of the classroom enrichment opportunities like career exploration activities, according to the study.

Though most would agree a financial fight for quality education is not one any district should have to have, this has been the reality for many urban districts. Until 1994, state allocation for Michigan students was based on property taxes. The state moved away from that method to a formula that includes a minimum dollar amount per-pupil allocation for all districts and a total district enrollment allocation.

But with urban districts typically having more needs, like more special education and infrastructure needs, the equal amounts have not been adequate. Inequities persist for higher poverty districts.

“Districts that have high concentrations of poverty face additional challenges in part because Michigan long has been drastically underfunding its most vulnerable students,” Jennifer ​Mrozowski, communications director with the nonprofit advocacy group EdTrust Midwest tells Model D. “That includes students from low-income backgrounds and others hit hardest by the pandemic, compared to the practices of leading states with comparable funding approaches.”

Michigan’s funding formula is complex, but this statistic is striking: In fiscal year 2020,
Michigan spent 5 percent less in its highest poverty districts than its lowest poverty district. In other words, less money was spent in areas that had the least number of resources. Money is not the only factor that contributes to a quality education, but it is a factor that matters.

According to Mrozowski, Michigan has only provided about 9% more funding to most low-income students in recent budget years compared to leading state Massachusetts, which will provide up to about 105% more funding for low-income students in the highest poverty districts after new policies are fully phased in.

“You end up asking districts like ours and others to run a system based not on the same amount of money, but less than other wealthier districts, [yet we must] give more to students that need more, but with less. That doesn’t even make sense,” DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a recent summit held by the nonprofit advocacy group EdTrust Midwest. “That’s how we disenfranchise students that are coming to us in harder-to-serve zip codes.” 

‘Harder-to-serve’

One such area is Southwest Detroit 48210, where the annual median household income is slightly more than $29,000. 

That’s where DPSCD parent Janet Martinez lives and where her daughter and grandson attend Munger Elementary-Middle School. Martinez, who classifies herself as between lower and middle class, says in spite of challenges DPSCD faces, she chose to enroll her children in the system because of its resources.

Janet Martinez. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“I was thinking about putting her in a charter school but didn’t see any difference really,” Martinez said. “I went through Detroit Public Schools. I want to prove something different: that my daughter could learn the same way (as students in other districts).”

She said that during online instruction at the beginning of the pandemic a teacher suggested her daughter be tested for a learning disability to determine if she needed an IEP. 

“I didn’t want to believe them,” Martinez said. “I thought everything was fine.” She decided to have her daughter evaluated at The Children’s Center, a private children’s advocacy institution because DPSCD was backed up with conducting tests, but she credits the DPSCD teacher for guiding her to get the process started. DPSCD eventually evaluated her daughter, who was diagnosed with low memory and slow memory, and then referred her to Munger Elementary-Middle School, where her daughter has an IEP.

Martinez volunteers with DPSCD’s Parent Academy, a program that supports students academically, socially, and emotionally. She says she canvasses houses of missing DPSCD students and said many parents who had switched their children to a private school or another school district were disappointed with their new decision. They didn’t see a great difference in the quality of education. 

Despite what others have done, she’s satisfied with her decision.

“They’re definitely getting a quality education,” said Martinez, noting that her daughter’s reading has improved. “She’s really happy. Her self-esteem has gotten really high.” Martinez says her daughter getting an IEP and her parental involvement have both made a difference in her daughter’s progress and wants more parents to get involved.

“If we do (get involved), the system will work for us,” Martinez said. “Anything parents are struggling with, you let them know and they come up with a plan to better everything. That’s how DPSCD is getting much better.”

Getting resources to kids

The resources DPSCD offers are a direct result of the district seeing the needs, Johnson says. These resources are part of what led Melissa Redmond to enroll her son this year as a freshman at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, a school that her daughter graduated from in 2011.

Melissa Redmond and Latrell Maxwell. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“I saw all the opportunities she had. And I believe if you live in the city, you can get resources in the city. If you can’t get them, I’m going to make sure we get them,” said Redmond, an active PTA member and parent action leader. 

She says she hasn’t had to lobby for resources at Cass, but when her children were in earlier grades she advocated for health classes for K-8th graders, and most recently worked with school officials to ensure counselors were on hand in schools for mental health services, especially in light of effects from COVID.

“I reach out to the correct people, like board members, to let them know what children need and keep saying it until it happens,” Redmond said. “If the children in the suburbs can get it, we should have it as well. We are getting money for it. For the most part, the district has been really responsive.”