Set in the medical district of the city’s Midtown neighborhood, Dr. Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, just three years old, offers a rigorous curriculum, gung-ho teachers and gleaming facilities. One recent day, anatomy students studied the Latin terms for parts of the eye; a literature class discussed the psychology of love.
Yet, while the students welcome the opportunities, the challenges of just getting to and from school are a daily reminder that theirs is a city in the throes of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, where life places special stresses on young people.
Teachers and parents are fighting to do right by the children, and many believe Detroit is finally on the rise after hitting bottom. Yet they worry about the toll of growing up amid danger, dysfunction and the blight epitomized by tens of thousands of abandoned homes.
“This is what we’re ingraining into kids’ psyches — this emptiness, the lack of safety,” said Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which backs many new, child-oriented initiatives. “They’re going into school with a level of fear that something bad is going to happen.”
The landscape includes 88 vacant school buildings that are up for sale — some of the 200 schools closed in recent years due to depopulation. At many schools still open, frequent power outages have created a literal gloom.
High levels of gang violence and premature births combine to make the youth mortality rate the worst of any major U.S. city, according to a recent analysis by the Detroit News.
Even the city’s 300 parks — traditionally a haven for children to play — have mostly become unusable, overgrown wastelands.
“Detroit is a very difficult place to be a child,” said Dan Varner, CEO of an education watchdog group called Excellent Schools Detroit.
Often it’s the grownups rather than kids who worry out loud about Detroit’s woes as formative influences. Many young Detroiters speak hopefully of the future, though the practical obstacles to getting there come up in their conversation, too.
Take, for instance, the Moore brothers, who live on Detroit’s northern boundary, about 10 miles from Ben Carson. Like many high school students, they rely for transport on the city’s crime-ridden, inefficient bus system.
“Some days, I don’t get home until 9 p.m.,” said Robert, a 16-year-old junior aspiring to a military career. He recounted the all-too-common phenomenon of overcrowded buses passing without stopping.
James, who’s 15, says his youth-league football team was sometimes unable to play because field conditions were so bad — “tall grass, nasty bleachers, trash everywhere.”
Like most schools in Detroit, Ben Carson has an overwhelmingly African-American student body. More than 80 percent come from low-income families — not surprising in a city where the child poverty rate of 57 percent is triple the national figure.
“They need our arms wrapped around them,” said the principal, Brenda Belcher. “It’s important to create a culture and climate to support them.”
Sitting patiently in the school’s reception area on a recent day was Michael Inyard, whose daughter, Chelsea, is a 10th grader. Unable to drive because his license is suspended, Inyard rides with her on the bus to and from school.
It’s a brutal schedule, given that he works overnight at a Chrysler plant, but he considers the crowded buses too dangerous for Chelsea to ride alone.
“I’d be a bundle of nerves any other way, wondering what’s going on with her,” the father said.
Speaking generally about Detroit’s upcoming generation, he added, “These kids have a rough time. They’ve got to be on the alert for whatever, whenever.”
Ten miles west of Ben Carson, at one of Detroit’s less glamorous high schools, 17-year-old junior Jalen Pickett was indeed on the alert — a police officer was about to shove him during a workshop aimed in part at teaching anger management and conflict resolution skills to a dozen often-in-trouble students.
“How would you react to that?” Officer Melvin Chuney asked the group after using Jalen as his foil.
The setting was a disused classroom on the third floor of Cody High School. The 60-year-old building, in a neighborhood dotted with abandoned brick homes, has deteriorated enough to be the target of a volunteer face-lift effort this summer.
Jalen, now a diligent student with aspirations to be a defense lawyer, had an inauspicious start to high school.
“I got into a fight my first day,” he said. “I was kicked out a lot, didn’t get along with any of my teachers. I cursed on them ... I was horrible.”
His penchant for fighting earned him a spot in the new Police Department program — the Children in Trauma Intervention Camp. In essence, it offers the students an alternative to expulsion in the form of training and counseling from police officers and other adult mentors.
“Everybody knows you’re in here because sometimes you made bad decisions,” said the program’s leader, Officer Monica Evans, whose exhortations included biblical references and raw street language.
Tackling the concept of self-reflection, Evans asked the students to write about what limits them.
“I have to be focused and confident that nothing can stop me from getting out of the ‘hood,” said one boy’s statement, read aloud by Evans.
The program has clearly motivated Jalen Pickett. He now opts to wear a necktie each day despite teasing from his friends and is studying hard with hopes of going to an out-of-state university.
Childhood was difficult. Jalen said he was neglected by both parents and now lives with a cousin, though he’s determined to help out his mother financially.
“I fought — but that’s like every boy,” he said. “I have a clean record, I’ve never been locked up ... I never give up hope.”
John Matthews, Jalen’s principal, empathizes with his students, even when some cause him headaches.
“I grew up in Detroit. We always felt life was going to get better,” Matthews said. “These young people don’t see the future as bright.”
Matthews told of asking one student to visualize himself at age 35 — and of getting a sobering response. “He said he’d either be dead, in jail or a drug addict by then.”
Matthews is proud of his school’s policy of minimizing expulsions. “If I suspend a kid, I’ve eliminated a problem in my building, but created a problem somewhere else,” he said.
Unlike the city’s elite high schools, the three separate academies at Cody don’t have selective admissions, and the result, Matthews said, “is a certain feeling of inferiority.”
“But I tell our students that they have more grit,” he said. “We want them to be proud of what they’ve overcome.”
Detroit was a city of 1.8 million residents in the 1950s; today, it has about 700,000. The exodus has included many families seeking improved education. Since 2002, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has declined from 164,496 to about 49,500 in 97 schools now.
Meanwhile, the separate charter school sector has exploded. According to Excellent Schools Detroit, the city now has 116 charter schools serving 45 percent of K-12 students. That’s about the same share as DPS, which once served more than 80 percent of all students, and it’s one of the highest market shares for charter schools in any U.S. city.
Some of the charter schools and some DPS schools are top-notch, said Dan Varner of Excellent Schools Detroit, but overall he assessed educational quality in both sectors as “very poor.”
Budget-wise, Detroit’s bankruptcy doesn’t directly affect the public school system, a separate entity with its own taxing authority, revenues and governance. Nonetheless, DPS projects a deficit of $92 million this year.
Detroit’s aging electrical system also has been troublesome. DPS schools have suffered at least 160 power outages this year, largely due to equipment failures and theft of copper wiring.
Then there’s the academic scorecard. While DPS schools have improved their performance on state-run standardized tests, their showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remains abysmal.
In 2013, DPS schools ranked the worst among 21 major cities in the performance of 4th and 8th graders on math and reading tests. Just 4 percent of Detroit 4th graders and 3 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math, compared with 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in the average large city.
Nonetheless, DPS officials say the district is on the upswing. Current enrollment is little changed from the fall of 2012 — notable given annual enrollment losses of more than 10 percent over much of the past decade.
“We used to plan to fail — now our whole mindset is around planning to win,” said DPS communications chief Michelle Zdrodowski.
Last year, the district launched an intensive marketing campaign to bolster enrollment. It featured door-to-door visits by principals, teachers and parents that Zdrodowski likened to a political campaign, and a detailed survey sent out to 30,000 families.
Parents are being courted with thank-you phone calls from teachers, and are offered 7-days-a-week services — including financial literacy training and help from state social workers — at certain schools doubling as community resource centers.
Since there are far more classroom seats than school-age children these days, individual schools have been competing fiercely to attract students.
“Nobody is managing the market,” said Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, the city’s largest parent organization. “You’ve got every Tom, Dick and Harry coming in and trying to snatch kids from other schools.”
For parents, the multiplicity of options and the hard-sell tactics can seem overwhelming.
“How do I make the best choice for my child? What parent can do all this research?” wondered Arlyssa Heard, a 43-year-old single mom of two sons. “At the beginning of the year, everyone puts on a good show about how wonderful the curriculum is ... It’s not until the end of the year, you realize it’s more of the same.”
She was among a group of parent network members who gathered recently to discuss school developments.
Her older son, 18, needed remedial courses at the start of community college. Her 8-year-old son, a third grader at DPS’s Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has struggled in a class with nearly 40 students, she said.
“I don’t want my son to be experimented on,” she said. “The clock is ticking. I don’t want — when he’s 16 — to discover he’s not prepared.”
She and other parents complained that the programming had become overly tilted toward test preparation.
“It doesn’t seem like school is fun anymore,” Heard said.
And so she and others saw a ray of hope in some recent news: After years without comprehensive sports and arts/music programs, those are now being restored at all DPS elementary and middle schools, thanks in part to foundation grants.
Administrators are looking to do more. For instance, principal Josette Buendia at Bennett Elementary, who couples fun, such as a weekly “Popcorn Friday,” with academic innovations, including one-on-one tutoring for her 4th and 5th graders via Skype with student volunteers at a suburban high school.
And in another example of public-private engagement, volunteers join in spot inspections of schools — both public and charter — as part of an Excellent Schools Detroit initiative. The inspection teams file reports that contribute — along with academic data — to the grades that the initiative gives schools as a tool for parents to make enrollment decisions.
On one recent school day, seven volunteers in “School Reviewer” sweatshirts roamed at will through University Prep Science and Math Elementary School, the K-5 component of a new K-12 charter school.
Team members looked in on classrooms, checked drinking fountains, critiqued hallway art displays, and tried the doors of mechanical storage closets to see if they were properly locked.
The inspection leader, Bernita Bradley, urged her team to take notes: “What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell?”
Whatever happens inside Detroit’s schools, the environment outside can be menacing for kids.
The city-backed Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative recently surveyed 1,300 high school students. Asked if a family member had been shot, murdered or disabled as a result of violence in the past 12 months, 87 percent answered yes.
“Far too many children walk to and from school in fear, lack trust in those who took the oath to protect and serve, and consider retaliation to be a means to an end,” said the initiative’s director, Annie Ellington.
In response to such challenges, residents have formed volunteer patrols to enhance the safety of students between school and home. DPS officials say these efforts have contributed to a drop in crime on school property.
Indeed, as municipal services for families and children withered, a host of community associations, volunteer groups and nonprofits have sought to fill the void. Their leaders and members embrace upbeat words like “resilience” and “tenacity.”
“We work with people every day who haven’t given up, who love kids, who are committed to making things better,” said Sharnita Johnson, a Detroit native who helps oversee the Kellogg Foundation’s grants to neighborhood and youth programs in the city.
“Detroiters are really clear that they can’t be passive residents anymore,” she said. “The cavalry is not coming in to help.”
So it is that neighborhood task forces have formed to cut the grass and do cleanup work at parks left untended due to city budget cuts.
The new Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan, also pledged more city help. In his recent state of the city speech, Duggan said Detroit’s parks were “an embarrassment” — with only 25 of the 300 parks in well-maintained condition last summer. He vowed to have 150 parks in good shape next summer, and urged churches to launch an “adopt-a-park” program that might allow 50 more to be revived.
The mayor also plans to work with the medical community on reducing the high rate of premature births and to lobby in tandem with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to boost funding for pre-K education.
In a move that could aid commuting high school students, he’s also promised to expand the bus fleet and fit existing buses with security cameras.
Others are sharpening the focus on helping Detroit’s children — including thriving, privately run organizations providing an array of extra-curricular options.
The Detroit Children’s Choir, which serves about 200 young people, says its funding is up by $30,000 from last year. The YMCA is working to cut down on the city’s high teen birth rate with an extensive wait-til-you’re-older sex education program. Detroit PAL — the police athletic league — weathered a downturn a few years ago and now says it’s flourishing with about 1,500 adult volunteers coaching 11,000 boys and girls in 11 different sports programs.
There’s also the acclaimed Mosaic Youth Theater, founded in 1992, which has sent ensembles of young singers and actors on overseas tours and provided a warm-up act in 2011 for a Detroit visit by President Barack Obama.
Roughly 165 young people engage in Mosaic’s main programs each year — most from low- and moderate-income Detroit families. Founder Rick Sperling says about half are on full scholarships.
On one recent evening, young actors in wigs, gowns and topcoats rehearsed a slapstick adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide.” In a larger auditorium, several dozen poised singers and dancers practiced for the troupe’s annual concert in May.
One of the dancers, 15-year-old Jamiliah Minter, attends Detroit School of Arts — one of DPS’s showcase schools — and aspires to a career either in entertainment or astronomy. She’s well aware of Detroit’s problems, but determined not to get sidetracked.
“I feel a little sad about it — I want to help,” she said. “But what can one person do?”
Another performer, 10th grader Javon Jones, hopes to study dance at the Juilliard School in New York City, but long-term would like to return to a revitalized Detroit.
“There’s a lot of talent here that can bloom, but not a lot of opportunities to express it,” Javon said. “Why can’t we do it here, in the place we love?”
That was also the sentiment of Jalen Pickett, summing up his hopes and expectations after his session with Officer Evans’ tough-love intervention team at Cody High.
“If Detroit can change, it’s up to the youth to do it,” Jalen said. “I feel Detroit can come back. And if I do go away to college, I plan on coming back here and giving back to Detroit.”