Engaging Detroit

The URC and K-12 Education in Detroit

Growth and vitality of cities is tied to many factors, not least of which includes residents’ access to high achieving, quality K-12 schools. But many cities are home to struggling urban education systems. In Detroit, public K-12 education is at a cross road, to which the causes and proposed solutions are highly controversial. And yet, beyond the headlines and public discourse, the business of teaching and learning continues on the ground. Students, their parents, teachers, and administrators are seeking ways to move forward.

URC university researchers in education, engineering, business and  related disciplines have developed expertise in effective practices for teaching and learning within the urban context. Below are three examples of URC engagement efforts to support K-12 education in Detroit with life-changing results.

Expanding the Student Pipeline: Wayne State University Math Corps

Since 1992, thousands of Detroit’s kids have attended Math Corps at Wayne State University for free each summer. In a city where the high school graduation rate is less than half, more than 90 percent of Math Corps students graduate high school and more than 80 percent go on to college. Math Corps is expanding the pipeline of students who are mathematically-prepared for college, and is changing lives one cohort at a time. Housed within WSU’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, Math Corps was founded on the principle that all children have a unique and special greatness that can be realized through hard work and dedication. With support from the Kresge Foundation, WSU, and private donors, Math Corps selects 240 middle school students and more than 120 high school students to participate in its two summer programs each year.

Students love Math Corps. One middle schooler recently said, “We learn something new each day and also have fun at the same time…you get an experience that can’t be found anywhere else.”

Math Corps’ Summer Camp and High School Bridge Program offer middle school students instruction from university faculty and Math Corps alumni, some of whom are just removed from the program.  As one high school Math Corps student teacher said, “…this year was way better than when I was a (middle school) student…this time, I am the one making a difference in a student’s life.”

For many Math Corps students, their experience has shaped the trajectories of their educational careers. For example, Omar Pacheco participated as a student, graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit, earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from WSU, and is on track to earn a PhD. Mr. Pacheco was surprised to learn he had the ability to positively impact others when a younger student thanked him for encouraging her. He said, “I never thought that people were actually paying attention to me or that I could influence others that way unintentionally.”

The WSU Math Corps Scholarship Fund offers scholarships to undergraduate students who are either former or current members of the WSU Math Corps. WSU also offers the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, which covers tuition for four years, to Math Corps students who meet specific criteria. Joseph “Pops” Ratcliff, a WSU Presidential Scholarship recipient, graduated from WSU and currently teaches math at Pershing High School in Detroit.

Preparing Teachers: A Focus on Urban Education

Committed to creating better opportunities for all people, particularly those living in the most under-resourced areas, MSU College of Education offers a number of programs focused on improving urban education. These programs include graduate and undergraduate teacher preparation, continuing education for urban educators, and outreach efforts to K-12 students in urban settings, many of which bring students from urban school districts to campus each year.

Essential to MSU College of Education’s mission to develop effective teachers prepared for success in urban schools is its Urban Educators Cohort Program (UECP), an undergraduate program for freshman and sophomore students. Chris Waston, math instructional coach at Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies exemplifies the success of the UECP. Mr. Waston learned about the UECP while attending a summer scholars program on MSU’s campus while still in high school. A graduate of Detroit Public Schools and an alumnus of WSU’s Math Corps, Mr. Waston found the UECP coursework very relevant to what he had experienced while attending school in Detroit.

“The UECP really prepared me well to be a teacher in Detroit,” said Mr. Waston. “In addition to my coursework, I was able to do work in Lansing Public Schools during the school year. In the Urban Immersion Fellowship Program, I was able to work in Detroit, and learn directly from the educators in the city.” Mr. Waston also valued the connections he made with other students dedicated to improving urban schools. While engaged in the Immersion Program, Mr. Waston appreciated weekly meetings with fellow UECP students held at MSU’s Detroit Center.

Inspired to Engage: InsideOut Literary Arts Project

Marlin Jenkins asked students how they would describe Detroit. He then asked them how outsiders might characterize the Motor City. The lists, etched on a classroom whiteboard in Detroit’s Garvey Academy, were far from uniform. But the exercise opened up a window for Jenkins to discuss metaphor and its use in creative writing.

Welcome to a typical day in the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, Detroit’s largest literary arts nonprofit. Since 1995, the nonprofit has led more than 50,000 Detroit youth on adventures using poetry as their guide to becoming better students and ultimately more engaged citizens. The program provides University of Michigan graduate students like Jenkins an opportunity to inspire youth, many of whom are enrolled in Detroit Public Schools, to think broadly, create bravely and share their voices with the wider world.

“The graduate students always bring a positive energy to the classroom and, we believe, take away from our young students a new appreciation for the power of words,” said Peter Markus, a senior writer with InsideOut and U-M alumnus.

Terry Blackhawk, InsideOut’s founder and (retired) executive director, worked with U-M Professor Nicholas Delbanco in 2005 to help launch the Civitas Fellowships program. The program since has provided funding to more than 40 U-M students pursuing a master of fine art’s degree in creative writing.

Jenkins is among the numerous beneficiaries of the program. “It’s really great to not only be involved in teaching, but also to be involved in the Detroit community,” said Jenkins, who attended Garvey Academy as a child.

Four U-M students are selected to participate in the program during the fall and winter semesters. They are paired up and placed in classrooms and afterschool settings throughout Detroit. Through the Civitas program, U-M students have reached more than 1,500 Detroit youth. As coordinator of the program, Keith Taylor helps select and advises the Civitas Fellows.

“Even if some kids are reluctant to write their own poetry, they’re actively listening to their classmates,” Taylor said. “You go to those classrooms and nobody is bored. They’re all paying attention.”