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City Kids: Putting a laser focus on high achievement (part II)

Three schools that have three things in common: excellent teaching, strong leadership and high expectations. Amy Kuras takes another deep dive into city education in part II of our series.
Let’s just kick this off with the good news: Although we’re profiling just three schools that are doing well educating urban kids in tuition-free schools, we easily could have filled up all our news space beyond the summer break with more success stories. 

These three schools -- Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Chrysler Elementary, and Thirkell Elementary  -- have a lot of differences. One is a large charter school, one a small public elementary that students must apply to attend, and the other a medium-size neighborhood school that takes all comers. 

What they have in common, though, is excellent teaching, strong leadership, and high expectations. And most importantly, they’re putting the lie to the idea that city schools have little to offer parents who want the best for their kids.

Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA)

Boredom should never be a problem for students at this 1000-student K-8 charter near Eastern Market. The list of activities for them and their parents is long -- Future Cities, Green Team, service learning, and more. In many cases, DESPA students are the only urban school or the only Michigan school to participate in statewide competitions.

But as superintendent Ralph Bland says, it’s not about the activities they have for students, it’s about putting them on a fast track to academic success. "Our culture is focused on student achievement, not around having a plethora of programs," Bland says. "It’s about our students being successful, and their families being successful as well."

To that end, parents agree to volunteer 10-20 hours over the course of the school year if their child snags one of the coveted slots (the school gets between 50-100 applications for each grade level every year for only a few openings). Interestingly, in a district where people often leave because of unsatisfactory school choices, between 15-25 percent of student at DEPSA come from outside the city, some as far as Clinton Township.

Partnerships are a Hallmark of the school. Comerica runs a bank from the school store, the Engineering Society of Detroit helps with Future Cities, and Henry Ford Health System runs a well-appointed health clinic nicer than some full-service doctor’s offices, to name a few.  

Most of those services are designed to knock down any barriers students may come to school with. 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunch, which means they may come to school hungry, in need of a proper uniform (all students wear one) or without access to proper medical care. All of those things impact learning, so all of them are addressed. 

Also, students in the lowest quartile of achievement are assigned an interventionist, who works with them until they are working at grade level or above. "If a student comes to us with academic deficiencies we create a path for them…it might not be the same straight path another student is on, but we want to raise them up beyond where they would expect to be," says Paul Szymanski, elementary principal. "Excellence is not an option."

People are noticing -- the school has a list of accolades almost as long as the list of extracurricular activities. It’s been fully accredited by the North Central Association, is the only charter school in the state to be named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, and was named a National School of Success by the Education Commission of the States.

Data on individual students, classrooms and grade levels are constantly reviewed to make sure they stay on track. "We have a commitment to constant improvement," Bland says. "We’re always looking at what worked and what didn’t, and we really listen to parents when they have opinions and suggestions. We’re always looking at how we can change for a better outcome (for students)."

Much of the mostly young staff came there from other schools and see a real difference at DEPSA. Second-grade teacher Amy Goodman has "looped" with her students through the primary academy, starting with them in kindergarten and continuing until the end of second grade, when they will go on to the elementary academy. She said the school’s rigorous curriculum impresses even the adults. "What I think is amazing is that it feels, even to parents, like this is already a college and the kids know it," she says. 

For 6th and 7th grade language arts teacher Alton James, the ability to collaborate with other teachers and really put his own stamp on his teaching is valuable in helping students connect to the material. "We’re really stressing themes, and they’re making deeper and more meaningful connections to that -- what does it mean to be a citizen, to be a male, to be a female…I really enjoy that."

Chrysler Elementary

Nestled next to the Mies van der Rohe townhouses in the green calm that is Lafayette Park, Chrysler Elementary serves students in grades K-5 with a focus on journalism. That translates into a great school newspaper as well as a program that lets students write and publish their own story collections. That was the brainchild of Dr. Linda Whitaker, principal at Chrysler. She noticed that students were not performing as well on some of the writing sections of the MEAP as one would expect, given the school’s journalism focus. She contacted culture coach Lillie Thomas to come work with students, and secured funding from the Skillman Foundation. "I knew teaching wasn’t the problem, it was that the children were not interested enough to retain the material," she says. Sparking their interest in storytelling and seeing it on a printed page helped make that connection.

Another aspect of the program brings in artists like Frank Kelley, Gigi Bolden, and Ronald Scarborough to work with students on their own art, which is then displayed at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History along with a statement from the artist about their work. 

MEAP scores rebounded thanks to the program, as expected, but it has had much wider ranging effects. Whitaker tells a story about a student she overheard being put down by girls from another school because she didn’t have the best grades. The girl retorted that she went to Chrysler and was a published author and exhibited artist, and what had the mean girls done that compared? 

"It almost brought me to tears, that she could say they were not more important than her," Whitaker says. "Knowing the difficult situation she has at home, I know she will make it because she feels empowered."

Whitaker praises the energy and dedication of her staff, who all play multiple roles in the relatively small school -- just one classroom per grade level. "I look for people willing to be a servant leader," she says. "I can give you the fundamentals but I can’t change your heart."

About 75 percent of Chrysler’s students receive free and reduced price lunch, and as an application school, they draw from all over the city. A Local School and Community Organization (LSCO) and a Dad’s Club encourage involved parents.

Chrysler has long had a reputation as a high achieving school with high expectations of its students -- expectations reflected in the enthusiasm of its young pupils. "It’s about changing the culture of what everyone think of themselves," Whitaker says. "I have told our students and our teachers to make sure they are destined for greatness."

Thirkell Elementary

Naysayers would look at Thirkell Elementary’s demographics -- 91 percent receiving free or reduced price lunch -- and its location in a not especially prestigious area of the city and write it off. But they’d be wrong to underestimate this school -- students best both the district and the state by a wide margin in number of students proficient on the MEAP test.

Dr. Clara Smith, principal at Thirkell, is quick to point to her staff as the reason for the school’s success. "It’s all about our students, and putting our students first in assuring that they receive a quality education," Smith says. She’s retained 98 percent of her staff in her years at the school, losing only a few to retirement. That consistency helps students, as does the fact the vast majority of parents keep their children there from kindergarten through 5th grade, a good measure of how satisfied they are with the school. Often, students are the 3rd or fourth generation in their families to attend the school, a refection of its stable neighborhood.

Like so many successful schools, a lot more goes on at Thirkell than simply classroom learning. Henry Ford Health System has a clinic here as well, and volunteers from Beyond Basics work with children and their parents to improve literacy. They even have a grief counselor available through the health clinic, and the school’s math coach works with parents on understanding the new math so they can help their children understand it. "When children come in to the schoolhouse, by no way should they be intimidated because they are coming from an economically deprived home," Smith says. "With the resources we have in the building, we are able to lift their self esteem."

Unlike the other two schools, Thirkell is a neighborhood school, which means no application and no lottery -- they are duty-bound to educate whoever walks though the door. Rather than see that as a difficulty, Smith and her staff see it as strength, she says. "We have high expectations for all students," she says. "We have a passion here for making sure our students do a good job because we are a neighborhood school."

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Read part I of this City Kids package here.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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