DETROIT >> In a city scarred by broken promises, the Moore brothers, James and Robert, and fellow student Chelsea Inyard are among the fortunate ones. The teenagers attend one of Detroit’s most promising new public schools.
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.
Yet beyond the campus 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.”
Eighty-eight vacant school buildings are for sale — some of the 200 schools closed in recent years due to depopulation. 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. Most of the city’s 300 parks are 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.
Still, 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.”
Waiting 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 at Cody High School. The deteriorating 60-year-old building is 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.”
His penchant for fighting earned him a spot in the new Police Department program — the Children in Trauma Intervention Camp. 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.
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.
“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.”
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’ deficit is $94 million, and is projected to reach $120 million later this year.
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.
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. “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.”
Heard’s 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.”
Whatever happens inside Detroit’s schools, the environment outside can be menacing.
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.
Indeed, as municipal services for families and children withered, a host of community associations, volunteer groups and nonprofits have sought to fill the void.
“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 clean up parks left untended due to city budget cuts.
The new Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan, recently labeled the parks “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 expand pre-K education. He’s promised to expand the bus fleet and fit existing buses with security cameras.
Others are pitching in to help Detroit’s children.
The Detroit Children’s Choir, which serves about 200 young people, says its funding is up by $30,000 from last year. Detroit PAL — the police athletic league — has about 1,500 adult volunteers coaching 11,000 kids in sports programs.
There’s also the Mosaic Youth Theater, founded in 1992, which has sent ensembles of young singers and actors on overseas tours.
Roughly 165 young people engage in Mosaic’s main programs each year. One of the troupe’s dancers, 10th grader Javon Jones, hopes to study at the Juilliard School in New York City, but 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?”