There’s a lot of talk these days about how to “fix” Detroit schools.
State lawmakers are trying to save the Detroit Public Schools from fast-approaching bankruptcy.
But little of that discussion has included the voices of DPS students.
Here, four students from Detroit’s Cody High School share their thoughts about just how bad things are right now.
On a recent beautiful spring day, in a dark room on the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s campus, a group of Cody students led a workshop about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Taped up around the room are paper “experience trees” labeled with words like “Fear. “Violence.” “Physical abuse.”
Each student is asked to write down one trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. Then they fold up the slips of paper, take them outside and tie them to balloon strings.
Then they let the balloons go into the cloudless blue sky. It doesn’t quite go as planned—many of the balloons linger heavily near the ground, and a couple get stuck in nearby trees--but eventually, most of them float away.
“Our school is a family, basically. We’re a whole family. And something happens…we are all there for each other,” said Slytazion Sanders.
Sanders is one of three juniors from Cody’s Academy of Public Leadership who led the PTSD workshop.
Cody and its surrounding neighborhood have struggled for a long time. A lot of these kids come from some pretty tough life circumstances.
But Sanders and his classmates Reginald Franklyn, Dominick Williams and Patrick Harris say things were at least ok during their ninth and tenth grade years.
And then this year, the school started to unravel. A lot of their teachers have just left.
"[In the] last three weeks, we had barely no teachers. Like, class was in the gym, or in the weight room," Franklyn said.
"And like, when we do have teachers, I don’t think they’re qualified to teach us" he said, "because our health teacher turned into our history teacher in one day."
(The school says that teacher is qualified to teach both subjects.)
"We don’t have foreign languages, as a class," Sanders added. "Our health class is not even really a health class. We just go in there and sit down. That’s it."
The kids say things really started to break down in January.
That’s when Detroit Public Schools teachers’ began staging mass sickouts to protest deteriorating conditions: everything from decrepit school buildings to the district’s impending financial collapse. As things stand, it will run out of money at the end of this month.
The kids don’t blame their teachers for sicking out; they think the teachers “did it for them.” But they do question why Lansing has dithered for so long while things have crumbled, especially since DPS has been under the control of state-appointed emergency managers for seven years now.
The state has allowed its largest school district to fall apart. Why? These guys think they know why.
“Because we DPS. They see us as…the less,” Sanders said.
“As the not worthy,” said Franklyn.
“What’s the word? Like the little people,” added Williams.
“I would say because of our lack of education, they look past the abilities and everything we have inside that school,” Sanders finished.
And that’s really tough for these kids. Because unlike many of their classmates at this point, they’re actually trying. They see education as a way out of their environment. And for some of them, school is the only stable thing in their lives.
“We come to school willingly. Ain’t nobody making us,” said Patrick Harris. “We could stay at home.”
“They tell us to go home,” one of the boys added.
“They let us leave. So I’m just trying to make myself proud,” Harris said. “Make my brothers around me [proud].”
“I’ve been knowing him since diaper days,” Franklyn said of Harris.
Asked what they think their senior year is going to look like, the boys aren’t optimistic.
“I think next year is going to be chaos, because now they’re saying they can’t afford summer school,” said Franklyn. “If you don’t have no summer school, how are you going to make up the credits that you’re missing this year? For the next seniors coming up, it’s going to be a repeating process.”
“Nothing is improving. Everything is getting worse.”
And that may be the biggest heartbreak of all. Because no matter what solution the state cobbles together, so much damage has already been done.
And no one is more aware of that than the district’s students.
*Clarification: The students reference a teacher who was a health teacher one day and a history teacher the next, saying they didn't think the teacher was qualified. The school tells us that teacher, Mr. Scott Levine, is doubly certified in history and health. He started as a history teacher at Cody, then moved to health, then went back to history after the teacher shortage. The post has been clarified above.