San Jose Library / flickr

We are thankful for our State of Opportunity community and hope you all enjoy some time with family or friends over the next few days. We will see you again on Monday.

Eva Petoskey

Suicide is a major public health problem for American Indians. The suicide rate for American Indian teenagers in particular is 2.5 times higher than the national average. I took a trip over the summer to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Reservation in Suttons Bay to talk with folks in the community about the issue.

When I visited the reservation, it was rainy, no sun in sight, but that didn't stop a couple thousand people from making the trek to the reservation for the annual powwow. The Anishinaabe word is "Jiingtamok." 

Tyra John is decked out in full beaded regalia, which she proudly tells me she designed herself. The 13-year-old is performing two dances at the powwow today – the hoop dance and jingle dance. She lives on the reservation, and she likes it. She likes how everyone shares the same culture. She finds comfort in that. She kind of gets depressed when she leaves "the rez" to go to a public school nearby.

"We're often ridiculed for our culture in school ... well, I am, anyway," says Tyra. "My classmates sometimes are not very welcoming of my beliefs or culture."

When I ask her how that makes her feel, she hesitates for a moment and then blurts out one word: "Terrible."

Miishen Willis is 17 years old and a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Sault Ste. Marie. She now lives in Suttons Bay and was supposed to meet me at the powwow, but her anxiety got the best of her, so we did the interview at her mom’s condo nearby. 

Willis says about five years ago, she started to have these really intense feelings of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

"Usually when I have self-harm thoughts I just go to sleep or do something with my hands ... popping bubble wrap really helps," she explains. "And then for suicidal thoughts, I’ve figured out if they get super super bad, I have to get my parents."

Michael Coglan / flickr

I can add little of value in the midst of the seismic event of national importance that is Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting. These events weigh heavily, even from my geographically and experientially removed position. 

My colleagues Dustin Dwyer, Jennifer Guerra, and to a lesser extent, I, have been reporting on the combustible issues of race, poverty, violence, and opportunity. 

The following is a digest of some of these pieces.


Closing the achievement gap between kids from different economic backgrounds  is one of the most important challenges facing the U.S. education system today. It is also an expensive undertaking. With all the preschool programs, tutoring programs, afterschool programs and social service programs directed at helping kids from low-income families, the United States easily spends billions every year on this problem. 

Which is why a new research paper published today by the National Bureau of Economic Research holds such promise. The paper analyzes results from a randomized experiment of a reading program put in place in 463 North Carolina classrooms. The results were striking: At a cost of just $250 - $400 per student, the program raised reading scores for third graders enough to take a significant chunk out of the achievement gap. Other programs with similar results can costs thousands per student. 

The program is called Project READS. And though its results seem hugely promising, there is one catch. 

The positive effects of the program only applied to girls. Boys who participated didn't see much improvement. / Creative Commons

It's important to go to college, we get it.

Kids in foster care get it, too. Almost all of them say they want to go to college. But only one in five actually does. Of those students who do make it on campus, less than 9% graduate.

What's going on here?

Applying for college is a hard process for any student. It involves formulating a (possibly very expensive) multi-year plan to get a degree and plan your entire future. These choices are being made by 16-year-old high school juniors before their brains have even had a chance to fully develop.

The reality is, most kids in foster care are coming from low-income communities. It's hard enough as it is for kids in those communities to make it to college. Even high-achieving kids at low-income schools have a hard time navigating the steps to get to college. 
There are tons of great resources about college access on the Internet, even for kids in care. But this information often doesn't make it to the kids who need it. 

Where the system breaks down in sending kids in foster care to college

  • First things first. To make it to college, you have to be able to graduate from high school. For kids in foster care, who may change schools frequently and deal with inconsistent curriculum, this is hard enough.  

When kids bring trauma to school with them

Nov 20, 2014
Krissy Venosdale / Flickr

There’s a reason we talk about trauma so much at State of Opportunity: It has a huge impact on kids.

When we say “trauma," we’re referring to a child’s emotional response to an absolutely terrible event, like witnessing violence or living with an alcoholic parent – two examples of traumatic experiences described in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (and ACES test) we reported on earlier this year.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

The goal for children in foster care is to find them permanent homes. If they can’t live with their birth parents, the next best thing might be adoption. But the road to adoption can be bumpy, and for some children their dreams of a permanent family are dashed before the papers are even signed. 

"I refuse to sink"

Nineteen year old Candice Sponaas is a blonde tomboy with a 1000-watt smile. 

Like a lot of teenagers, Sponaas is really into tattoos. She designed the one on her forearm. It’s a big, floral infinity symbol with an anchor on one end and a rose on the other. In between are the words “I refuse to sink.” As she starts to talk about her broken adoption, I notice her glance down at the tattoo on her arm. It seems to give her strength just looking at it. 

Sponaas moved in with her soon-to-be adoptive family just before she turned 18.  They planned to adopt her in a year or two. But ten months in, things were not going well – especially between Sponaas and the mom of the house. So Sponaas moved out.

"And then we just stopped talking," says Sponaas. "And then she said I think it’s better if we just don’t try to force everything here. I wish you nothing but happiness, but that’s all that there is. So, that adoption is never going to happen."

publik16 / flickr

In 1978, a group of teenagers in Wayne County beat, stabbed, and killed another young person named Dennis Rhodes in order to steal his bike. 

One of those young people, Jeffrey Dunbar, was tried and sentenced as an adult. Dunbar was sentenced to life without parole. 

This decision is only one year younger than I am. It seems utterly unremarkable in its treatment of a juvenile as an adult.


Two years ago, Michigan raised taxes on the working poor. It was reported plenty at the time; it should be no surprise. 

If you want to be technical about it, the state didn't so much raise taxes on the working poor. It reduced the tax credits that went to the working poor. The Michigan League for Public Policy estimates that prior to 2011, the average low-income family in Michigan received a tax refund of $446. In 2012, that refund dropped to $138. The MLPP says the change means that about 15,000 fewer families were lifted out of poverty as a result of the credits. 

None of this is news. The change happened two years ago. 

Why bring it up now? Because right now Michigan leaders are considering another tax increase that will have a disproportionate impact on the state's working poor.

user: Bart Everson / flickr

The type of education a child in Michigan gets depends in large part on where he or she lives. That's because Michigan is under no legal obligation to provide an "equitable" or "adequate" education for all its citizens. The only thing Michigan is legally required to do in terms of schools is provide a "free" education. And we all know that free does not necessarily equal quality. 

Here is what our state constitution says about education: 

Sec. 2. The Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin. 

So, we've promised our children a free education, but is it equitable and adequate? That's the question we posed in our documentary, The Education Gap. (If you haven't heard it, click on the link and take a listen. You may be surprised at how much of a difference your zip code makes in terms of educational opportunities.)

The equitable and adequate question is also at the heart of a recent lawsuit against the Highland Park school district. As my colleague, Kate Wells, reported last week, the ACLU sued the district and the state of Michigan, saying students were not taught basic literacy skills. Here's an excerpt:


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