When we talk about segregated schools, we need to look no further than Detroit. Census figures from the Michigan Department of Education tell us Detroit is a city where more than 82% of its students are African-American, just 2% are white and only 0.24% are multi-racial.
A new charter school on Detroit's east side, in the Indian Village neighborhood, is working hard to change that.
Detroit Prep is a free public charter school authorized by Grand Valley State University. Right now, it's got kindergarten and first grade students.
Its founders were determined that Detroit Prep would be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school. So they set out by casting a wide net in recruiting students and in offering strong academics.
After successfully founding and operating Detroit Achievement Academy, a high-performing charter in northwest Detroit,Kyle Smitley opened Detroit Prep in September 2016.
She said she saw an opportunity among the city’s parents.
“[They were] saying essentially, 'I live in Detroit. I don't want it to be a five-year plan. I don’t want to live in the suburbs. My student and I both value diversity, culturally. I want them to go to a school that reflects that,'" she said.
Michigan law ensures that any charter school that receives public money must accept every student who applies. The law also says a school cannot discriminate based on race.
To strategically shape Detroit Prep’s population, Smitley and her team looked at the racial and economic make-up of early enrollers to the school. Was it skewing mostly white, black, rich, or poor? Then, they adjusted their outreach to capture students who might fill in the gaps.
Smitley said the school's efforts were successful. Detroit Prep’s first class of students is 53% black, 38% white, and 65% of the students receive free lunch.
“Our mission wasn’t to open a school that served all affluent white kids," Smitley said. "We want to serve all kids, but not a homogenous group of students. We think that to serve kids, that we need to teach them to navigate lines of difference. And you’re not going to do that if there are no lines of difference.”
Some observers criticized Detroit Prep’s strategy, saying the school's population doesn’t reflect Detroit’s actual population.
Smitley said this approach to creating diversity is "something we grapple with" in ongoing conversation with the school’s families, for example. Acknowledging the achievement gap between schools in Detroit and neighboring suburbs, Smitley said Detroit Prep offers families a new, high-quality public education option in the city.
Matt Schmitt and Shirel Jones, parents of Detroit Prep students, said they’ve been impressed with the impact diversity has had on their children’s development.
Schmitt's daughter Charlotte attends first grade at Detroit Prep. When he moved to Detroit from Los Angeles last year, he observed how staff treated diversity throughout school.
“I look at the books in the class – who are the characters and heroes?" he said. "There’s diversity represented there.They go to lengths to make sure the parents can be a part of everything … they have a real heart for making sure everyone can feel a part of this community and everyone can be involved.”
Jones, too, likes the way Sage, her kindergartner, has become curious about her classmates, many of whom don’t all look like her.
“The exposure to other students has been huge for Sage,” she said. “If she was at a school where everybody looked like her, and everybody had the same background as her … I wouldn’t have seen the growth that she’s had this year as a person and understanding that people are different, but still very much the same.”
Smitley, Schmitt and Jones all said Detroit Prep offers children a unique chance to learn how to negotiate and benefit from diverse groups of people.
“Seeing the impact [diversity] has on our students now puts a fire in our belly to maintain that diversity,” Smitley said.