State of Opportunity

Wednesday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

State of Opportunity is a special project produced by Michigan Radio with major financial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The project features documentary reports, first-person storytelling, youth journalists, an online portal, and Michigan Radio’s Public Insight Network.

The goal is to expose the barriers children of low income families in Michigan face in achieving success.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

We do a lot of stories about what’s not working in education, but today we’re going to flip the script and talk about a school that’s doing really well, especially for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. It’s a rural school called Brimley Elementary in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Andrea Claire Maio

  

It’s high school graduation season, and there’s lots to celebrate. Michigan’s four-year graduation rate is 79%, the highest it’s been in years.

But for students of color and students from low-income families, the rate is significantly lower. To bring those numbers up, some schools let students at risk of failing “recover” credits to stay on track for graduation. But are those methods as rigorous as they should be?


Alan / flickr

High school graduations are about a month away. Orders for caps and gowns have been made, and party planning is well under way for many families. Around 10 percent of senior students in Michigan won't make it to that milestone this year, however, because they drop out of school.

Cody High School is on Detroit’s west side, in a neighborhood that struggles with blight, drugs and gangs.

KNIGHT: Everybody wants to be out the neighborhood, everybody do. But more people still stuck here than ever.

So how do you get out? Well, first you have to graduate high school. For students who are on the brink, that’s where this guy comes in. His name is Jimmie Knight:

Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

This is part of an Infowire series about choices for young people who want to be successful but aren’t seeing that path through college, or in some cases, even traditional high school education. 

mootje mootje / flickr

The advocacy group Children's Rights sued the state of Michigan over its foster care system more than eight years ago because of the number of kids who were left with abusive families, or harmed once they got into foster care.

Hogan / flickr

"Up by your bootstraps," that ubiquitous phrase that has come to function basically as shorthand for the American Dream, first came onto the scene in 1834.  

Linguist Anne Curzan says at that point, it was basically an insult. It described somebody delusional enough to think they could defy the laws of physics and pull themselves up in the air by the very things anchoring them to the ground. 

You see it on your local TV news every few weeks. Or maybe a small article in the paper.

Another fire. Another bust. Another story about meth.

The statistics tell the rest of the story: Methamphetamine use and production is on the rise in Michigan.

And last year, more children were exposed to meth labs than at any time since the state started keeping track.

user alamosbasement / flickr

America is becoming less equal.

That much is now widely acknowledged.

But what can be done to improve things for the next generation?

We’ve been doing this work on State of Opportunity for nearly three years now. If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over about how to help kids get ahead, it’s this: Education is the key.

"Once you’ve made it to college and graduated, your social mobility opportunities are great," said Fabian Pfeffer.

"Putting people into more post-secondary education would strongly promote their mobility," said Erin Currier.

"We’re talking about producing skills," said James Heckman. "Skills are the core of the modern economy."

If you want a good job, you have to have skills. If you want skills, you have to have education. That’s pretty uncontroversial.

But then I came across the work of this guy:

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Chamonique Griffith stands in front of her second-graders on a Thursday morning, about to try something that, for her, is new.

"How many of you know that I go to class at night?" she asks.  

Her second graders all quietly raise their hands.

"So, last night, I got to do a really cool activity with my teacher," Griffith continues, "and so I wanted to try the activity with you."

Griffith is part of the first cohort of teachers in a new college of education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids. This college is focused entirely on preparing teachers for urban classrooms. The students enrolled in the master's level program, for now, are all currently teaching at Grand Rapids Public Schools.

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