On the last lazy Sunday of summer, Musa lies down on the living room floor to play with his cat Romeo. Later today there will be shopping for school clothes, and maybe some time to play. But for now, Musa just hangs out, not using any more energy than is absolutely necessary.
"Tell me about your summer," I say.
"It was all right," he says.
"What’d you do?"
"Uh, nothing really," he says. "I just really played outside."
"Did you have fun?"
"Did you forget everything you learned in third grade?"
"Are you looking forward to going back to school?"
Thousands of children across Michigan will start kindergarten next week, and the truth is many of them won't be prepared to learn. For many low-income children, this will be their first time in a classroom, so they're playing catch-up from the start. From there it's a short hop, skip and jump to a full-blown achievement gap between low-income kids and their more wealthy peers by the time they're in middle school.
The federal government is still trying to find temporary shelter for the thousands of children who have fled from Central America, often by themselves. Some of them are met by protesters shouting the children are not welcome in this country.
Unfortunately for the kids, they have to go to summer school to get this message. For many kids, possibly these 10 kids included, summer school is the worst. These students, who range in age from 10 to 14 years-old, are stuck inside a classroom at Scarlett Middle School while the sun shines through the windows.
But this summer program is just one of many things these young people willing to do to succeed in school, and in this country. They’re all here because English is not their first language and they want to improve. They all have different goals. Some want to work on spoken language, others are working on writing English, still others on reading it.
All of these students bring different skills and life experiences into the classroom. Some are recent immigrants or refugees, others have been here a while. They are from places as different as Syria, China and Costa Rica.
Public schools are required to offer educational opportunities for students who don’t speak English as a first language. This summer class is one offering and the school district, in partnership with the University of Michigan, is trying to inspire these young people. Debi Khasnabis helped design this curriculum. She says she’s trying to make summer school better- through being a place where students can find some value in whatever it was that brought them to this class and what also led to them needing to learn English.
Khasnabis wants them to realize that their experience as immigrants means they bring resilience and skills to the table.
Making the social media rounds today is some news that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends school should start later for teenagers. The AAP says an 8:30 a.m. start time, at least, would be ideal for teenage brains. That's a good hour later than most high schools around the state begin their first classes.
The death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and the resulting chaos in Ferguson, Missouri is an extreme example of the long tail of a racial power imbalance.
Racial power dynamics between police and the communities they patrol have historically been, and still are, important for communities in Michigan and across the country to address. But, a less explosive version of this racial power imbalance plays out elsewhere every day.
Dan Varner went to law school, dreaming he could change the world. When he got out, he got a job at a firm that handled class-action discrimination lawsuits.
"Got what I thought was a great job at a great firm," he says. "And became one of many unhappy attorneys."
He was unhappy because he realized the work wasn’t having any impact. So he got another job. He worked as a public defender for people accused of committing federal crimes.
"And I had this sense of this parade of largely black young men coming through my office," Varner says of his experience there. He says these men were "accused of committing crimes that most of them had committed, and who were going away to prison, for whom I couldn’t do much – A – and then B – for whom the education system had failed ... So at that point, I really began this journey back upstream."
He stopped being a lawyer, and ended up in education.
It's summer, but I'm going to talk about school for a minute here. This recent New Yorker article about standardized tests kind of blew my mind. In it, reporter Rachel Aviv profiles an urban middle school in Atlanta where teachers willfully cheat on the state standardized test; not only did a few of the teachers sneak a peak at the test before they were allowed to, the school's principal encouraged the teachers to correct the students' answers, too.
But after the Detroit Free Press published a blistering investigation into the state's charter schools, the law may be headed for more revisions.
And some are starting to make the case for a complete overhaul – not just of charters, but of Michigan's entire education system.
"Let's start over," says Dan Varner, head of Excellent Schools Detroit, and a member of the state Board of Education. "I think it’s time for a complete reset of the way we deliver public education in Michigan."