STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.
This week, State of Opportunity presents an hour-long documentary on race, culture, and kids in Michigan. What’s the problem and why does it matter?Jennifer Guerra goes into some of our state's high schools and finds them to be more segregated than one would think possible in the 21st century. She speaks with teachers and students about how race today shapes their experiences in the classroom and using restorative justice techniques to reduce conflicts. And we hear what students think about growing up in, what some claim, is a "post-racial" society. What are you hearing about race from the kids in your home, in your classroom, and in your neighborhood? Help them share their stories with us. And come chat with us on Facebook when the documentary airs Thursday, May 2nd.

A documentary on race, neighborhoods, schools, and kids in Michigan [transcript + audio]



JENNIFER GUERRA: It’s time to have the talk. I know, it’s not gonna be easy. Might get a little uncomfortable – maybe make you squirm a little. But it’s time. I’m Jennifer Guerra with Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity project. For the next hour, we’re going to talk about RACE.

Now I know some of you listening right now are thinking Race? Really? It’s 2013. Aren’t we past this by now?

Good. I was hoping you’d ask that.



JG: Hi, is this Katie?

KB: Yeah.

JG: Hey Katie, it’s Jennifer.

KB: Hi.

JB: How are you doing?

KB: I’m doing good, you?

JG: I want you to meet two young girls, freshmen at a high school in Grand Haven, Michigan. Their names are Katie, age 15 and Dystany, 14. Both girls are mixed – half white, half black - they describe their skin as caramel colored. And they’re pretty much inseparable

KB: Yeah, we are each other’s halves. You finish each other’s sentences a lot. How long friends? A year and a half….

JG: The two girls ride the bus together to school every day….and that’s where the trouble started/and that’s where we’ll pick up our story/let’s let them take it from here.

KB: Me and Dee Dee...

DYSTANY DUNN: Dystany, Dystany

KB: we were sitting on the bus and this girl was saying how blacks should go back to African, Hispanics should go back to Mexico and this world would be better if it would just be Caucasians. Her friend said there’s two black girls behind you and the girl said well they can go back to Africa.

JG: How’d that make you feel?

KB: Mad...

DD: Mad

KB: ...and unwelcoming.

JG: This wasn’t some isolated incident. The girls tell me about the boy who wore a KKK mask in the cafeteria, another one who wore it during homecoming weekend. Then there was the time a boy came up to Katie when she was taking a test, and he made a joke about slavery and ‘has she picked any cotton lately?’

And then, there was another school bus incident. I want to warn you that what Katie's about to say uses a racial term listeners may find offensive

DD: Well me and Katie were getting on the bus, no seats in the front, so we decided to go to the back and these two dudes were like why don’t you sit back here all the time, blacks sit at the back of the bus? I didn’t think Katie heard it, so I let it go.

KB: Then we sat down and I heard…like, you know how people use the terms that’s gay?...well some dude fell and was like, oh you’re such a N. Then we sat down and this dude, the guy, said oh look at those Ns over there and pointed at us. There were 5 dudes in the whole thing and the guy said to another guy would you ever date a black girl? Yeah, just light skinned ones. There are those light skinned niggers over there, he’s like would you date them? And he said no, they have nappy hair. I’ll give you $5 if you f*** one of them, and he said 'no, I would never f*** a nigger.'

JG: Do you feel safe at school?

KB: No.

DD: No.

KB: I have people walk me to class.

DD: And so do I.

JG: Adults or friends?

KB: Friends.

JG: Why, what do you think is going to happen?

DD: I don’t know, something might come up.

KB: That’s why I don’t use the bathroom during school any more, I’m afraid whoever would follow me in and do whatever. If five  guys have the guts to say that, you don’t know what five guys would do.


JG: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Katie and Destiny in Grand Haven aren’t the only two in America being harassed because of their skin color.

Doesn’t sound quite like the post-racial society a lot of folks claim we live in today. And it’s not just overt racism that we’re talking about.

STEVEN RAPHAEL: My definition of being in a post-racial society would be one where race is not predictive of anything, and that’s certainly not the case.

JG: Steven Raphael is a public policy professor at UC Berkeley.

SR: It’s still the case that today just knowing a child’s race (or adult’s race for that matter), will on average predict a number of outcomes. And it almost uniformly tends to be the case that African Americans fare worse on average on most outcomes.

DAVID HARRIS: When you take the major racial groups in the US, Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asian Americans, you can basically take Whites and Asian Americans on one side of a distribution and Blacks and Latinos on the other side of the distribution. You’re pretty much gonna be right if you assume that Blacks and Latinos are not doing quite so well and Whites and Asians are.

JG: David Harris is a provost at Tufts University and co-editor of a book called Colors of Poverty. He says, and there are mountains of evidence to back this up, that if you’re born Black in the U.S., you are less likely than a white person to make it to your first birthday. You’re less likely to have a college degree, more likely to have a parent in jail, live in a bad neighborhood with underperforming schools and high crime, and you’re considerably more likely to wind up involved in the criminal justice system.

Substitute Latino or Native American in place of Black and the outcomes are pretty similar.

And when you think about how our population is growing into a majority minority…those statistics start to take on new weight.

Take all those outcomes and combine them with historical discrimination like redlining and studies like the one that shows employers are more likely to hire an individual with a white sounding name than a black sounding one…and you’ve got what Harris calls “cumulative disadvantage.”

DH: It’s that old idea in part from the 1960s, which was that you can’t have individuals run a race, one of whom has a weighted vest and one of whom doesn’t, take the weight off and say everything’s equal move on. You have a different starting condition because of the history. So race matters in direct and indirect ways.

Let’s stay with the analogy for a minute…what if there was a program that said ‘look, we can’t remove the vest entirely, but what if we could lighten up considerably.’

DERRICK BLACKMON: My name is Mr. Blackmon and I represent Black Family Development and we have a program called Promise Neighborhoods based on a program that started in Harlem with a frustrated educator named Geoffrey Canada.

JG: Derrick Blackmon has knocked on more than two-thousand doors in Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood, and each time he gives this exact same spiel. In the spiel, he talks about how a guy named Geoffrey Canada took two of the worst blocks in Harlem…

DB: …actually two of the blocks were in the movie American Gangster with Denzel. Did you see that? Mkay. Well that was based on reality…

JG: ... and deployed a “whatever it takes” approach to help those kids in Harlem beat the odds. A decade later, the grand experiment known as the Harlem Children’s Zone is by all measures a success. It’s now a 100-block zone in the heart of Harlem with a safety net that starts at birth and goes through college.

Derrick Blackmon and his team at Black Family Development want to do the same thing for kids here in Detroit. And they’re calling it Promise Neighborhood.

DB: If they can do that in Harlem, they can do that anywhere, so ma’am, sir, welcome to anywhere.

JG: The “anywhere” Blackmon shows me is a neighborhood called Osborn. It’s a mostly black neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in Detroit. It also has a high vacancy rate, which is obvious as he drives me around, block to block.

Unemployment is high, poverty is high. The average household income in Osborn is around 12-thousand dollars a year.

We pass by drug houses, a gas station where Blackmon says lots of shootings take place; an abandoned house on a corner where a man attempted to rape a young girl…

More than a third of the people living in Osborn are children under the age of 18, and this is what they’re confronted with every day they step outside their front door.

Children like 10-year old Jaleesa.


Jaleesa put on her mini American Idol performance for me in the cafeteria at Brenda Scott Elementary, where she’s in third grade. Brenda Scott is one of the lowest performing schools in Detroit.

Jaleesa’s a sensitive kid with a big heart, and when you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up? It’s a no brainer.

JALEESA: I want to be a singer.

Jaleesa’s mom – Phyllis Dotson – dropped by the school to sign up her daughter for Black Family Development’s new Promise Neighborhood pilot program.


JG: There are five or so tables in the enrollment room. Each table has an official sounding name, like INTAKE STATION and QUALITY REVIEW STATION. The enrollees make their way from one station to the next, not quite sure what they’re signing their kids up for. They just hope it’s for something better than they already have.

We’ll catch up with Jaleesa’s mom in a minute, but first, a little explainer.

The reason it’s called pilot program is because there is no real Promise Neighborhood in Detroit…yet. The Obama administration came up with the Promise Neighborhood competition several years ago. Cities with the best plan to lift up a struggling community win the big bucks.

Black Family Development won a 500-thousand dollar planning grant a couple years ago, but when they went to apply for the full 6 million dollars to implement the plan, they got shut out. Instead, Promise Neighborhood money went to D.C., and states like California, Massachusetts, Texas and Mississippi.

So Black Family Development is rolling out a pilot program. They’ll enroll 140 kids like Jaleesa and track them on everything from attendance to tutoring to after school programs. The goal is to include the new data when they go to apply again this summer to try to win money to bring Promise Neighborhoods to Detroit.

The 140 kids will come from five schools in two neighborhoods in Detroit – Osborn, an overwhelmingly black neighborhood where Jaleesa lives, and Clark Park, a mostly Latino neighborhood in SW Detroit.


Back in the enrollment room, I catch up with Jaleesa’s mom – Phyllis Dotson. Like a majority of residents in Osborn, Dotson relies on food stamps and cash assistance to get by. Up until late last year, she and her kids were homeless and living out of the family van. 

Dotson tells me she’s got some medical problems and can’t work, so she spends her days volunteering.

I asked her why she wants to enroll Jaleesa and her two siblings, Adam and Nikia in the Promise Neighborhood pilot…

PHYLLIS DOTSON: They can be more educated on a lot of their stuff as far as their school work, the teacher with their homework and everything. Mainly their knowledge, they can pick up on stuff they’re not getting right now. Because I think Jaleesa, she’s back 3 grades because of her attendance, which is true. I had to catch the bus with them. Then when it got even colder, I didn’t get up and catch the bus. That’s my fault, I know that. But, yeah.

JG: Do you want Adam, Jaleesa and Nikia to go to college?

PD: Oh yes, definitely, yes. I want them to go and become doctors, lawyers, whatever they can be to be it. I tell them like this every day: be better than your Mom.   



JG: Be better than your Mom.

That’s what every parent hopes for right? That’s the American Dream – you work hard and do well by others and eventually you’ll become more successful than your parents. Opportunity and wealth are supposed to grow with each generation.

But in neighborhoods like Osborn and Clark Park, where houses are abandoned and stripped, resources have dwindled, gangs run the blocks, schools are underperforming, jobs are scarce, what kind of opportunity do these African American and Latino kids really have?

A study by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University shows that fully 90 percent of African American children in Michigan live in “low opportunity” neighborhoods, like Osborn.

More than half of Latino children in Michigan and 43 percent of Native American children live in low opportunity neighborhoods.

When it comes to white children, the percentage is significantly lower: just under 20 percent

That means the vast majority of white children live in neighborhoods where the streetlights work and the cops come when you call; where there are good schools, and a viable job market.

The same can’t be said for the vast majority of children of color.

VOX: Hi, my name is Shaquria Harris-Bey, I’m 16 and I’m in 10th grade. I’m Navia Daniel, and I’m in 10th grade, I’m 15. Hi, my name is Tanesha George, I’m 16 and I’m in 10th grade.

JG: Shaquiria, Navia and Tanesha live on the west side of Detroit in a neighborhood called Brightmoor. They share what it’s like to grow up in a low opportunity neighborhood like theirs.

NAVIA DANIEL: There’s certain parts of Brightmoor that’s good and certain parts that bad.

TANESHA GEORGE: It’s a lot of abandoned houses on my street. I think there’s four and one that someone’s squatting in.

SHAQUIRIA HARRIS-BEY: House, house, house, abandoned house next door…

TG: It’s not a good place to live, I mean it’s not the worst place.

ND: I wouldn’t raise my kids over there, I’m just sayin.

SHB: I want my kids to have better than I have.

ND: But then again how we got raise we still came out okay, we’re still not into all that stuff they been doing, other people. Girls end up getting pregnant, having sex, smoking weed, and then the boys, just gangs all day.

TG: For boys, I feel like it’s harder. If you’re a boy it’s almost mandatory for you to be in a gang, if you don’t rep a gang they’re like ‘what’s wrong with you’? It’s really pushed upon them, it’s not like something they just choose to do. If you grow up in a house on Brightmoor and you are a boy, you’re most likely gonna become a Crip and that is the end of that, that is the end of that. That's it.

You have a lot of good days, but most of the days it’s not if you around that kind of stuff.

SHB: I think I’ll carry on because I think about the future, like: I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna leave, go wherever I need to go, go to college..

TG: Everything will get better eventually; I mean you got to keep a positive mindset, that’s how I learned. Just stay positive until it’s over and then you get to do whatever you want to do and be whoever you want to be. You don’t have to think about it, that’s it.

JG: That was Tanesha George, and her fellow classmates Shaquiria Harris-Bey, and Navia Daniel. All residents of the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit.

Coming up, when it comes to out of school suspensions, guess which group of students is three times more likely to get suspended than any other group? The answer in 10 minutes.

You’re listening to a State of Opportunity special on race, here on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.

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JG: From Michigan Radio, this is State of Opportunity, I’m Jennifer Guerra. The topic this hour – RACE. When I told people I was working on this special, one hour show about race, a lot of the reactions were along the lines of “race…hmm….interesting.”

Like, man, I’m glad I don’t have your job.

That’s cause the topic of RACE is fraught.  People hear it and they run for their hills.

But researcher Rebecca Bigler says when we don’t talk about it, when we don’t address the issue of race, say, or gender, that’s when the trouble starts.

For nearly two decades, psychologist Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas has been testing race and gender ideas with kids using colored t-shirts in a summer school program.

REBECCA BIGLER: So we put this whole room of kids in shirts that are red or blue, and when you walk into this school that we use, you notice that there are all these red and blue kids.

JG: The first colored t-shirt experiment Bigler ran was in the early 1990s. My colleague, Dustin Dwyer, interviewed Bigler about it. Let’s let him take it from here.

DUSTIN DWYER: For this one, Bigler had the teachers talk about t-shirt colors the way teachers usually talk about gender.

RB: So they said, ‘Good morning reds and blues, and blues line up, and let’s sit red-blue, red-blue. What a good blue group member,'" she says. "And so the teachers were never biased. They were never unfair. They never linked the groups to traits. But what we found that when the teachers labeled those groups, just like in the case of gender, the kids became biased.”

DD: By the end of the summer, reds were more likely to have a high opinion of reds. Blues were more likely to have a high opinion of blues.

Next, Bigler wondered about race. Race doesn’t get labeled in classrooms today. Teachers don’t stand in front of class and say, “Good morning, black kids and white kids.”

But kids are exposed to more subtle signals—they might notice that everyone on their block is the same race as them. Or that kids of a difference race often have different outcomes.  So Bigler ran a study in which she put up posters at the school. Kids were told that the posters showed the outcomes for the previous year’s class. 

RB: Essentially, what we did is show one group, for example the blue group, winning all of the academic contests," Bigler says. "It was only blue kids who read the most books over the summer, won the weekly spelling bees. Won the math quizzes, showed the good behavior."

DD: Left on their own, the kids would ignore the posters. But Bigler says when teachers made a big deal out of the t-shirt color groups, the posters became more important.

RB: Then the high status children became exceptionally biased," she says. "The highest levels of stereotyping and prejudice I’ve seen in any of our studies come when the teachers label the groups, and those posters in the room show that the kids’ own group is a very successful group."

DD: So what the kids learn from the teachers is that the t-shirt groups are important. What they learn from the posters is that one group is better than the other.

You might hear this and think that the answer is just to ignore the groups—pretend there is no difference.

But Bigler says that won’t work with race and gender. Kids can’t avoid noticing these differences.

RB: So the question really becomes, will now just ignoring and not labeling make those biases go away," she asks. "And the answer is clearly no.”

DD: Bigler did other studies where kids were just asked about race and gender. It turns out, kids notice differences far more than adults realize. But if adults don’t explain why differences exist, kids make up their own explanations.

In a study in 2006, Bigler asked elementary school kids why there’s never been a woman president. Twenty percent of kids said it’s because women are less qualified. 

RB: Most parents wouldn’t want their child endorsing that belief, right?" she says. "They don’t want them to think the reason women aren’t president of the United States is because they’re incompetent."

DD: But if parents don’t explain why there’s never been a woman president, kids won’t know.

Bigler says the lesson from the t-shirt studies is that kids pay attention to the difference between groups—no matter what difference you give them. But if you don’t explain why the groups are different, kids will often assume that one group is just better than the other.

So parents and teachers can’t pretend there’s no difference. They have to talk about the differences.


You’re listening to State of Opportunity on Michigan Radio, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

One place where parents and teachers ARE talking about race in the classroom is Birmingham, Michigan.

Birmingham is pretty much as white a city as they come, with a median household income around 100-thousand dollars. Espresso bars and high end restaurants and shops line the streets downtown, and there’s a four star hotel where out of town celebrities stay whenever they visit metro Detroit.

From the looks of it, Birmingham has it all. But dig a little deeper, and Birmingham has a problem.

VOX: We have a huge achievement gap//closing the achievement gap// the achievement gap//close the achievement gap//that achievement gap is alive and well here in Birmingham right now.

That last voice you heard is Jason Clinkscale, principal at Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham.


When it comes to student performance on standardized tests, his district has some serious disparities between white and black students.

And we’re not talking about some 5 or 10 point difference. We’re talking about a nearly 30 point difference in proficiency in math at the middle school level between white and black students. By the time those students reach 11th grade, the math gap is more than 50 points wide.

Clinkscale is an African American with two daughters of his own. He uses words like sobering and frustrating to describe the achievement gap. And the gap isn’t just on paper…I can see it play out from classroom to classroom. Take math for example…



In this lower level math class for 7th and 8th graders – what’s called “essential math” – minority students are way overrepresented. Half the class is African American, even though black students make up less than a quarter of the school’s population.

Principal Clinkscale then takes me into an advanced math class…



JASON CLINKSCALE: If we have 23% of our students that are African American, you’d hope to see 23% of that advanced class also being African American.

JG: Instead, in a sea of white faces, there’s one minority student.

Clinkscale chairs the district’s Achievement Gap Committee . To try to shrink the gap, they have weekly “Parent University” classes for adults with topics like ‘how to listen to your child’ and ‘how to help with deal with stress.’ There are also more intervention classes for kids, and Saturday school for those who need extra help.

There are likely a number of contributing factors to explain Birmingham’s big achievement gap. For starters, a lot of the black students don’t start their education in the district. They often transfer in from schools in lower-performing districts. Which means they also might not have gotten the same kind of early childhood education a lot of their white peers did.

Donna Ford argues that teachers’ expectations also play a key role in perpetuating the achievement gap. Ford is a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University:

DONNA FORD: When you have low expectations, you’re not likely to challenge the black students with critical thinking and problem solving. You’re not likely to refer them for gifted education screening and placement, you’re not likely to refer them for advanced placement classes, and also you’re more likely to refer them for special education identification and services.

JG: Changing expectations is something Jason Clinkscale says his district is working on.

Birmingham isn’t alone with its achievement gap. Michigan as a whole has one of the worst gaps in the country.

So how to solve it? Obviously there’s no silver bullet. There is one group, though, that every expert I spoke to brought up as having the biggest impact on closing the gap: Teachers.

AMBER ARELLANO: Teacher quality is number one in-school predictor of student achievement.

JG: Amber Arellano is with Education Trust Midwest, a non-profit dedicated to closing the achievement gap.

AA: For a long time in Michigan, we’ve put our hands up and said, well they’re poor or they’re black or they’re brown, and so there’s not a whole lot that we can do about it. And now what’s happened in the last 15 years is that there’s been an explosion of really high-caliber research that show there’s actually things that matter inside the school and what’s schools do and how they’re organized.

JG: What matters, she says, are highly effective teachers and rigorous curriculums with high-level math and science classes.

But recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights show those two basic things are lacking in schools with high concentrations of Black and Latino students.

Those schools are twice as likely to have teachers who get paid less and have less experience. Same goes for rigor. The higher the minority population in a school, the fewer honors and advanced classes offered.

For Amber Arellano, figuring out how to close the achievement gap isn’t just a job…it’s personal.

AA: My daughter is 11 months old, she’s Hispanic, and I think to myself: is she going to be able to have a viable public education in Michigan? She’s very clearly Latina in terms of her appearance and that could have an impact in terms of the access to opportunities for her. And we are blessed that we’re middle class family, so we can move…but there are thousands of parents that they can’t and it’s just so deeply unfair…I see you getting pretty emotional…Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s just so tragic when you think about the missed opportunities for kids.


JG: Over at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor…a town best known for its world-class University and athletics…there’s another kind of Gap at play. A discipline gap.

Stand in the hallway at Pioneer and you can pick out a few minority students here and there. But by and large it’s a white school. And yet, when it comes to who gets suspended, students of color far outnumber white students.

The sad thing is, Ann Arbor isn’t unique. A new report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that – during the 2009-10 school year – nearly out of every three African American high school boys were suspended. That’s three times the rate of suspension for white boys.

CYNTHIA LEAMAN: I’m Cynthia Leaman, principal at Pioneer High School, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

JG: Leaman is new to Pioneer – she just joined the school three months ago, but she’s been an educator for 35 years. Pioneer High School has one of the highest discipline gaps in the district, so Leaman’s got her work cut out for her. But she says she has a plan, or rather, a philosophy:

CL: A philosophy of keeping the students in the classroom, because I believe the more we can do to keep them in the classroom and raise their skills, the less discipline you have down the road.

JG: The thinking goes: A student can learn more when they’re in the classroom, not when they’re out of school serving out a suspension.

For Leaman, the achievement gap and the discipline gap go hand in hand. So if she can get teachers to identify students that are having trouble…and then provide assistance like tutoring or counseling or even switching up when they start school so they’re not tardy all the time…she thinks then the number of suspensions will start to shrink.

Still, that statistic I brought up a couple minutes ago, the one about how Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their White peers? Leaman knows it’s true.

CL: I mean I’ve seen teachers who cannot handle African American students and they do send them out, I mean I’m not gonna say oh no, we don’t do that at all, but I don't think that that’s the majority.

DONNA FORD: I’m just not gonna let teachers off the hook, they need training to be effective with African American students.

JG: That’s Donna Ford, the special education professor at Vanderbilt University

DF: It can’t all reside in the African American children. We cannot take on the total responsibility for these negative outcomes. We must look at going on schools and homes, of course what’s going on in homes and the larger communities.

JG: For those teachers who do over-discipline African American students, Principal Cynthia Leaman has what the district calls a “courageous conversation” with the teacher to point out the disparity and come up with a way to fix it so that suspensions are a last resort.

For every suspension a student experiences, the likelihood that they’ll drop out increases. Even being suspended once in ninth grade ups your chances of dropping out – from 16 percent to 32 percent.

Gary Orfield directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He says a stat like that should concern not just young black and Latino males, but everybody:

GARY ORFIELD: A young man who doesn’t graduate from high school has no future in our society. So what are these guys doing to live? They’re not doing anything that we would like to know about, and they’re doing things that have a huge cost to the society. We have to give them better alternatives.

JG: You're listening to a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.

Let’s hear about one type of alternative to suspensions that’s being used at Ypsilanti High School.

If you’re on the verge of being suspended and you go to Ypsilanti High School, chances are you’ll end up here, in the “conflict resolution room.”

It’s pretty bare bones – just a small couch, some chairs, a plant. For decoration, there are signs and homemade posters with drawings of shooting stars and slogans like “together we can!” and “think before you speak.”

DARRION REEVES: This room is where you come in with problems, and you leave with no problems. You just get everything off your chest, basically.

JG: That’s a 17 year old Ypsilanti senior named Derrion Reeves. He’s one of the peer mediation counselors at the high school, and he was trained by this woman: Margaret Rohr.

MARGARET ROHR: We have trained student mediators here at Ypsilanti HS who are called in to sit down with two disputants to discuss whatever the conflict may be…I sit in the room next door with the door open between the mediation room and my office, so while the students are handling the mediation…I’m able to overhear everything right next door, so there’s always adult supervision.

JG: Rohr says she uses peer mediation for lower level conflicts between students. More of a prevention tactic than anything.

But if trouble’s brewing and a fight seems imminent – which, by the way, is definite grounds for suspension – Rohr says that’s when she’ll use something called restorative justice:

MR: Restorative practices basically establish a complete paradigm shift from traditional discipline…

JG: In traditional discipline, Rohr says, the focus is on rules and punishment. With restorative practices, the focus is on harm done and relationships. So if someone starts a fight in a hall, for example, a restorative circle would include everyone who was affected by that fight: the teacher who had to stop class to break it up; the staff member who had to stop what she was doing to call the parents, and on and on. Everyone gets in a circle, with the student who caused the harm in the middle. The student then has to listen as one by one he hears how his actions impacted those around him.

MR: So rather than a punishment, restorative practices looks for a teachable moment. Something’s going on with that student, they’re not doing well, and last thing they need is to be removed from school environment where there’s a stable environment and caring adults. Removing them to the community where there isn’t a lot of adult supervision leaves those students in a limbo.

If it all sounds a little koombyaish, you’re not alone.

CHEYENNE: I thought it was weird. To be honest, I didn’t think it was gonna work cause usually talking doesn’t really work with me.

JG: Cheyenne is 14 years old and a freshman at Ypsi High. She has a few suspensions under her belt already. One this year for arguing with a teacher, and a few in middle school for fighting.

Dressed in a black top with sparkly hot pink sequins, Cheyenne seems like a sweet girl, but she admits she has a temper. Earlier this year things got pretty heated between her and some girlfriends, and it looked like there was gonna be a fight…so she and her friends found themselves talking to Margaret Rohr in the conflict resolution room:

CHEYENNE: It was me and three other girls…it was all a big misunderstanding and we came here and talked about it and we all became friends again. I think it’s easier to talk about it when you have another party involved that doesn’t really know what’s going on and isn’t picking favorites.

JG: Cheyenne says the combination of restorative circles and peer mediation has made her calmer, less quick to judge. Without irony, she quotes a poster on the wall behind her when she tells me, thanks to Ms. Rohr, she now thinks before she speaks.

Rohr tells me since they opened the conflict resolution room last October, there’s been a slight reduction in the number of fights and suspensions. If the conflict resolution room hadn’t been open, she estimates there would be 120 more days of suspensions handed out. 120 more days where some kids wouldn’t have been in school.


Coming up, what’s it like to be one of the few minorities in your school? We’ll find out in 10 minutes.

You’re listening to State of Opportunity on Michigan Radio.

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JG: This is State of Opportunity from Michigan Radio, I’m Jennifer Guerra. All this hour we’re looking at race and culture and its impact on children.

We just heard about disparities in schools with somewhat diverse populations, but most schools in Michigan are highly segregated.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, says that’s a real problem for Michigan students.

GARY ORFIELD: Michigan is an absolute national leader in segregated schools.

JG: True, Michigan doesn’t have any actual segregated schools on the books, those went out a long time ago. But de facto segregation is very real. And it’s hard to argue that we’re moving toward a post-racial society in Michigan when Black kids mostly go to school with other black kids, Latinos with Latinos, whites with whites.

GO: One thing people need to understand is it’s almost never just segregation by race or ethnicity. It’s almost always what we call “double segregation” – so high concentrated black or Latino schools tend to have concentrated poverty as well, so there’s a double level of segregation.

JG: And for a lot of Latino students, Orfield says it’s triple segregation - segregation by race, poverty and language.

GO: Almost anyone would agree, I think, that just sitting next to a white kid isn’t magical, but being in a middle class school where most of the kids are going to college and everybody’s preparing them to succeed there, that is magical.

JG: You know, we have this growing diversity in the country, and yet we’re staring at these kids who are in the minority who will soon not be in the minority anymore. They will be, in a very real sense, the future of the country, and they’re in these schools that are separate and unequal. What does that mean for the future of the country?

GO: It means in many parts of our country the average level of education will decline as whites are replaced particularly by Latinos, which is the underlying dynamic of our population now. If we don’t figure out how to educate those people who are actually here in our country, we will create new barrios and ghettos with people who have no future in this society and no real connection to it, and we’ll pay huge costs for that for generations to come.


JG: We’ve heard from a lot of adults this hour – teachers, principals, community workers, researchers – all talking about the impact of race and culture on students.

But what do students think? I mean, how do you talk about differences – like race – if all you see, day in and day out, in your school and your neighborhood – are people who look just like you?

You’re going to hear from a number of students – Latino, African American and White – about what it means to grow up in a de facto segregated world. We’ll start with the students at Pershing and New Tech High Schools – where more than 90% of the population is black.

VOX: Hi, my name is Tanesha George, I’m 16, I’m in 10th grade. My name is Nicholas Gordon. My name is Arica Bland.

ARICA BLAND: I feel like I like going to an African American school, but I would want to experience different races so that I can be comfortable. I’ve been comfortable around white people, so I don’t have a problem, but you know, Mexicans, you know Bengali and all that, I just want to be comfortable around them.

TANESHA GEORGE: It kind of leaves a lot of us curious about different races, and you know when you go to college it’s a lot different people, so stereotypes do come about when you try to talk to someone that’s not of your race, or someone that you don’t know.

NICHOLAS GORDON: Well I feel kind of comfortable that it’s nice seeing my own race, like when we see different people we feel uncomfortable because they’re different than us. But I feel that that doesn’t prepare us for college, because college we see all races that’s coming in there. So how do we deal with a different race?

VOX: My name is Andrea Salsito, I’m 15 and I go to Cezar Chavez Academy High School. My name is Alexa Carello, I’m Mexican and I’m 15 years old. My name is Miyera Vasquez and I’m 14. My name is Eddie Soliz, I’m 17, I’m Chicano and I go to CCA.

ANDREA SALSITO: It’s really nice because we all understand each other and we speak the same language.

ALEXA CARELLO: We can all speak in Spanish if we want, and then we can like talk in English if we want to.

AS: It would help if there’s more students, just to get to know other races.

EDDIE SOLIZ: We actually got a couple other race besides Mexican in our school, but I think it would’ve been better if we had some other kinds so we could learn more about them, like share stories.

MIYERA VASQUEZ: Like this one time we went to movies as a field trip and we were all just standing there. There was a white school and then there was us, and then they started laughing like, oh look at them I bet one of them is a Maria or a Jose. So they started saying it, like Maria? And some girls turned around and they’re like you see! And just started laughing.

VOX: My name is Mikaela Strech, I’m a 12th grader at Seaholm HS. I’m Austin Filbin, 12th grade. My name is Leah Levigne, I’m Jason Mondry, Michael Bertrand, I’m a junior.

MIKAELA STRECH: We’re predominately white school. I think that our school’s pretty clicky and I do find without a doubt that race places into that.

JASON MONDRY: We all eat lunch in the cafeteria and probably the most prevalent example about how the races at Seaholm divide up against each other would be in the cafeteria. Usually there’s an entirely black table that sits together, and normally it’s just a bunch of white students at tables.

AUSTIN FILBIN: I just wish that wasn’t something that we held so valuable, like that would be the determining thing who you sit with at the lunch table.

MS: To be honest, and this is not a good reflection of our school at all, so I feel a little guilty saying this. I was a freshman sitting in the cafeteria and at lunch we had equally loud table of boys and tables, and one of our hall monitors walked right by us to discipline the black table.

LEAH LEVIGNE: Something that one of my teachers has mentioned to me before is that when a lot of kids leave this Birmingham bubble and go to college, it’s a big step to be thrown into a much more diverse mix and interact with people that are a lot different than you’re used to. But I think like being in the situation we’re in now it makes a lot of us close-minded almost.

MICHAEL BERTRAND: Yeah, I almost feel like to fix the problem you have to address the problem. But we can’t admit that we have a race problem, so therefore we can’t even fix it because we don’t acknowledge that it’s there.

JG: After talking to Jason, Andrea, Tanisha and all the other teenagers who were so willing to open up and share their thoughts on race, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Michigan schools are among the most segregated in the country, what would it feel like to be a minority at one of those schools? The odd man out. The one who so obviously looks different from everybody else.

So we gave a recorder to a young woman named Kennedie King, and we asked her to reflect on what it’s like to be in the minority at her school.  She attends a high school in SE Michigan, where she is one of the few African American students.

Here’s Kennedie.

KENNEDIE KING: Your narrator and host Kennedie Kamil King, ladies and gentleman. I’m 15 years old, I’m in 10th grade, I’m a sophomore, class of 2015, what what!

Ok right now at this very moment, my favorite song is Cee Lo Green’s One for the Road. It’s like, it starts off and it’s like…

This my sister, Sierra, she’s my best friend in the whole widest world. Hey everybody! The other one is in college, her name is Destiny.

I like poetry, I love music, I love to dance.

Oh! America’s Next Top Model is on, I gotta watch, I gotta watch. Ok, bye!

All of Sierra’s friends that intertwine themselves within my family are of African American descent, and all of my friends that tend to come over and mingle with the family are White.

From my white friends, it’s usually always like ‘do you wash your hair every day?’ those kinds of questions. And I mean, no I don’t wash my hair every day. I always have my hair in braids like this. Are those dreads? No they’re not. Why do you leave your hair braided, why do you never where your fro out to school?

Black people it’s always matters of the voice and whether or not you came from Detroit. Like my voice, because of the way I speak, people thing I’m trying to be “bougie.” Again it’s just me speaking proper English, how I was raised.

I mean my voice does change from group to group, I’ve noticed that. But I think it’s my comfortability with you. ‘cause it changes with anybody. I’ll go into a more relaxed Kennedie when I’m with my friends, like if I really know you like that.

It’s raining and thunderstorming outside, I love the rain and thunderstorms…

I  know this is really touchy subject, but I think that’s why so many people of African American descent, when they grow up in a school like I do, I think that’s why historically black colleges are so successful. I mean they may have the same drama, but it feels nicer to be among your own, the ones that understand your familiarities.

Hey guys, just got home from track practice and school of course, since it’s Monday.

That’s the washer going in the background.

I think my school doesn’t deal with the issue of race. It’s kind of like a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Makes me feel like the school doesn’t care. I don’t know how everybody else feels, but to me, it makes me not like the school altogether because I mean you avoid this one little issue and it turns into a whole heap of mess. I mean, I’ve always asked the question how adults expect kids to settle this problem like when they go into the real world, and it’s a problem that should’ve been settled generations long, long past.


JG: As you’ve heard this hour, the issue of race is complicated. It can’t be boiled down into soundbites and simple statements. It’s dynamic, it’s messy.

Being born Black or Latino or Native American shouldn’t play a major role in determining your life outcomes, any more than being born White should.

Not too long ago, then Senator Barack Obama shined a spotlight on race in a speech he gave in Philadelphia.

In it, he talked about segregated schools and discrimination, racial tensions, anger in the black community, resentment among whites…

He ended his speech with a story about a young white woman named Ashley. Ashley’s Mom had cancer, and the family had to file for bankruptcy after she lost her job and health benefits.

Ashley says she joined the Obama campaign because she wanted to help others in similar situations.

BARACK OBAMA: Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

JG: What we’re talking about here is bigger than any particular party or campaign.

It’s about equality.

Racial disparities aren’t going to disappear overnight…it will take a lot of work to ensure that all children – no matter what color their skin, or what zip code they live in – all children have the opportunity to succeed.

We should do it not just for Ashley, but for:

VOX: Shaquiria Harris-Bey, Tanesha George, Andrea Salsito, Erica Bland, Mikaela Strech, Austin Feldman, Destiny, Katie, Leah Levine, Jason Mondrie, Miyera Vasquez, Alexa Callero, Cheynne, Darrion, Michael Bertrand, Eddie Solis, Kennedie King, Navia Daniel, Nicholas Gordon.


JG: You’ve been listening STATE OF OPPORTUNITY from Michigan Radio.

This documentary was informed by the Public Insight Network.

Thanks to Dustin Dwyer, Sarah Alvarez, Kimberly Springer and Bridget Knyal. Sarah Hulett edited the show. Tamar Charney is the executive producer of State of Opportunity.

This program is a production of Michigan Radio, a broadcasting service of the University of Michigan.

I’m Jennifer Guerra.

FUNDIE: Support for State of Opportunity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first."

CORRECTION: We incorrectly transcribed one of Cynthia Leaman's quotes; the sentence has now been fixed to accurately reflect the quote. 

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.