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.

RACE: A tale of two gaps - achievement and discipline

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.

One place where parents and teachers are talking about race in the classroom is Birmingham, MI. Birmingham is pretty much as white a city as they come, with a median household income around $100,000. 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.

Gap #1: Achievement

Jason Clinkscale is the principal at Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham. He says when it comes to student performance on standardized tests, "the achievement gap is alive and well" in his district.

We're not talking about some 5 or 10 point difference here. The achievement gap in the Birmingham district translates to 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.

Source: Birmingham Public Schools

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. You can see it play out from classroom to classroom: minorities are over-represented in lower level classes and underrepresented in honors and advanced classes.

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 foster your children’s ability’ and ‘how to help your child succeed.’ There are also more intervention classes for kids, and Saturday school for those who need extra help.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Birmingham school district offers Saturday School for those students who need extra help.

Now, 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.

"When you have low expectations, you’re not likely to challenge the black students with critical thinking and problem solving," says Ford. "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."

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 is with Education Trust Midwest, a non-profit dedicated to closing the achievement gap. She says teacher quality is number one in-school predictor of student achievement.

"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," says Arellano. "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."

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.

Gap #2: Discipline

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

Credit Source: U.S. Dept of Education's Office of Civil Rights

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 is the principal at Pioneer, a school with one of the highest discipline gaps in the district. Leaman knows she has her work cut out for her, but she says she and the district have a plan, or rather, a philosophy. It's a philosophy, says Leaman, "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."

The thinking goes: A student can learn more when they’re in the classroom, not when they’re out of school serving 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 about how black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers? Leaman knows it’s true.

"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," says Leaman.

But Donna Ford, the special education professor at Vanderbilt University, says she's not going to let teachers off the hook when it comes to the discipline gap. "They need training to be effective with African American students," says Ford. "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."  

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.

"We have to give them better alternatives"

For every suspension a student experiences, the likelihood that they’ll drop out increases. Even being suspended once in 9th 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. 

"A young man who doesn’t graduate from high school has no future in our society," says Orfield. "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."

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 in what's called 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.”

For 17-year old senior Darrien Reeves, the conflict resolution room is magical:

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

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The conflict resolution room uses peer mediation and restorative practices to try to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions

Reeves is one of the peer mediation counselors at the high school, and he was trained by a woman named Margaret Rohr. She 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.

She calls restorative justice a complete paradigm shift from traditional discipline. 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.

"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," explains Rohr. "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 kumbay-ish, you’re not alone.

Cheyenne (last name withheld) is 14-years old and a freshman at Ypsilanti High School. She has a few suspensions under her belt already. When she first heard about the conflict resolution room she thought it was "weird."

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:

"It was me and three other girls," Cheyenne says. "It was all a big misunderstanding and we came here and talked about it and we all became friends again."

Cheyenne says it's helpful to talk to an outside party, like Rohr, because she who won't pick favorites; she 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."

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Motivational posters line the wall in the conflict resolution room at Ypsilanti High School

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.

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.