STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The Education Gap [transcript and audio]

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio


Break out your number two pencils and a notebook, because we are headed back to grade school. From Michigan Radio, this is State of Opportunity, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

We’ll visit two 5th grade classrooms this hour. One class is made up of kids whose families are mostly well-off:

In general the kids have a lot of help. Their parents are role models. Most of them come from families where their parents are reading as well, or they’re working and have to do work at home, so they’re kind of modeling those things.

The other classroom is filled with kids in poverty:

They have such anger issues, and then you meet the parent and that explains everything; they’re angry because their parents are angry. They’re modeling that behavior, and it takes an entire year to turn it around and then they move and we get a new set of them.

On our special STATE OF OPPORTUNITY documentary – THE EDUCATION GAP – we’ll look at how these two classroom experiences differ, and whether or not schools can level the playing field. But first, the news.



Our state constitution says - and I’m quoting here - that the Michigan legislature shall maintain a system of free public elementary and secondary schools. And every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination.

That’s it. Pretty simple. And yet, when you compare it to other state constitutions, you notice that Michigan’s law seems to be missing a few key words: like equitable or fair or adequate.

We’ve promised our kids a free education, yes, but is it equitable and adequate?

I’m Jennifer Guerra. For our State of Opportunity special – THE EDUCATION GAP – we’ll spend the next hour in two fifth grade classrooms in two different districts. The school districts are pretty close to one another, less than a 45 minute drive apart. But the educational experience the kids receive in the two districts? Well, let’s take a look:


Our first school is located in a low-income suburb of Detroit. We’ll call it School X. The administration didn’t want the name of the school or the district to be used for fear that they or their students would be blamed for, well, being poor.

Our story begins on the first day of school.

KB: Good morning. Hi sweetie, what’s your name?

This is Katherine Bower, she goes by Kathy. She’s an art teacher by training…

KB: That’s where my heart lies

But art classes are a luxury this district can no longer afford.

So this year, for the time ever, she’s teaching 5th grade.

She started teaching in this district 13 years ago. Since then, she’s been bounced around from school to school, grade to grade. Kindergarten, second grade, third grade, junior high.  You name it, she’s probably taught it.

KB: But you know what, I’m getting used to it, and I’m unfortunately low man on the totem pole.

JG: Is this sort of where people end up if they’re on the low end of the totem pole?

KB: Unfortunately, sometimes yes. Yes.

Bower admits she’s pretty nervous. For one thing, she’s got a reporter following her around, for one thing. This is her first time ever teaching fifth grade. And to top things off she’s got a real-world math problem to figure out.

KB: I think they added you to my list since this morning, so I’ll get you a name tag and a desk. Can you be patient? Thank you.

She’s got 32 desks in her classroom and 40 kids on her class list.

Forty kids who, by pretty much every measure, are considered at-risk. The test scores are the lowest in the district, well below the state average. Just about every kid qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Most of the children are African American, and most live with a single parent or grandparent in the low-income apartments just up the street. I have yet to hear of anyone’s parents or grandparents who finished college.

As one teacher told me there’s nothing about this school that’s easy, and a lot of teachers try to avoid it.


It’s pretty chaotic the first day of class…Bower can’t get her Elmo hooked up, a sort of projector on steroids, so she busies herself handing out some Get to Know Me worksheets.


The already small room feels even more cramped once the kids start streaming in. And the chaos is palpable. Partly because there aren’t enough desks for all the kids, partly because it’s the first day of school, and partly because, well, there are just so many kids in the room.

Most of these 5th graders come with backpacks, but there’s hardly anything inside them. Maybe a pencil or two, some crayons. Bower has to supply everything else: notebooks, folders, markers, glue sticks, scissors. She’s even provided each child with a small, plastic water bottle so they can stay hydrated.

For breakfast today, the kids will have to make do with one cinnamon pop-tart and a small carton of orange juice. I’m told the milk delivery guy didn’t show up, so the kids don’t get any cereal. Most teachers I talk to agree it’s not the most filling way to start the day. And they’re quick to tell me: this isn’t just a first day of school glitch. It happens a lot.

KB: I’m gonna give you just a few minutes to go ahead and eat your breakfast and you can just chat a little bit with the people around you…

While the kids are eating, let’s take a minute to check out the other school we’ll be following this hour.

TP: Good morning Allison. Look at how nice you look. Good morning, how are you?

This is Meadows – a 5th and 6th grade school in the Novi school district, about 30 minutes west of Detroit.

CM: Ok, for those of you I didn’t meet this morning, I’m Mrs. McDonald and I’m so glad to be here. We get serious, and there’s a lot of learning that goes on here, but we also like to have fun and laugh, you will see that. So if that’s you, you’re in the right spot.

Carri McDonald is one of three teachers for this fifth grade classroom at Novi Meadows. It’s called team teaching. The room is divided up into two big classrooms with a collapsible wall in between so the kids can exchange sides depending on the subject. Carri McDonald has 27 kids on her side. The other teacher, Tom Peronis, has 27 on his. The third teacher, Nola Bishop, teaches special education. She works with about ten kids from the class.

TP: Ok boys and girls, why are we here?

KIDS: In order to prepare for the future…

McDonald and Peronis have been teaching fifth grade together for 14 years, that’s longer than some marriages last. They almost sound a little apologetic when they tell me how lucky they are to have the type of kids they have in their class:

CM: In general the kids have a lot of help at home. Their parents are role models. Many of them, most of them come from families where their parents are reading as well, or they’re working and have to do work at home, so they’re kind of modeling those things.

Ethnic diversity at Novi Meadows is huge – kids from Japan, Romania, Iraq, Brazil. But economic diversity, not so much. While there are exceptions, in general, the kids at Meadows come from middle to upper middle class families. Two-parent households are the norm, and most parents went to college.

It’s day two here at Meadows and already the kids are well into their independent reading.

CM: You can find a spot anywhere in this team area, not in the project room. You’re welcome to use the pillows or the chairs or whatever as long as we’re all sharing.

Unlike the classroom in School X, where there are so many desks kids have a hard time finding a clear path to the pencil sharpener at the front of the room, the kids in Novi have more than enough room to sprawl out, and they do, on body pillows, on the rug, on yoga mats.

One young boy named DeShawn is sprawled out on the peace sign rug in the front of the classroom. He’s almost done with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I asked him what he thought about the book.

KID: It’s really good. They do funny things to try to get this guy out of slavery, especially Tom Sawyer. Huck would want to have his brain instead. Would you want his brain? Not really. I’d start acting like a guy out of the 1800s. That’s not probably very cool in 2013, is it? No, not really. It’s all old-fashioned.


Back at School X…


…independent reading is on the back burner. So is math, language arts, science and social studies. For the first week, the teacher Kathie Bower has to spend the majority of her time working with the kids on discipline.


A fight broke out between two boys in her class while they were standing in line to go to gym. But they didn’t make it to gym. Instead, they wound up in the principal’s office.


DZ: Ok, boys let me tell you what my expectations are, and then I’ll hold you responsible for following, ok? Yes or no?

The principal, Diedre Zockheem, handles the situation like a pro. She makes the kids write down what happened, and then read it aloud to each other.

DZ: We’re teaching you how to use your words, you understand me? Look at me please. We’re teaching you how to use your words, not your fist. Because you’re gonna get hurt very badly if every time someone touches you, you punch. Same thing for you. When do I expect you to fight? (At home.)

Not sure if you caught it, the tape’s a little fuzzy here. When the principal asks the two boys where she expects them to fight, without missing a beat, they both reply ‘At Home.’

DZ: When do I expect you to fight? (At home.) No I don’t. I don’t ever expect you to fight, ever, even at home. When do I expect you to fight? (Nowhere) Good. Now Mom’s rules may be different, but Mrs. Zockheem never expects you to fight.

I hear this phrase over and over during my time at School X. Some variation of ‘I don’t know what you do at home, but here at school, we have a different set of rules.’

Zockheem tells me the population at her school is incredibly transient. There are less than a handful of kids in 5th grade right now that started kindergarten at this school. So every year she and her team of teachers have to train the kids on how to behave.

DZ: They have such anger issues, and then you meet the parent and that explains everything; they’re angry because their parents are angry. They’re modeling that behavior, and it takes an entire year or more sometimes to turn it around, and then they move and we get a new set of them.

It makes teaching incredibly challenging. Zockheem says at the beginning of the school year, it’s 70 percent discipline, 30 percent learning. And you can hear it in the classroom. Even one of the 5th grade students notices:

HANNAH: They talk too much, they don’t listen, they don’t follow the rules. And I get frustrated because then I have to have consequences and I don’t even do nothing.

Hannah McAllister is the quintessential good kid making the best out of a tough situation. She and her baby sister live with their grandparents in a small brick ranch house around the corner from school. Mom is in an out of the picture, Dad’s in jail.

With her black high tops, skinny jeans and pink rhinestoned hoodie, she shyly looks up at me and says if she could change one thing about her school, it’d be to add more teachers and make the classes smaller. But for now, she’ll just settle for doing some long division in math.

That’s right. Long division.

Here’s where the disparity really grabs you. In Novi, the kids started math doing number theory. At School X, where Hannah goes, they did an addition worksheet on their first day of math. Number theory in one 5th grade, addition in another.

HANNAH: It was easy. Do you think some kids in your class struggled with it? Yeah, ‘cause last year they struggled with subtraction and addition, but I knew everything. Would you like to be doing some harder stuff in math? Yeah, like division. Two numbers and two numbers, two numbers divided by two numbers. Like we kind of did that last year, but sometimes we only talked about it but it was kinda hard and I want to learn that.


So to recap: School X has a high poverty population with chronically low test scores, a high teacher turnover rate, and a new 5th grade teacher in an overcrowded classroom.

In Novi, the student population is solidly middle class or higher, test scores are among the highest in the state, the teachers have taught 5th grade for pretty much their entire careers, and the classrooms are well-stocked and spacious.

Now guess which school gets about 750-dollars less per pupil? The answer, coming up in about 10 minutes.

You’re listening to THE EDUCATION GAP, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.


You’re listening to THE EDUCATION GAP, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.

KB: Alright the next thing I want you to do is I want you to get out your math journal...>>

Let’s return to School X, in the working class suburb of Detroit.

KB: If I were to give you the number 4 and tell you 4 is the answer, what kind of ARRAYS can you make? Hannah?


As you can hear, math is on the agenda today.

By week two, the teacher, Kathie Bower, is down from 35 to 31 kids in her classroom, but that’s only brought the noise levels and disciplines issues down a notch. It’s still a crowded classroom filled with high-needs kids.

Now that we’re a few weeks into school, Bower has had a chance to test where the kids are in terms of reading and math. The kids’ reading scores are pretty good. Most of the class is at or near grade level. Math, on the other hand, is a different story.

Yesterday it took Bower 25 minutes to get through one math problem about areas and perimeters. Today, she’s hoping to get through more. But what is generally supposed to be review isn’t.

KB: I have discovered that most of my kids can’t divide. And unfortunately division is a big deal on the MEAP. We are looking… And you’re saying also for 5th grade, they should be able to do division? They should be able to divide at least one digit numbers and they don’t get it.

There are only a handful of 5th graders who’ve gone to this school since kindergarten. So Bower has to do yeoman’s work catching up kids who transferred into the district. The well-documented summer slide between 4th and 5th grade also plays a part. And none of the parents have money for outside tutors or summer school, so almost all the kids have forgotten their math facts.

While they work on their math arrays, I walk around and ask them “why do you think you’re learning all this stuff in math?”

KID VOX: Because we might need it later on in like 7th grade or something, we might forget it / Because it helps us practice / So we can know it in a higher grade and be smarter / So we can learn, do better in high school / For the MEAP to get ready for.

Only one student told me ‘so they could go on to college and get a job.’ Now contrast that with the type of answers I got in Novi, like this one:

KID: When we’re older and jobs, lots of jobs require math, so if we don’t learn the basics when we’re younger and like build up on what we learned, then we’re going to be really confused.

College, jobs, careers. When the Novi kids answered my ‘why are you learning all this stuff’ question, they focused on the far future.

Which makes sense. Being able to think about the future is a luxury – a middle class and upper middle class luxury. For kids in poverty, their concerns are much more immediate. Will there be food on the table for dinner when I get home? Can my Mom afford to buy me a new winter jacket?  

There also just doesn’t seem to be an emphasis at School X on the future. Between the constant discipline and the prep for the MEAP, there’s just no time.

One of my favorite kids at School X is this really outgoing, direct young boy who comes across as tough but gives me a hug every time I see him.

When I point out to the kids in his class how nobody brought up college, he turns the mic on me and asks: Did I go to college?

I did go to college, and to grad school.

KID: You went to college! Oh my God, you went to college. Wow.

Do you think that’s weird that I went to college?

KID: Yeah, a little bit. Why’s that? Cause most people don’t go to college. Most people you know don’t go to college? Most people I see don’t go to college. A lot of people don’t go to college. Probably most of us in here won’t go to college. You really think that? Make you sad or are you ok with that? I’m not ok, man. I’m just saying, but I think if I don’t have enough money, I’m not gonna go to college. 


DZ: I do believe that every one of my parents want the best for their children, I do. They want to be successful; they want them and plan for them to go to college.

This is the principal, Diedre Zockheem:

DZ: But because they’re often struggling, trying to live day to day, they don’t do all the things they should to ensure that that happens. And because I come from poverty as well, I just understand the mindset.

Zockheem has been principal at School X for eight years. She’s just about the most stable thing this school has going for it. She says the teacher turnover rate at her school is about 60 percent every year. Six out of ten teachers. A year.

Studies show high teacher turnover can have drastic effects on student achievement, especially for at-risk kids.

I ask her if she thinks the new 5th grade teacher, Kathie Bower, will stick around after one year here.

DZ: No, I don’t think she will. I just hear, I’m very observant, and I listen a lot, and I think that she’s committed, at least she says she is, and from what I’ve seen she is, but whether she’ll stay, I doubt it.

If she leaves, that’ll mean one more teacher Zockheem will have to find a replacement for next year.

Now this year, Zockheem was pretty lucky. She only had to replace 5 teachers, or a quarter of her staff. Since teachers in the district bid for jobs, Zockheem’s school is often the last school to be staffed, more often than not with less experienced, non-tenured teachers.

And, this seems worth noting: Zockheem is one of only two African American adults in the entire building. In a school where the student population is overwhelmingly black, every teacher is white.

Stability is what these children desperately crave. Zockheem walks me through the typical issues families at her school face, from domestic violence to mental illness to drug abuse to prison.

And those home problems manifest themselves inside the classroom in the form of truancy, apathy and discipline issues.

DZ: Just tears roll down my eyes, because sometimes it seems so defeating. I ask myself: am I even affecting any change? Can I see what I’m doing helping or hindering the kids? And there’s so much I can’t control and that’s what creates the tears. I can’t control the way the district staffs our schools. I can’t control when parents don’t come or when kids are not fed or they’re not clothed properly. And I love them dearly, I just wish I could have a magic wand and just change it all, but…

I ask her, if she did have a magic wand to wave, what would she change about the school? She starts off her long list with preschool.

DZ: Because we do have children who have never had any schooling experience period exclamation point until they enter kindergarten.

Actually, she doesn’t need a magic wand for this one. The state recently poured a ton of money into creating more preK slots for at-risk kids, like the kids at Zockheem’s school. And there’s a pile of research that shows just how effective high-quality preschool can be for them.

As for the rest of Zockheem’s list, well that’s where her magic wand comes in. Instead of inexperienced teachers, she wants master teachers for the kids. She wants before and after school care so parents can work and not worry about picking their kids up on time. She also wants updated technology.

They need books to take home, they need to be able to take books home. Do they not take books home? Uh no, they take home packets that we make for them, but books, no.


If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to THE EDUCATION GAP, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.

Let’s take a minute to do a side-by-side comparison between our high-poverty school and our middle class school. Here to perform our little radio play are two actors. Let’s meet them.

JUDE: I’m Jude!

MARGARET: And I’m Margaret!

Ok, so Jude, you’re going to represent Novi Meadows. And Margaret, you represent School X.




JUDE: At my school, we have after school care, and cool clubs like robotics and sports and photography.

MARGARET: We don’t have before or after school care at my school. Kids have to picked up by 4 o’clock when the bell rings.

JUDE: At my school, we have lots of ipads and laptops, enough for all the 5th graders to use.

MARGARET: At my school, we have a few computers in the library, and some laptops, but the whole school has to share them, and sometimes you can’t get online.

JUDE: And now let’s talk about specials!

JUDE AND MARGARET: Specials! Specials! Specials!

MARGARET: At my School – School X – we have gym and music.

JUDE: We’ve got gym and music, too at Novi. Plus art and world language and band.



The list doesn’t end there. Take parent involvement. At School X, four parents showed up for the 5th grade Open House. At Novi Meadows, everyone showed up except for four parents.

Special Ed is different, too. The kids at Novi get a lot more one-on-one instruction than the kids at School X.

Now, one can make the argument that a big part of these disparities has to do with money.

DA: I’m David Arsen, I’m a professor at Michigan State University.

Arsen is an education policy wonk, so he’s who you call when you want to talk money. I wanted to know ‘how do these two districts stack up funding wise?’ Here’s what he found between the Novi school district and the working class district in metro Detroit, which is one of the more than 50 districts in the state with a deficit:

DA: Well the districts have some desirable similarities. They’re roughly the same size in terms of enrollment. In terms of their business and administration expenses, their instructional support - things like speech therapists, guidance counselors, nurses, curriculum specialists - they’re quite similar in that. The revenue is comparable, but Novi receives more money per pupil.

About 750 dollars more per pupil per year. Not only that, he says the Novi school district is able to devote a larger share of its budget to general ed instruction. Distrct X, the poorer district, has double the number of students who qualify for special ed.

Schools get money from the federal government to provide special ed services, but Arsen says it’s not enough to cover their costs. Districts have to supplement out of their general ed budgets. So District X has to shell out…

DA: … about $400 more per pupil

Than Novi. So Arsen says when you take other spending into account, Novi has 13-hundred dollars more per pupil to spend on general education instruction than District X.

So I ask Arsen: Do you think that’s fair?

DA: People have different notions of fairness. I would put it this way: These are both school districts that are obliged to hit the same outcome standards. One might think that in the district where the children are coming less well-prepared from the home for academic outcomes, that they receive additional resources to make up. We don’t do that in Michigan and so it’s not just a question of fairness, it’s a question of: Is this a viable policy for reaching the outcome goals that the state has set?

Back at School X….

KB: If you’re talking, please stop. If you’re talking, please stop!

The effects of the kids’ home lives are on clear display in the classroom. The teacher, Kathie Bower, has to constantly remind the kids that they’re in school, not at home, and the rules are different here.

I caught up with Bower at lunch that day to tell her I ran a little tally while I was sitting in the back of the classroom that morning. Every time she had to stop class for some disruption or to tell them to be quiet, I put a check mark in my notebook.

Five, ten, fifteen, twenty….67 times, and that’s being pretty conservative with my counting. When I tell you that number, I mean, what do you?

KB: They have that need to talk. I think part of it is that’s what happens at home. They’re always talking whether anyone’s listening or not.

Do you figure it’s about 30 seconds for each one? So that’s like a half hour of teaching right there.

KB: Wasted time. I know, and I’m frustrated with that. It’s taking so long to get through one lesson that I feel like I have to cut stuff short.

Yeah, I saw you erase science from the board. It was supposed to be math, then science, then social studies.

KB: Right, we just took so long on the math that you’ve got to do something. But they worked really hard at math, even though there was a lot of interruptions, I think they’re getting it. You know. So, they talk too much. I love them, but they talk too much. <>

And it should be pointed out – the problems Bower experiences in her classroom are not unique to her and her school. You’re likely find this kind of behavior and these sorts of academic challenges in most high-poverty schools.

John Austin is president of the Michigan Board of Education.

JA: We need to fundamentally overhaul the way we organize and fund schools to create a different framework, and I think everyone knows we need to do this.

He says there are essentially two big things the state can do to help all students achieve, no matter where they live.

The first has to do with school choice. He’s all for choice, but he says that any charter schools that open up should be high-quality charters with proven track records.

That’s number one. Number two: the state should pay more for schools that do more:

JA: Like full-service schools that have in person teaching, counselors, extra-curricular programs. They also cost more, but they also deliver more. And you could incent full service schools; pay $9,000 for a full-service school, $2,000 for on-line only.

High schools are more expensive than elementary schools, so Austin says high schools should get more money than elementary schools. The state should invest in teacher training and reward teachers who move up in their field.

JA: And finally we got to focus more money on where we need it most. High poverty schools and districts need a lot more services, wrap around services, after school services, education support activities.

RM: These full service schools have so many services and they try to do so much. I always liken it to a combination copier-fax machine. They try to do everything and end up not doing anything very well.

This is Richard McLellan. He’s one of the folks involved in drafting Michigan’s charter school law, and he currently advises Governor Rick Snyder on education issues.

McLellan says trying to figure out a way to give all kids in Michigan an adequate education is a worthy goal, but it’s something the state has struggled with for decades. And McLellan does not think more money is the answer:

RM: Every educator group can only talk about one thing and that’s more resources. Because it’s the mantra of public education: Give us more money, this time we’ll make it work. This unending focus on more money for existing schools is I think a serious mistake.

One idea he thinks has promise is to get rid of what he calls the giant, old factory model approach to education and replace it with something even older: the one-room school house:

RM: Look at the 19th century values of a one-room, one or two teachers, non-graded, peer to peer teaching and then overlay that with the best technology.

The name for this modern take on a 19th century education concept:  DOORS

RM: Digitally Optimized One Room Schoolhouse

Right now DOORS is just a concept. McLellan says the goal would be to integrate these one-room schoolhouses within a traditional public school district. There’d be about 30 kids per class, all different ages and levels. Technology would be at the heart of the class. The teacher would then use that technology to provide individualized lesson plans for each child.

RM: I think if we experimented with some of those ideas, we would get away from this factory model and maximize technology, that’s one thing I would do.

You know, one school I’m following they don’t even have books, let alone any technology. So, I mean, that is a cost, right?

RM: Well, not necessarily.

He says everyone from the state on down to local districts need to re-think the way schools allocate money. Yes, he says, there’ll be some trade-offs, but he says the old paradigm just isn’t working.

And then there are the actual school buildings themselves. The state doesn’t pay for any upgrades. Districts have to convince voters to approve bonds to help pay for updates to buildings, technology, auditoriums, even football fields.

Novi voters have been very generous approving bond proposals over the years.

Over at School X, bonds are non-starter. Residents of that school district haven’t passed a bond proposal in over 40 years. So the school, which was built in the early 1970s, is stuck in the 1970s. Without air conditioning, among other things.

DZ: We do some decorative things on the inside, but there’s only so much we can do. Our competitors have new buildings, you know these charters and new schools that are popping up, and parents are attracted to that.

For some parents, a bright shiny new school building is attractive. But for districts in a deficit, like this one, losing kids to charter schools costs money, and thus the downward spiral continues.

Coming up:

EM: Could the school, could the building be used more effectively?  Could we provide other kinds of services?

We’ll look at alternatives to boost educational outcomes for all kids. That’s in 10 minutes. You’re listening to THE EDUCATION GAP, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.


This is THE EDUCATION GAP, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.

I decided to do a little experiment for this show. I wanted to know: What would it be like for a couple of kids from School X to go to Novi Meadows? Just for a day?

Would they find it similar to their school? What would they find different?

To find out, I recruited two 5th grade students from School X: Hannah McAlister and Jalin Pitchford. Since they’re only ten, Jalin’s Mom, Irmitha Skates, drove them to Novi Meadows. We all met up on a park bench outside the school on a sunny Wednesday morning.

Before we go inside, I ask Hannah and Jalin what they think they might see in the classroom:

JALIN/HANNAH: Lots of students and chairs. So like a classroom! Yeah. Like maybe technology, computers and everything. I think they’ll have tablets.

With that, we head in.


This is the principal. This is Ms. Fenchel.

Mrs. Fenchel. What’s your name?


Nice to meet you, Hannah.


Nice to meet you. Well welcome….

Jalin is a smart, sweet kid who’s obsessed with football and baseball. He’s dressed to impress. He’s got on a bright blue polo shirt, dress pants and shiny black shoes.

Hannah, his classmate, is more reserved. She’s got on her trademark pink hoodie with faux fur collar, and as we make our way toward Tom Peronis’ 5th grade classroom, she immediately zeros in on something her school is missing:

HANNAH: They got lockers for 5th grade? Now I wanna go to this school.

So let’s go in!

At first, they notice they notice things only a 5th grader would notice:

HANNAH: How do they put stuff in their desk?

I think the desk lifts up.

HANNAH: And like when we walked in the hallway, it was like kids running everywhere. They weren’t like in a line and quiet.

I don’t think they have to walk in a line in the hall. What do you think about that?

HANNAH: It’s a good way for somebody to get hurt because they could be running and somebody would’ve got hurt or pushed to the wall.

So your way is safer?


So what are your other first impressions?

JALIN: They have more things than we do.

They notice the smartboard, which is like a giant interactive iPad at the front of the classroom. They notice the decorations hanging from the ceiling, and all the posters and historical artifacts around the room.

While we’re talking about the differences, the social studies class has broken out into little group discussions. After a few minutes, the teacher calls them all back to attention. That’s when Jalin’s eyes get wide and he leans forward in his chair.

JALIN: Watch how silent they get.

Did you hear that? He said “watch how silent the kids get”

JALIN: That was quick.

HANNAH: It took them like three seconds.

So why do you think that is?

JALIN: Maybe they want to learn.

Do you want to learn?


Do you think all the kids in your class want to learn?


CM: If you are going to art, you can head out. Push your chairs in. If you are going to world language, have a ball, you get to go outside! Vocal music, sing away! If you are going to band or strings, whatever it is today…

Jalin and Hannah have been waiting all morning for these classes. Art, world language, band and strings. They don’t have any of that. The only special they have in common with Meadows is music.

The first class we check out is art, where the kids are creating portfolios to put their own artwork in. Jalin doesn’t even hesitate when I ask him what he would draw on the cover of his portfolio if he had an art class:

JALIN: Football, basketball, maybe a football helmet, a U of M “M,” baseball with a bat and a hat.

Ok Hannah, what would you draw?

HANNAH: Maybe a microphone and some music notes because I like signing.

Which is perfect, because that’s what the 5th graders in vocal music are doing today.


I gotta say, if I were a kid, I would’ve loved this class. It’s like karaoke but for a grade.

HANNAH: It seems fun.

JALIN: Awesome, wish we had it like this!


Ok, we’ll check back with Hannah and Jalin later this hour.

Maybe you wondered: How might Hannah and Jalin do if they actually went to a school like Novi Meadows? Well, turns out someone already did a study on that.

HS: Ok, so the study asks whether economic integration in schools is important; whether low-income children perform better on math and reading tests overtime when they attend middle class schools?

Heather Schwartz is a researcher with the non-profit RAND Corporation.

For her study, she chose to look at kids in Montgomery County, Maryland. Why there? Well, it’s economically diverse. Rich people live near poor people, poor people live near middle class people. And that matters because the schools are neighborhood schools, so they’re basically set up to be economically diverse.

Now here’s what Schwartz found. Compared to the poor kids who went to high-poverty schools…

HS: The low-income children who attended low-poverty schools did substantially better in math especially by the time they finished elementary school.

They were even able to start closing the achievement gap between themselves and the kids who were better off. 

And that’s not all.

Schwartz also looked at poor kids who went to high-poverty schools in the county. She calls them Red Zone Schools. The wealthy schools are called Green Zone Schools.

Anyway, the poor Red Zone Schools made a ton of investments to improve student achievement – everything from full day kindergarten to reduced class sizes, to more time for reading and math.

So Schwartz wanted to know: did those investments pay off?

HS: It did improve overall achievement in red zone schools relative to no extra investment. But even despite all those extra investments, I still found that the low-income children that I was studying who live in public housing who went to Green Zone Schools outperformed kids, similar peers, in Red Zone Schools.

In other words, you can improve a poor school, but it won’t improve student achievement as much as an economically integrated school can.

Schwartz doesn’t have hard data on why kids in economically integrated schools do better, but she has a hypothesis.

She says middle class schools provide low-income kids with a whole menu of benefits, like stability, lower teacher turnover, small classroom size. Peers also play a role:

HS: Being in a classroom where most of your peers can read; who show up with their homework done and in their backpack; peers who can model for you what learning looks like.

Now most of America is a lot more economically segregated than Montgomery County, Maryland. Poor kids go to school with poor kids, rich kids with rich kids.

A woman named Jennifer Hochschild says if people wanted, they could they change that:

JH: School districts’ boundaries are shaped by states, so the state could just change school district boundaries. “Just change,” you hear that word. It’s not going to happen politically, but it’s not technically difficult to do.

Hochschild is a Harvard professor and author of the book The American Dream and the Public Schools. Here’s her big idea on how to make schools more economically diverse.

Picture a pie. In the middle of the pie, you’ve got a city – say, Detroit. Now draw rings around the center, those are your suburbs.

Now, cut a slice of that pie. Get where she’s going here? In each pie slice, you are going to get a mix of inner city, older suburb and new suburb.

JH: So you have a genuine racial and class and ethnic and neighborhood integration in a new district. The poor kids, who previously had all been combined into one urban district, are now divided into a series of separate districts in which they’re largely combined with the more stable, the more settled, the more middle-class people who are outside of the city. I think those districts would make a difference.

Hochschild is admittedly very cynical about her pie theory becoming reality. She says no way would suburban or city politicians go for it.

And here in Michigan we actually did something similar back in the 1970s. The big idea then was busing, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled it unconstitutional.

So where does that leave high poverty schools like School X?


Well for now, they make the best of what they’ve got.

MV: We have cucumbers, watermelon, potatoes, onions, stew, pinto beans and rice today, so a nice variety for the families this month.

Marilyn Vargo and a couple others are standing on the school’s black top parking lot in the hot September sun, loading boxes of food into cars.

MV: Hi sir, how are you? Are we going in the trunk?

They do this once a month thanks to a generous donation from a local food bank.

Vargo’s also there to hand out free bread on Tuesdays from a bakery chain nearby, and she helps provide holiday assistance for any families who need it.

Kids come to her for hats, gloves, snacks, backpacks. Some kids even come to her when they need new underwear. Vargo gets most of the stuff through partnerships she’s built with local charities and corporations.

JULIANNA: She let me pick my own backpack out. So which one did you pick? The Hello, Kitty one. My old one it had a hole in it, everything kept falling out. Do you like Mrs. Vargo?  Yeah, she’s nice. Every teacher in here is nice if you be good. And are you good? Sometimes, most of the times. Sometimes I be a little talky.

That’s 9-year old Julianna Bennet. She loves to paint, sing and cheer.


If she had her way, she’d go shopping all the time – for anything pink, purple, and sparkly. But she doesn’t get to shop that often because her Mom, Natasha, doesn’t have a car and what little money she has goes to pay the bills. 

NB: I make earrings, bracelets, necklaces and stuff like that, and I sell AVON, so that’s my income. The most I ever made was like three-hundred and that was a good month, and the lowest is like one-hundred.

Bennett is a single mom of two. She dropped out of college after two years and has been waiting for her kids to get a little older before she goes back to school. But it’s tough. There’s no after school care at School X, and she can’t afford a babysitter. So whatever Bennett does, whether it’s school or work, she has to be back home by 4 p.m. when the kids get out of school.

But what if schools did not have to close their doors after the last bell rings?

Elizabeth Moje is an associate dean and professor at the University of Michigan School of Education.

EM: Could the school, could the building be used more effectively?  Could we provide other kinds of services? Can we provide Health and Human resources? Can we do things with preschool, with parent education, so that we start to bring more community members into the building?

What Moje is describing here is often called a community school. There are dozens of them across the country in low-income areas.

There’s no one type of community school, but generally speaking, they’re all open late, sometimes as late nine p.m. There’s an on-site case manager who runs everything, and the school relies heavily on partnerships with outside groups to meet the needs of both kids and their families.

The few studies out there show some pretty promising outcomes: improved academics, better attendance and lower drop-out rates. But it costs a lot of money, and taking these small, isolated examples of community schools and bringing them up to scale has proven very difficult.

I ask Moje: Do you think schools can offset the effects of poverty?

EM: I do. I think that they can make a huge difference. They’ll never completely level playing fields; we need other kinds of social policies at work simultaneously. And one of the biggest challenges is that it’s not just that there are under-resourced schools, but there are incredibly resourced schools at the other end of the spectrum. Does that make sense?

It does, I just wonder if we’ve sort of over-promised what school can actually do?

EM: I don’t know if we’ve overpromised, I think that we have to think about equity and be creative about how we can make more opportunities to get closer to some of those incredible resources.

RW: People in districts like mine who have paid a significant amount to live here, care deeply about their kids, should be rightfully concerned that any additional money would come out of our district for that.

RJ Webber is the assistant superintendent at Novi Meadows

RW: But I don’t think it has to be that way. I don’t think it has to be where the only way that you increase support for certain places is by taking from other places.

Webber is the first to admit how closely linked academic achievement is to student demographics. The poorer a district, the lower their student test scores.

Take 5th grade at Novi Meadows and School X.

Last year, 82 percent of the kids at Novi Meadows were considered proficient in reading, compared to 50 percent of the kids at School X.

In math, the gap is even wider.

75 percent of the Novi kids were proficient in math. At School X, just 22 percent of the 5th graders were proficient.

I ask Webber if he thinks his test scores at Novi would be as high as they are if he had a higher number of poor kids in his district?

RW: I believe the data suggests no. That is not to say that a high-quality school system can’t change the course for many of those kids, absolutely it certainly can.

But he says it’ll cost money. His main suggestion? Roll back the nearly two billion dollars Governor Rick Snyder  doled out in business tax cuts last year and put some of that money towards high-needs schools.

We should note that school districts did get more money from the state this year compared to last year. State aid inched up this year by about 30 bucks a student. But when you adjust for inflation, schools have seen more than a 12-percent reduction in state aid since 2009.


You’re listening to State of Opportunity’s THE EDUCATION GAP on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.

Let’s check back in with Hannah and Jalin, our two 5th grade students from School X who spent the day at Novi Meadows.

When it’s time to wrap things up, I ask them if there are any things they saw on their tour of Novi Meadows that they’d want to see in their own school?

HANNAH: A bigger library, and computers, and band, I would have band, and make the school bigger, and more classrooms and teachers.

JALIN: Basically everything, even the football field over there.

Are there things that you saw here that you think would be kind of a bummer to have at your school?


I turn to Jalin’s mom, Irmitha Skates, to try and get a read on what she’s thinking. She is one committed mother. Before she drove her son and his classmate to Novi, Skates had worked the late shift at a Chrysler plant until two in the morning, and had to be back to work by 4:30 later that afternoon. But she said the trip to Novi was worth it because – to quote her – kids are the future.

She agrees with Jalin and Hannah. She wants their school to have more: more computers, and more specials like art and world language.

IS: They actually let them do hands on, they do a lot of hands on, and they let their built-up energy just run wild. Art, band, music; they encourage them to have a voice, they encourage them to use all their abilities, and that’s very good.

And then, she offered this advice to other parents who might be listening right now:

IS: If you can, go and check out other schools and be a part of your child’s school Parent Teacher Association, and come up with ideas that can help them do things better, because they’re always looking for parent volunteers to help.

So would you take some of this information back to your school?

IS: I definitely will.


And knowledge is power, right? I mean, knowing what the possibilities are in terms of your child’s education, that’s helpful. But, to state the obvious here, for education to not just be free, but to be equitable and adequate, it will take more than just one Irmitha Skates to make a difference.


You’ve been listening to THE EDUCATION GAP, a STATE OF OPPORTUNITY documentary on Michigan Radio.

Thanks to our two radio actors today, Jude and Margaret Loszewski.

The State of Opportunity team includes Dustin Dwyer, Sarah Alvarez, and Kimberly Springer. Sarah Hulett edited today’s 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

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.
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