STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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'A clean, well-lighted place' for Detroit kids to go after school

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

I don't know about you, but when I was in school, hearing the school bell ring at the end of the day meant one thing: freedom! Time to go home, get a snack, and hang out with friends.

But what if your home life is less than ideal? What if your neighborhood is one of the roughest in the country? That's the situation many kids in Detroit face. So a handful of schools are keeping their doors open well into the evening to try to keep kids in school and off the streets.

Home sweet school building

It’s 3 o’clock on a Tuesday, and Tracy Carpenter is showing me around Mackenzie Elementary and Middle School, a brand new school on the west side of Detroit.

As principal, Carpenter is responsible for all 1,007 students in the school. A tough job for sure.

"It’s a very difficult neighborhood to live in, and so it’s a very difficult neighborhood to be a principal in," says Carpenter. "It’s difficult because of the challenges that face the neighborhood, with poverty, with crime…"

As we make our way up to the 2nd floor, we drop by a 5th grade classroom, where the students are hard at work on a homophone lesson. The lesson wraps up just as the last school bell rings at 3:40 p.m. That means the traditional school day is officially over. But whereas most kids would head home, the kids at Mackenzie stay.

"You already have this building. It's heated, it's lit, the roof is dry; why only have it open eight hours a day?" - Steve Wasko, Detroit Public Schools

The "community school" model

When the last school bell rings, kids head to the cafeteria for a free, hot supper. On this particular day, chicken nuggets, fruit and vegetables are on the menu. Once the kids scarf down their food, they head to one of Mackenzie's 15 after-school programs. Aside from a $10 uniform fee for sports, every program is free.

Carol Weaver is in charge of Detroit Public Schools’ new Community Schools effort. She rattles off a list of all the programs on tap tonight at Mackenzie:

"We have Girl Scouts, we have Boy Scouts, we have Soul Patrol, tutoring, academic games, cheerleading, karate; we have a book club, girls and boys basketball, flag football, soccer, bible class and the mentoring program sponsored by Eastern Michigan University."

DPS got nearly a million dollars from the federal government to roll out 21 of these community schools, though only 9 are up and running so far.

Here’s how it works

Some community schools stay open as late as nine p.m. Mackenzie is open until seven.

There’s an on-site coordinator who runs everything, and the school relies heavily on partnerships with outside groups to meet the needs of both kids and their families. There’s also a Department of Human Services worker in the building, so families can come to her for help even if they’re not on her official caseload. For example the day I visited, the DHS worker helped a family get a refrigerator, referred another student for counseling, and helped others with food assistance.

"You just try to be a beacon in the community that people come to for assistance and for that light. Instead of having the crime seep into you, you try to seep the good into the community." - Tracy Carpenter, principal

Steve Wasko is with the Detroit Public School district. He says the community schools model just makes sense. "You already have this building," explains Wasko. "It's heated, it's lit, the roof is dry; why only have it open eight hours a day?"

Are community schools a mixed bag?

Tracy Carpenter, the principal at Mackenzie, is a fan of the community model. He says it helps to give students and their families a place to go when school’s out:

"You just try to be a beacon in the community that people come to for assistance and for that light. Instead of having the crime seep into you, you try to seep the good into the community."

When I ask him how successful he thinks he and his staff are so far, he simply says "we try, we try."

Actually, success at this point is hard to measure. Mackenzie’s Community School model just started this fall. But we can look to other cities like Cincinnati, Chicagoand New Yorkto see how their community schools are doing.

Some studies show some pretty promising outcomes: improved academics, better attendance and lower drop-out rates.

But a recent New York Times analysisfound that the eight longest-running community schools in Cincinnati have mixed results: student scores have improved, but they’re still behind other Ohio children, even poor ones.

Still, district officials are hopeful.

DPS' Steve Wasko says there are no specific plans to expand the community school model across the district, but he says "wouldn't it be great if it were the platform at every school?"

They know it’s too early to tell what kind of impact these schools will have on the children of Detroit, but they say kids are showing for the after-school programs and they say that’s a good first step.

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.