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

Meet a principal who's part "caretaker, nurturer, manager, teacher, and preacher"

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

There are principals, and then there's Diedre Zockheem.

She's the principal at Myers Elementary, the low-income school featured in our State of Opportunity documentary The Education Gap

I've interviewed Zockheem dozens of times over the last nine months and every time she tells me some story that reminds me a) how tough these kids have it, and b) how dedicated Zockheem is to helping them.

She's been principal at Myers for eight years. She’s just about the most stable thing this school has going for it. There's an incredibly high teacher turnover rate at Myers, and issues of domestic violence, mental illness, and drug abuse plague the families at her school.

A couple things to know about Zockheem: She's 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. And Zockheem herself grew up in poverty, so she can relate to what the parents in her district are going through.

Zockheem says she does everything she can short of picking the kids up and bringing them to school, although she's even done that on occasion. She's the type of principal who is never at her desk. Instead, she's popping in and out of classrooms to help students with their classwork, or she's roaming the halls to make sure kids are on their best behavior. She says the role of principal "is caretaker, nurturer, manager, teacher, preacher. It is endless." Even when school's closed, she's still on the job.  

Here's a story Zockheem recently shared with me. It's about a phone call she got from a parent on one of the days school was closed because of snow: 


Needless to say, the students at Myers face myriad challenges. They all live in poverty, their test scores are well below the state average, and most live in single-family households with parents who never went to college. "And we’re still holding the kids to high standards of learning, but we have to supply a hug," says Zockheem.

The school supplies more than just a hug. Zockheem and the school's social worker, Marilyn Vargo, have built dozens of partnerships with local businesses and charities who, in turn, donate school supplies and clothes for the kids and food for the families. At Thanksgiving time, Zockheemtakes two to three busloads of kids and parents to her church for an evening of free entertainment, gifts and a turkey dinner with all the fixins'. 

When I did my exit interview with Zockheem a few weeks ago, I asked her what she thought about The Education Gap, since she and her kids were so heavily featured in it. I was a little nervous to ask her. It's not every day you get to check back in with someone about a story, let alone someone you've spent months following. Take a listen to her answer. Warning: You might want to have a tissue handy. 


Not one to rest, Zockheem jumped into action after she heard the documentary. She created a parenting series for the families at her school, to show them "how to parent your child." The series talked about the importance of having "a consistent time for dinner, a consistent time to go to bed, a consistent time to do homework." 

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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