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

When you want to play, but you have dreams that require work

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

On the last lazy Sunday of summer, Musa lies down on the living room floor to play with his cat Romeo. Later today there will be shopping for school clothes, and maybe some time to play. But for now, Musa just hangs out, not using any more energy than is absolutely necessary.

"Tell me about your summer," I say.

"It was all right," he says.

"What’d you do?"

"Uh, nothing really," he says. "I just really played outside."

"Did you have fun?"


"Did you forget everything you learned in third grade?"


"Are you looking forward to going back to school?"

“A little.”

Musa is a bright kid and a great student. But his dad, Jafari Muya tells me Musa, the soon to be fourth-grader, is like most kids his age – he’d rather play than be in school.

Muya, who came to the U.S. as refugee of the Somalian civil war, faces a problem most parents face. When he leaves the room, his son ditches the schoolwork and goes out to play.

Still, Musa has dreams. Last fall, he told me he wants to be a soccer player, a teacher and an engineer.

Over the last year, he’s gotten more interested in engineering. He likes video game design. He likes electric cars, especially the Chevrolet Volt, which he’s seen a few times around town.

Musa says he’d like to work on something like that.

"I’m thinking more of an engineer," Musa says. "It’s going to take like a lot of work."

That work, for the time being, means going to fourth grade.

Tuesday morning, Musa was in the cafeteria at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids, eating breakfast with a friend.

Principal Bridget Cheney walked around, greeting kids and parents, catching up on their summers.

One of the reasons I first came to this school a year ago is because, on paper, Congress Elementary doesn’t seem like the kind of place that is preparing the engineers of the future.

On standardized tests, students at Congress have lower overall scores than at many other schools in the nearby suburbs. That may be because students at Congress come from families with lower incomes, and from parents with less education than at those suburban schools.

But Congress beats those other schools in other measures. Scores are low, but they’re improving at a more rapid pace than at the supposedly “high quality” schools.

The state of Michigan recently released school rankings based on a color-coded system. Congress Elementary had the second-highest ranking possible: Lime green, and just one missed data point away from the highest ranking, which is just regular green.

All of these ways of slicing and dicing the info can get confusing for parents and for the community, but Principal Bridget Cheney sees the signs of success that she hopes to build on this year.  

"No matter how you slice it, we are moving on up," she tells me as she greets her students on the first day of school.

A few minutes later, the bell rings and the school year begins. With it, a new hope: for kids like Musa, for all kids, who really just want to play but who have dreams for the future that will require work.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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