Mister Knight's Neighborhood: Audio and Transcript
Cody High School is on Detroit’s west side, in a neighborhood that struggles with blight, drugs and gangs.
KNIGHT: Everybody wants to be out the neighborhood, everybody do. But more people still stuck here than ever.
So how do you get out? Well, first you have to graduate high school. For students who are on the brink, that’s where this guy comes in. His name is Jimmie Knight:
KNIGHT: I’m not a counselor. But I got a genuine heart. That’s all I preach. Just listen to me, let me tell you what’s expected out of you, you get that and then you move on.
BARBARA: If ain’t nobody come to me trying to be like Knight was, then it’d be like, I just be here to do what I got to do and go home.
DONTAY: Without Coach Knight I probably woudn’t even be in school period, I’d probably be somewhere in the streets.
I’m Jennifer Guerra with Michigan Radio. The story of Coach Knight and the students he’s trying to help stay on track.
That’s ahead on our special STATE OF OPPORTUNITY special – MR KNIGHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD.
But first, the news.
NEWSCAST 01– 06:00 news (national & local)
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SEGMENT A – 06:30 to 19:30 (13:00)
It’s fair to say that Detroit’s Cody High School has a reputation. A bad reputation
Can you say your name into the mic one more time?
So tell me why, why did you go to this school?
The school I wanted to go to had a waiting list for ninth graders.
So you ended up here, and so what do you think about it?
I mean, it’s better than what I thought it was.
Yeah? When you came, what did you think it’d be like?
All fighting every day.
And how is it? Is there fighting?
Not really…bare…like once every two weeks probably.
It’s like in the middle of like a kind of a bad neighborhood, they automatically think it’s a bad school.
When I was in middle school, sixth or seventh grade, I use to hear a lot about Cody.
Were you kind of nervous about coming here?
I used to be scared to walk down the hallways and go places by myself. But it’s cool, it’s not as bad…it’s not as bad as everybody say it is.
People use to call Cody High School a “dropout factory.” Most years only 60 percent of seniors would graduate.
Gangs, graffiti, fights – you name it, Cody had it. There was even a police station in the school. Room 1-0-3, just down the hallway from the front door.
One of Cody’s football coaches – Jimmie Knight – says cops walked around the school carrying handcuffs and guns.
KNIGHT: It’s bad enough you got to come through a metal detector, but then you come up here and there’s a cop walking up and down the hallway all day, you know. Who wants to be around an environment like that every day, all day?
But then, in 2009, things started to change.
The giant dropout factory was converted into three small high schools – each with its own theme, its own principal, its own staff.
They laid down new carpet; they painted the walls, put in new lights. They wanted everyone to know: this is a new era at Cody.
They got rid of the police station, and the cops with the guns, and replaced it with regular looking guys, wearing regular clothes. Instead of guns, they had walkie talkies on their hips.
At Cody, these guys are called the Deans of Culture. It’s their job to keep the kids safe, in class and in uniform at all times.
At schools like Cody – that is to say, inner city schools with bad reputations – one of the walkie talkie guys is usually THE ENFORCER. In this school, it’s a guy named Wiley. Someone who is strict, serious, someone you don’t want to mess.
DONOGHUE: You have to have a loud disciplinarian. If you take him out of school and it’d be borderline devastating.
This is one of the school’s counselors, Robert Donoghue…
DONOGHUE: Kids are used to that. I’ve been told since I’ve worked in Detroit, kids are used to being yelled at. They just are. You know all kids are, no matter where you are. But around here, a lot of the times, they respond to that.
And it’s pretty effective. He yells at you to get to class, you hustle it up. There are rules and he expects you to follow them.
But at one of the small Cody schools – there’s also another guy on the walkie talkie.
Coach Jimmie Knight.
Sure, he’ll yell at you to get to class on time. But he’ll also spot you five bucks to go to McDonald’s. And he’ll buy a bunch of extra uniform shirts and stash them in his office – you know, in case you need one. He’ll bend the rules to keep you in school even if you were supposed to be suspended.
PARKER: I think he would call himself the savior.
That’s Michelle Parker. She’s principal at Cody’s Medicine and Community Health Academy, and she hired Jimmie Knight five years ago.
PARKER: He shows he cares. He sits down and talks to them. He works with them. He gives them chances that maybe someone else would have thrown their hands up and said ‘I give up,’ and he keeps trying.
Today on our State of Opportunity special – MISTER KNIGHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD – the story of Coach Knight and the students he’s trying to help stay on track. Stay tuned.
CHAPTER ONE: Good Morning, I love you
The first thing you notice about Jimmie Knight is his limp. The students talk about it all the time.
KNIGHT: They like, Mr. Knight you walk around here pimping. No I’m not pimping, I’m limping. I have a limp, not a pimp. And that comes from not listening to my parent.
When Knight was 12 – he skipped school one day, went for a bike ride with some friends – and got hit by a drunk driver. The car crushed his leg in four places. His doctors thought he’d neve r walk again.
Man were they wrong.
Fast forward almost forty years and Jimmie Knight pretty much walks for a living.
He walks up and down the hallways of Cody’s Medicine and Community Health Academy…every single day, five days a week.
KNIGHT: Every morning I’m at the front door greeting from 8 to probably 8:35, 8:40. The reason why I stand at the door is because I like to tell each kid first of all ‘good morning,’ and then second of all I tell them ‘I love you,’ because I don’t believe a lot of our kids get told that every day.
Sometimes it’s actually ‘I love you’ but more often it’s stuff like
KNIGHT: Alright Barbara!
Barbara is a junior at Cody. She’s shy, slim, doesn’t like to draw a lot of attention to herself.
If she ain’t smiling when she come in the door, I think there’s a problem, so I be standing right here at her locker every day.
BARBARA: It makes me feel good because it’s like somebody there for me, like always want to make me feel good and stuff. And I can’t walk around looking down or he right there to be like, what’s wrong? Put a smile on your face. I’m like, ok!
Barbara first came into Knight’s world when she was having some relationship problems.
So he was kind of giving you dating advice, or…?
BARBARA: It was more of like being a parent, like Knight was always the father figure I didn’t have …so. So if Coach Knight wasn’t here? Everybody would just be everybody, I wouldn’t be talking to nobody. I wouldn’t…if ain’t nobody come to me trying to be like Knight was, then it’d be like, it wouldn’t be a reason to talk. It’d just be like I be here to do what I got to do and go home.
Now to be fair there are dozens of adults in the school that Barbara could’ve talked to. But like so many other students at Cody, she chose Knight.
He looks like a hip professor with his salt and pepper beard and black framed glasses. But that’s not why they choose him. Here are the three most common answers students give me:
He listens. He respects me. He understands what I’m going through.
And he really does.
Coach Knight grew up in the very same neighborhood these kids live in. He even went to Cody – graduated in 1981. He lets the students know he wasn’t some straight A student.
KNIGHT: I skipped school, I did that. What would you do when you skipped school? I’d hang around the building, just like they do now. I never disrespected a teacher or anything, but I got in fights. I did everything that a student does in this building.
But he did manage to graduate high school and eventually he moved away from Cody and out to the suburbs.
Several years ago Knight’s dad died and his Mom was all alone, so Coach Knight moved back to the Cody neighborhood. To the same block where he grew up. He bought a burned out house for a thousand bucks, fixed it up, and moved in with his wife and their three daughters.
His daughters were not thrilled to move back to the hood, as they call it.
And Knight gets it, he knows there are safer place to raise kids.
KNIGHT: Ten years ago, you wouldn’t want to walk around this neighborhood. Especially around this school because there was so much going on, gang banging…so much going on…with the housing, with the crack trade, with heroin use. Nobody wanted to be around here, it was a danger zone.
The neighborhood’s gotten a little better over the last couple years. A group called Life Remodeled came in and tore down a bunch of abandoned houses, put in a new football field at the high school. Knight started a block club on his street, which is super active.
But just one street over from where his family lives – it looks bombed out. There is trash everywhere, some houses are so run down the next strong wind could knock them over. Like Knight says:
KNIGHT: It done calmed down a lot, but it’s still the neighborhood. Everybody wants to be out the neighborhood, everybody do. But more people are still stuck here than ever.
So that’s why he decided to come back to Cody High School. He wanted to try to help kids in the neighborhood graduate, and find a way out.
The highest degree Coach Knight has is a high school diploma.
He’s a chef by trade and worked his way up from busboy to head chef at a private club in Detroit.
When it was time for his daughters to go to high school, his oldest wanted to go to one of the city’s top magnate schools. Coach Knight told her he had other plans.
KNIGHT: And I said, well, Cody is right down the street from the house, one. I coach football there, two. I graduated from there and I thought I came out pretty good, that was three. So I said we gonna try that.
But remember, this is the old Cody we’re talking about – the dropout factory. It was just starting to transition into the smaller schools, but it still had a very bad reputation. Knight’s wife, Jennifer, did not want her daughters there by themselves.
So Coach Knight started to volunteer at Cody.
He already coached football there, so he figured it’d be good to help out in the school. He could check in on his daughters and the football team at the same time. Make sure no one was getting in trouble.
Pretty soon, kids who weren’t even on the football team started chatting him up, asking him for advice. After a year of doing that for free, the principal offered him a job through a group called Communities in Schools.
KNIGHT: Through them, I’m not a counselor. I didn’t go to school for that. But I got a genuine heart, I do know what’s expected out of these kids. That’s all I preach. Just listen to me, let me tell you what’s expected out of you, you get that and then you move on.
Communities in Schools is a nationwide dropout prevention organization. So Knight’s job is to make sure students have what they need in order to succeed in school and graduate.
Knight is happy to help any student in the building who seeks him out.
But he also has 45 students on his caseload, and he works intensely with them all four years of high school. He tracks their grades, their attendance, the number of write ups and suspensions they get. And believe me, he tends to work with the kids who get a lot of write ups and suspensions.
But he tells them – look, I was like you, I walked these halls, I had friends who made bad choices.
KNIGHT: I try to tell them that to say you know yeah they were my friends, yeah I talked to them, but when time for them to come and do the things they went and did, I went home. I didn’t care what they called me. But one thing you couldn’t call me was a convict because I wasn’t there! One thing you couldn’t call me was dead, because I’m living.
Now Knight is a realist -- he knows not everyone on his caseload who graduates is going to go to college.
KNIGHT: So when you know that kid is not doing that great, you got to always have another program waiting and ready for that kid when they leave here.
A program that will teach them a skill – like how to be a mechanic or an electrician.
KNIGHT: The main goal here is please don’t drop out.
PROMO: I don’t understand the work, really. It’s hard. I just still don’t get it.
We’ll meet a ninth grader who is struggling to find her place at Cody…and she’s hoping Coach Knight will show her the way.
You’re listening to MR KNGIHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.
============== BREAK 19:30 – 21:00 =============
SEGMENT B – 21:00 to 35:00 (14 minutes)
You’re listening to a State of Opportunity special, I’m Jennifer Guerra. All this hour, how one person can make a difference to kids on the brink.
Chapter two: Three As and a Big Mac
Every year, Jimmie Knight says this is going to be his last year at Cody’s Medicine and Community Health Academy in Detroit. But then, he meets that one girl who keeps skipping class, or that one boy who keeps blowing up at teachers. And he wants to help.
The kid you hear, the one Knight’s trying to calm down…that’s Terrece. He’s in 11th grade now, but he started working with Knight when he first got to Cody three years ago.
TERRECE: I don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for Coach Knight. I would be kicked out of this school somewhere. Do you think you’d be in school? Yes. Just not here. Just not here.
Terrece is one of the students on Coach Knight’s official caseload. It’s Knight’s job to track of Terrece’s progress -- grades, writes up, attendance – through all four years of high school. And Terrece is the first one to tell you – he had a long way to go when he first came to Cody.
TERRECE: It was just a train off the tracks. I was just a hot head. I used to jump everytime somebody would look at me wrong, but working with Coach Knight, I got a hold of my attitude more because he used to tell me, it’s not even worth it, you can just sit back, count to ten, just do anger exercises. He gave you actual exercises to keep you calm? Yes he did. Counting to ten, anything else? Stress balls, and having conversations, talking about the problems I have on my chest. When we talk about them, it’s more relief, because you want just have it building up in you.
His cousin, Dontay – also in 11th grade – agrees.
DONTAY: Well, I’m gonna say without Knight, I probably wouldn’t even be in school period. I’d probably be somewhere in the streets. Like when I first got here, I thought the street life was where I was supposed to be instead of focusing on school, I was focusing more on the street. And when I got with Coach Knight he changed all that around. He told me that school was where I needed to be.
How’d he do that?
DONTAY: He had talks with me, he showed me positive things, like when I seen When I seen all the positive stuff I could do with my life, I was like instantly like ‘I gotta get it.’
Dontay and Terrece are neighborhood kids who got into neighborhood trouble. It’s not unique what they’ve experienced. I met a number of kids at Cody who told me – yeah, I ran with a gang. Yeah, I’ve been in a fight.
I’m not saying that’s everyone who walks through the front doors at Cody – not at all. But it’s enough that you notice.
KNIGHT: Man you just getting to class, dude, this late. You missing first hour again, so now the money is slipping away.
This is another one of Knight’s crew – as he likes to call them. Trayvion’s his name, but everyone calls him Twerk.
KNIGHT: Where you stay at?
TWERK: On the east side. Davison McKay, took me two hours to get there.
KNIGHT: We gotta find some way to help you on on that. You catch the Chicago Davison? You gonna have to catch the earlier bus, man. Because if you keep missing first hour, it’s gonna hurt us on what we’re trying to accomplish. So try to get here. You call me, I’ll leave out early and meet you somewhere to pick you up.
Let’s pause here for a minute…
Did you hear Knight ask Twerk which bus he takes to school? He’s talking about a city bus, not a school bus. The district only provides buses for special ed students. Everyone else is on their own.
The principal at Cody gives out bus cards to about half of the students in the school. Each pass costs around 200 dollars, so students who live farthest away get priority.
And Detroit city buses are notoriously late. So, missing first hour, not that uncommon.
Ok, so back to Twerk…
He’s not doing so hot in school right now. If he doesn’t get those grades up, he could fail out.
Knight doesn’t want to see that happen. So he makes a little bet with Twerk:
TWERK: If I was to get all Cs on my report card, me and my boys was going to get some money if I pulled off all Cs. KID: Me and the other people we hang around, we helping to make sure he stay on the right track.
That’s right – Coach Knight told Twerk and his buddies, if they can help him get a 2.0, he’ll give them 100 bucks. Unorthodox? Yeah. Effective? Maybe.
KNIGHT: So every day you see him grabbing him by the hair, getting his book bag out the locker, they making sure they’re walking him to class. Helping him to study, they at home doing it. So your friends going to get the money you want, that’s how I kind of put it to him. But of course I’m going to divide it up between all of them. Actually it’s just enough to go get lunch. Go get y’all something to eat. It’s on me.
Coach Knight made the bet with Twerk in February.
One month later…this happened.
How’s it going in terms of your classes?
TWERK: I’m about to move. You’re going to move? I’m going to Oklahoma with my daddy. Oh wow, when are you moving? Saturday. So you’re going to leave Cody. I’m going to miss it though. The vibe of it, everything about it, the hallway time, classes, all that. What about that bet with Coach Knight? I’ll send him my report card and he can send the money as soon as I send my report card.
Having students up and leave in the middle of the semester is pretty common for high-poverty schools like Cody. Generally speaking, the poorer the school district, the higher the transiency rate.
At Cody, of the roughly 100 seniors who started at Cody freshmen year…about 70 are still at the school. As one staff member told me, we have as many students coming in as going out.
RESET: I’m Jennifer Guerra, you’re listening to the MR KNIGHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD, a State of Opportunity special about a high school on Detroit’s west side.
Chapter three: WELCOME TO THE DREAM TEAM
I first met 15-year old Kaylan during her freshmen English class…
I’ll be honest with you, she didn’t make a great first impression.
Here she is in English class and she straight up has her headphones on while the teacher’s talking. You can hear the music from across the room.
After her teacher asks her to take off her headphones, he wraps up the lesson and gives the students their assignment.
They have to answer five questions based on the reading they just did.
Most of the students get to work right away.
But not Kaylan. So her teacher – Josh Andrew –tries to motivate her.
ANDREW: This is your opportunity, this is where you’re making your choice, right? I can’t pick up your pen and write for you. I’m giving you the chance, right?
You got to give it to Josh Andrew, he is really trying to help her. And Kaylan does pick up her pencil, but…but doesn’t actually write anything. So I ask her what’s up.
KAYLAN: I don’t understand the work, really. It’s hard. Do you feel like you can get help? Yeah, a little bit, but I’m not sure. Like, I ask for help sometimes but I just still don’t get it. Well Mr. Andrew seemed pretty open to helping.Yeah, a little bit. I noticed you had your headphones on a lot in class. Yeah, get my mind off of stuff, listen to music. I do try to do my work I just never got it, really. Just still don’t get it.
Kaylan is by no means the only one in her class who doesn’t get the work.
Sixty seven freshmen including Kaylan failed at least one class this year. That’s nearly half the freshmen at the school. They’re all in what’s called credit recovery – they stay after school for a couple hours a day, four days a week, and basically re-do the class to try and pass. If they fail that, they get one more chance in summer school. It’s one of the mechanisms the school has in place to try to keep kids on track to graduate.
The next time I see Kaylan again she’s in the cafeteria, standing in line to get a sub sandwich. Coach Knight is always on lunchroom duty. He calls it:
KNIGHT: The most important hour of the day.
If you have a great lunch period, the rest of the day is easy. Crazy lunch period, all bets are off.
Today seems pretty mellow. No drama, no fights.
And Kaylan – who I haven’t seen in about a week – seems way more up…with everything. She even started a student group, which she can’t wait to tell me about. She calls it The Dream Team.
KAYLAN: Basically we’re going to talk a lot of stuff in the group. We’re going to talk about anger, your sexuality. We’re going to talk about a lot of stuff. It’s basically a group for you to come and talk. Like free therapy? Yeah, basically like free therapy and fun activities, pick up trash, t-shirts made, a whole lot of fun activities.
I know when I saw you the first time when I met you, we were in English class, and you were not into it, you were not into it.
KAYLAN: I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to do better. I really look up to Mr. Knight, I really look up to him and he told me like, life is short, so you want to do something. And I looked at Mom, I looked at everyone in my family, and I cannot just sit here every day, so I’m going to try and do something.
Did you catch that? The difference between last week and this week – something Coach Knight said.
Kaylan is not one of the students on Knight’s caseload, but they’ve been talking on and off since Kaylan transferred to Cody in October.
When he first met Kaylan, Knight says she was hardly ever in class, always skipping. She’s gotten better since they started talking…not perfect, but better. She roams the halls less, isn’t always tardy for class.
He’s also been helping her with her anger issues…
Like when she was about to get into a fight with a boy in her class…the teacher called Knight and asked for Knight to come over and talk to Kaylan and the boy.
KNIGHT: Here I am, going around saying how great you are and it’s just a whole game. That what you trying to tell me?
KAYLAN: No it’s not no game.
KNIGHT: So why you and him not seem to get along? This been going on for weeks and I know it…
This is big part of Knight’s job – getting students to calm down, try to stop them from fighting.
He deals with all kinds of these conflicts -- sometimes between two guys, sometimes it’s a whole group of girlfriends who are on the outs and ready to fight.
I’ve seen him handle a bunch of these and I have to say – he’s good.
You can boil down his technique into FIVE STEPS.
He starts with listening. He lets each student tell his or her side of the story, one at a time.
Step two – he throws in something personal about himself, you know to try and lighten the mood.
KNIGHT: Your pants? Come on dude, that ain’t nothing for you to fight about. You know how many times they talk about my pants in here?
Three – time for compliments. He points out something positive that’s going on with each student at the table. Maybe their grades are improving or they haven’t gotten in trouble in a while.
Step four – he tells them how much he loves them.
KNIGHT: Look, both of y’all are two of my favorites, right, we admit to that?
And he brings it all home with STEP FIVE and these three words:
KNIGHT: DON’T DISAPPOINT ME.
Jimmie Knight went through some conflict resolution training as part of his job with Communities in Schools. So that’s where he probably learned some of his techniques.
The rest? That’s just Knight doing Knight. He doesn’t have a degree in counseling or social work or psychology…
KNIGHT: No, what I have is a degree in familyism, I call it. Because, not to toot my parents’ horn or anything, but they gave me the tools. I got the tools that I use in this school from my parents. That’s why I told you when you first came – I’m not no special person here. I just do what’s in my heart, what I think is right with the kids, by the kids. That’s it.
Go for Mr. Knight.
We’ll meet a high school junior who’s ready for a life beyond Cody.
KEVIN: My thing is, if you can get up out of here, you better go, no matter what.
He’s hoping college is his way out. But he’s got one year left of high school…and a baby on the way.
We’ll meet Kevin in 10 minutes.
You’re listening to MR KNIGHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. Stay with us.
============== BREAK 35:00 TO 36:30=============
SEGMENT C – 36:30 TO 58:30 (22:00 minutes)
You’re listening to MR KNIGHT’S NEIGHBORHOOD, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.
Before the break, we met Kaylan, a 15-year old freshmen at Cody.
When you see her walking down the halls, she looks like this tough kid, with her punk hairstyle that sticks straight up.
But get closer, and she’s got this baby face. She’s just a kid who’s trying to make it day by day at Cody. She says things have gotten a little better since she started her Dream Team club and since she found a friend in Coach Knight
KAYLAN: HE’S MY HERO. I look up to him. He really means what he say. I see how he talks to me. He talks to me in a good respectful way that’ll make you understand. He talk to me to where you don’t want to get mad at him, you don’t want to go off on him. Sometime he get on my head, but I really understand where he coming from because I look up to him.
When I first met Kaylan it was during English class, and she wasn’t paying attention. The teacher was talking, she had her headphones on and totally wasn’t listening.
This time around, her attitude is way better.
Her teacher, Josh Andrew, figured out a way to reach Kaylan during class.
After he gives the class an assignment, he walks directly over to Kaylan and asks if she understands it.
Kaylan’s good friend Starr is an A-student. So he has the two of them work together. Today they’re working on the Odyssey.
If you don’t remember the story, here’s the teacher - Josh Andrew – with a quick refresher:
ANDREW: The story of the Odyssey is about Odysseus’ journey home. It follows his experience in the Trojan War and it’s asking this question of what does it take to come home?
It’s hard not to see the parallels between Odysseus and the kids at Cody…
Here’s Odysseus, our hero, trying to get somewhere. But there are so many things vying for his attention, so many obstacles that stand in his way. And he’s human, he gets excited, he gets distracted…just like Kaylan and her classmates.
ANDREW: There’s so much potential when they wake up in the morning and they make that decision: do I want to go to school today? And there are so many opportunities to not, whether that’s making a life on the street or just going off track, there all these opportunities to be distracted.
In the month and a half that I was at Cody, these are just some of the obstacles I observed:
One student had no heat in the house.
Another got jumped on the way home from school, had to go to the hospital.
One student’s dad just got out of prison and keeps texting, asking the student for another chance.
Three students lost family members.
And then there are the everyday teen distractions -- cell phones, music, who said what on social media.
And if you’re falling behind in all your classes and can’t get the help you need to stay on track, all those distractions start to look shinier and shinier…
KAYLAN: When I get stuck, I get mad. I just want to give up, I want to walk out, I sometimes want to cry. And then you sometimes you be afraid to ask for help, you don’t want other people looking at you like, oh she need help she’s slow, she’s this, he’s that. You don’t want that.
So you do what Kaylan so often does –
You answer your phone during biomedicine class instead of working on an assignment. Or you play SIMS on your tablet when you should be filling out a worksheet. And nobody – save for Josh Andrews and a couple others – seems to notice.
Ten days later, Kaylan gets suspended. This isn’t her first suspension.
She and a friend were talking during math class, so her teacher put them out…more to scare them than anything.
Coach Knight wasn’t around to handle the situation, so the Dean of Culture, the enforcer – he gives Kaylan and the other student each a two days suspension.
Kaylan gets her progress report before she goes home.
No big surprise here – she’s struggling in every core class.
It’s hard to imagine how a two day suspension will help with that.
Ok, so, Kaylan is suspended today, so I’m going to call her and I guess see how she’s spending her morning.
Hey, is this Kaylan?
It’s Jennifer. So the suspension went through. So what are you doing?
Nothing, just watching TV. Anything good?
She says she’s at home watching Spongebob Square Pants, and she’ll probably just sit on the couch and watch TV the rest of the day.
While Kaylan’s home watching Spongebob, I have a sit down with the school’s principal, Michelle Parker. A spitfire of a woman who takes no B-S.
She took over this school five years ago and is a firm believer in the small school model.
She has 412 students – that’s pretty small for a Detroit high school. So theoretically it’s easier for staff to monitor the students, make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The small school model is supposed to make harder for students to fall through the cracks.
But – as you’re about to hear – sometimes that happens anyway.
Principal Parker was out on maternity leave for most of the first semester, so she’s still trying to learn all the freshmen. So I tell her about Kaylan…
Here are the bullet points:
Kaylan is struggling in all of her classes…
She’s been suspended multiple times…and was just suspended again.
She has an I-E-P. Some kids who qualify for special education get IEPs. Those are basically individual education plans that describe the student’s disability and let teachers know what they have to do to help a student be successful in school.
Every teacher is *supposed* to know which students have IEPs.
But that didn’t happen here. Some teachers knew, but many didn’t.
PARKER: Like I told you, coming back from maternity leave, I’m getting back in the gist, pushing people, get back people on their Ps and Qs so we don’t have students fall through the cracks, and Kaylan is not one that I want…and actually I want to pull her report...
After I told her about who Kaylan was and what was happening with her, Parker jumped into action.
She starts calling Kaylan’s teachers to see what they have to say.
Teachers have grade level meetings every Monday after school – specifically to talk about students like Kaylan who are at risk of failing.
So Parker calls up one of the ninth grade teachers…
PARKER: Have you all met with Kaylan yet? No. Is she anywhere on your list of target students? Yes she is. Do you all know when you all have a scheduled case conference maybe for her? No I don’t. Do you all have anything coming back that Monday we come back from break yet, do you? No. Ok, alright, thank you.
This is what it sounds to fall through the cracks.
No grade level meeting to talk about Kaylan’s progress…
The school says suspension is a last resort. But Kaylan’s been suspended multiple times even though she has an IEP, which is supposed to help students like her avoid being suspended.
And some teachers didn’t even know she had an I-E-P.
The school counselor didn’t know. Coach Knight didn’t know.
KIMBERLY: I was shocked some of them didn’t know.
This is Kaylon’s mom – Kimberly. I called her up to get her take on the whole thing.
KIMBERLY: You know what, it was upsetting. Do you think things are going to change or get better? I hope so. What do you think she needs in a school? Smaller classroom. She needs like more one-on-one. When she needs help, she needs to be in a setting where she’s comfortable for one to ask for help, and when she asks for the help, she should get it. You know? So that puts some of the responsibility on Kaylan though to ask for the help, right? Yeah. Do you think she’s comfortable doing that? No.
30 percent of the students at Cody have a disability. Nearly one out of every three students. Those disabilities require lots of resources – and resources require more money and more staff. Two things Cody and other high-poverty schools just can’t afford.
Kaylan at least has Coach Knight in her corner – someone she trusts.
But right now all Knight can really do is talk to her. He works for Communities in Schools, not the school district, so he has to put her on his official caseload before he can give her more substantial help.
So that’s his plan – once she’s back from suspension, after spring break, he plans to fill out the paperwork and get her mom to sign a permission slip so he can work more closely with her.
KAYLAN: Because I think Kaylan needs a little more help than we actually giving her, and by her being on my caseload, I can document to see where the change is starting and keep up with where the change is going, either up or down.
But he never gets a chance to add her to his list.
Three days back from spring break, Kaylan gets in a fist fight with another girl. They each get five days suspension.
I happened to be on the phone with Kaylan’s mom when she got the call from the school…
KAYLON’S MOM: I’m so upset, I’m stumbling over my words. When are you going to decide if you put her back in the school or not? I’m not going to put her back. I’m not putting her back in Cody. Oh that is final. That’s final.
It’s not the first student Knight has lost…and he knows, it probably won’t be his last.
KNIGHT: Now you cannot reach every kid. I do understand that. But that don’t mean I can’t try. Ok? That don’t mean I can’t try. I can try. And I don’t take, if I don’t make that kid a super kid, they call it, I don’t take that and say I failed. I do know reality, that I’m not going to be able to save every kid, ok? But when that kid leaves, he’ll say that somebody cares. (Hey jacket.) He gonna say somebody cares (Mr. Knight), that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters.
You’re listening to Mister Knight’s Neighborhood, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.
CHAPTER FOUR: “A MAMA’S BOY AND A FATHER”
Kevin is a junior at Cody. He wasn’t going away for spring break, so he invited me over to his house to hang out.
Someone kicked in the front door, so Kevin had to board it up from the inside. He shouts through the window and tells me to go around back. I slide open the glass door, step into the kitchen and the first thing I notice…isn’t anything I can see. It’s a smell. It smells like gas.
Kevin says the heat isn’t work in the house anymore, so to stay warm, they turn on the stove – all four burners.
KEVIN: We’re poor now, but we wasn’t poor once. Like everybody have that stage where you just fall off.
There’s no table in the house to do homework on, the ceilings are literally falling down in places. A 15-year old was shot and killed a few months ago at a bus stop a mile away.
As Kevin told me in school one day, it’s just not a safe place to grow up.
KEVIN: My thing is, if you can get up out of here, you better go, no matter what.
For the amount of stuff Kevin has gone through, he’s remarkably resilient.
His dad has been in prison pretty much all of Kevin’s life….so he was raised by his Mom. He even has a tattoo on his arm that says “mama’s boy.”
The house he used to live in caught fire and burned down.
One of his brothers died of SIDS.
To look at Kevin, you wouldn’t know any of that happened. He’s always smiling; he has this very chill attitude. He’s a flirt.
I met him after football season ended, so I didn’t get to see him in action…but apparently he is great. He plays running back and everyone at the school talks about how good Kevin is, how he might go pro one day. But he tells me – playing professional football – that’s not his main goal in life.
KEVIN: Look, matter of fact, I’m going to show you my goals…you want to show me your goals? – the title says Kev goals no matter what. And then it says number one: make it out the hood and then I got the exclamation mark with the mad face. Number two, no matter what do four to eight years of college….
Number three: become a doctor or lawyer. Four – football is a backup plan. Five, move your family somewhere more safe…
KEVIN: Number six, never let someone tell you different. Seven, never give up. And then eight, I got it in capital letters: IF YOU FALL, GET UP AND TRY IT AGAIN.
Kevin has fallen a bunch of times. And one of the people who’s been there to help pick him back up? Coach Knight.
Knight has known Kevin since Kevin was seven…he used to play on a peewee league that Knight started up for kids in the neighborhood.
At first Kevin’s mom did not want him to go to Cody. Yeah, it was their neighborhood high school, but it had a bad rap. So she sent him to one the more elite schools in the district. But he started hanging with the wrong crowd, got arrested, spent a few weeks in juvie, and basically failed 9th grade.
When it seemed like no school would take Kevin, Coach Knight and another football coach, Coach Norman, stepped in and talked to principal Parker at Cody:
KNIGHT: I just said Ms. Parker, this is a great kid, he’s been led astray a little bit, he needs me and Coach Norman, this is a kid we’re going to save his life. Because I thought it was a life-saving thing because he was really going the wrong way. Now Kevin was a brilliant kid, and we knew this all the way through because he loved math…we out there doing plays and the quarterback would say 6, 18, 22, he’d add all those numbers up right the and say that equals this! He was a little kid! So I told her all those things and me and Coach Norman took her in the office and we stayed in there for two hours and talked to her until she said ok y’all, I’ll let him in.
LOCLESHA: I just love Coach Knight
This is Kevin’s mom, Loklesha. She tears up whenever she thinks about how Coach Knight went to bat for her son and got him into Cody. She often daydreams about what it will be like when Kevin graduates from there.
KEVIN’S MOM: He dedicated this song to me. Who sang that, T Pain? I’m gonna hold you down? And when he graduate from high school I know they probably tell me to get out, but I’m going to have that speaker, and I’m going to play that song when my son walks across that stage. Because these young kids is not making it nowadays, and I just want him to make it.
For a while, things seemed to go well at Cody. Kevin went to class, got decent grades, played football. He was doing what he needed to do to graduate and get out of the neighborhood for good.
And then he got his girlfriend pregnant. Sixteen-year old Kevin is going to be a dad.
He plans to call his son Kevin Junior. I ask him what his hopes are for his little boy:
KEVIN: I ain’t gonna say don’t go down the road I went down because everybody go through stuff. Graduate, make it, go to college like me because I’m going to be the first to go to college on my Mom’s side. Chill on the women. Use protection.
When Kevin told Coach Knight about the pregnancy, Knight did not take the news well.
KNIGHT: I was more pissed off than anything because I didn’t think he was ready; I didn’t expect that kind of mistake.
But he’s not giving up on Kevin. Nobody at Cody is. Where Cody sort of dropped the ball in terms of catching Kaylan from falling through the cracks, everybody seems to have Kevin’s back.
Teachers give him makeup work so he catch up on all the days he’s missed. His coaches are on about his grades. The principal personally makes sure Kevin writes an essay for his summer job application…
They all want him to succeed. Especially Coach Knight:
KNIGHT: My hopes is for him is to graduate high school right now and get a job because he’s got to have a family to take off. But that’s the realistic thinking. If I got to say what I wish for Kevin? I wish Kevin can get his grades right here, I wish Kevin can go to college and play football. I wish Kevin can get a degree out of college in medicine where he can be the doctor he want to be. That’s my wishes for Kevin. Wishes don’t always come true.
There are so many Kevins out there, not just at Cody but across Detroit and in other high poverty cities. The circumstances vary, but what is at stake is the same. These are kids who are on the brink of either being swallowed back into their neighborhood or graduating, and getting out.
For kids on the edge, having someone like Coach Knight to talk to, to give you anger exercises, to show empathize -- that can make all the difference.
Knight knows he gets taken advantage of now and then. Even his own wife, Jennifer, calls him a pushover. She thinks he lets students get away with way too much.
JENNIFER KNIGHT: I can send little Johnny to school because Mr. Knight going to give him a shirt. I can send little Johnny to school, he hungry, Mr. Knight will give him two dollars to get something to eat. Some kids true enough need the help. Some kids don’t have anybody, so they need some kind of guidance…but he gives them too many chances. He’s basically a pushover, you know? He gives you too many chances.
Coach Knight is the king of second chances.
He gave his old neighborhood a second chance when he moved from the suburbs back to Detroit. He gave his old high school a second chance when he sent his daughters to Cody.
It’s what he does.
And now he gets paid to do it.
Here are the things that students have said about you: oh he’s a super hero; he’s my second dad; he’s the best, you know. How does that make you feel when you hear those comments?
KNIGHT: I’m not here to be praised. That’s not why I’m here. When we first started off, I kept telling you I’m not no special person, I don’t think I’m no special person, I’m just here for them. As of what they say about me, I’m thankful for it, but I don’t want my legacy to be that I was here to make the kids to think about me. It was all about then. If they can say anything I want them to say Coach Knight helped me out over my lifetime, you know. He helped me get through this thing called high school.
You’ve been listening to Mister Knight’s Neighborhood, a State of Opportunity documentary about foster care on Michigan Radio.
Today’s show was written and produced by me.
Special thanks to Andrea Claire Maio – she produced videos of Coach Knight, Kevin and Kaylan – you can check them out on our website.
Thanks also to Sarah Alvarez and Annie Norris.
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 this program ?was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.? And support for State of Opportunity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first."