Series & Documentaries

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

College is expensive. For some families, it’s prohibitively expensive. Several school districts are trying to follow the Kalamazoo Promise model by offering students money to help cover tuition costs, including one such "promise" in rural northern Michigan's Lake County.

"A dirt road with lots of bumps"

If you had asked Lake County high school senior Kaitlyn Bolles last fall to describe her thoughts on college, she’d describe it as "a dirt road with lots of bumps." Translation? "I don’t feel like I’m ready, I don’t feel like I can handle it, I don’t feel like I can afford it, and I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to go right now," explains Bolles.

Bolles has spent most of her life in the village of Baldwin in central northern Michigan’s Lake County. The bubbly 18-year old loves it here and she’s very close with her family. Since there’s no higher ed option in Lake County, she would have to move, which can be scary. Not to mention the cost. Lake County is the poorest county in Michigan; paying for college is out of reach for many families here.

Dustin Dwyer

Chapter 1 

"That’s when you need somebody."

Fourteen-year-old Mario lives … somewhere in Grand Rapids. He doesn’t want to be identified on the air.

He sits, dressed in a plain white t-shirt, khaki colored pants and white, low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars. We’re in a sunny hallway at the downtown Grand Rapids campus of Grand Valley State University. Mario is here, attending a summer program from the Hispanic Center of West Michigan – a program meant to help keep kids on track academically while school is out. 

Next year, Mario will be in the eighth grade, at a middle school in Grand Rapids.

I ask him if it's a pretty good school. "Kind of," he says. I ask him what isn't good about it. "There's too much gangs, stuff like that."

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

More than 90% of school children in Lake County qualify for free or reduced price lunch. To make sure they continue to eat healthy meals once school is out, the county’s school district offers free breakfast and lunch over the summer to any child in the county.

When I dropped by the cafeteria around 11:45 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, dozens of kids from Lake County were winding their way into the school cafeteria at Baldwin Elementary.

They’re here for the summer school meals program called "Meet Up & Eat Up." There are hundreds of these programs across the state, one in almost every county. On tap today for lunch is milk (chocolate is by far the most popular with this crowd), followed by turkey and cheese sandwiches, carrots, apples and bananas.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Lake County in central northern Michigan is the poorest part of the state, with nearly half of all its children living in poverty. That’s according to the latest Kids Count data. So I went north to visit the rural county to see what life is like there for families.

Before I introduce you to some of the current residents of Lake County, there are two things you need to know about the area:

  1. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, with hundreds of lakes and streams and endless acres of forestland. 
  2. Lake County wasn’t always poor. In fact, back in the late 1800s, things were relatively booming.

Here to give us a little history lesson is Bruce Micinski, president of the Lake County Historical Society.

"The first big boom would’ve been the Civil War soldiers...they could get 80 and 160 acres of land from the government," says Micinski. "They were trying to give opportunities to these soldiers in starting up farmland in Lake County."

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

I'm in Lake County this week and next working on a series of stories about rural poverty in Michigan. When it comes to child well-being, this part of the state has some serious struggles.

Kids Count data

When I think of kids in poverty, my mind more often than not conjures up an image of a child in some kind of urban setting. And our stories at State of Opportunity tend to reflect that. We've done tons of reports from Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Flint, Detroit and its suburbs. 



JENNIFER GUERRA: It’s time to have the talk. I know, it’s not gonna be easy. Might get a little uncomfortable – maybe make you squirm a little. But it’s time. I’m Jennifer Guerra with Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity project. For the next hour, we’re going to talk about RACE.

Now I know some of you listening right now are thinking Race? Really? It’s 2013. Aren’t we past this by now?

Good. I was hoping you’d ask that.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

It’s time to have The Talk.

I know, it’s not going to be easy. Might get a little uncomfortable, maybe make you squirm a little.

But it’s time; it's time to have a frank conversation about race. Now I know some of you listening right now are thinking "Race? Really? It’s 2013. Aren’t we past this by now?"

Good. I was hoping you’d ask that.

I'd like you to meet two young girls, both freshmen at a high school in Grand Haven, MI. Their names are Katie Bridgeforth, age 15, and Dystany Dunn, 14. Both girls are mixed, half white and half black, and they describe their skin as caramel colored.

The two girls ride the bus together to school every day, and that’s where the trouble started:

This wasn’t some isolated incident. The girls tell me about the boy who wore a KKK mask in the cafeteria, another one who wore it during homecoming weekend. Then there was the time a boy came up to Katie when she was taking a test, and he made a joke about slavery and ‘has she picked any cotton lately?’

When I told people I was working on this special, one hour show about race, a lot of the reactions were along the lines of “race…hmm….interesting.” Like, man, I’m glad I don’t have your job. That’s cause the topic of race is fraught; people hear it and they run for their hills.

One place where parents and teachers are talking about race in the classroom is Birmingham, MI. Birmingham is pretty much as white a city as they come, with a median household income around $100,000. Espresso bars and high end restaurants and shops line the streets downtown, and there’s a four star hotel where out of town celebrities stay whenever they visit metro Detroit.

From the looks of it, Birmingham has it all. But dig a little deeper, and Birmingham has a problem.

Gap #1: Achievement

Jason Clinkscale is the principal at Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham. He says when it comes to student performance on standardized tests, "the achievement gap is alive and well" in his district.

We're not talking about some 5 or 10 point difference here. The achievement gap in the Birmingham district translates to a nearly 30 point difference in proficiency in math at the middle school level between white and black students. By the time those students reach 11th grade, the math gap is more than 50 points wide.

Clinkscale is an African American with two daughters of his own. He uses words like "sobering" and "frustrating" to describe the achievement gap. And the gap isn’t just on paper. You can see it play out from classroom to classroom: minorities are over-represented in lower level classes and underrepresented in honors and advanced classes.

User: woodleywonderworks / Flickr

Michigan has a lot to be proud of - top universities, the Great Lakes, a (now) thriving car industry. Having some of the most racially segregated schools in the country? Not so much. 

When it comes to racial segregation in schools, Michigan tops the charts.

True, Michigan doesn’t have any actual segregated schools on the books, those went out a long time ago. But de facto segregation is very real. And it’s hard to argue that we’re moving toward a post-racial society in Michigan when black kids mostly go to school with other black kids, Latinos with Latinos, whites with whites.

Gary Orfield directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He says one thing people need to understand is it's almost never just segregation by race or ethnicity. "It's almost always what we call 'double segregation.' So high concentrated black or Latino schools tend to have concentrated poverty as well, so there’s a double level of segregation."

And for a lot of Latino students, Orfield says it’s triple segregation: segregation by race, poverty and language.