Student Jalen Pickett, center, talks during a class that teaches anger management and conflict resolution skills at Cody High School in Detroit. Jalen, now a diligent student, landed in an intervention program when he began high school.
DETROIT — In a city scarred by broken promises, the Moore brothers, James and Robert, and fellow student Chelsea Inyard are among the fortunate ones. The teens attend one of Detroit’s most promising new public schools.
Set in the medical district of the city’s Midtown neighborhood, Dr. Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, just three years old, offers a rigorous curriculum, gung-ho teachers, and gleaming facilities.
Yet beyond the campus is a city in the throes of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, where life places special stresses on young people.
Many say Detroit is finally on the rise after hitting bottom. Yet teachers and parents worry about the toll of growing up amid danger, dysfunction, and the blight epitomized by tens of thousands of abandoned homes.
“This is what we’re ingraining into kids’ psyches — this emptiness, the lack of safety,” said Tonya Allen, chief executive officer of the Skillman Foundation, which backs many child-oriented initiatives. “They’re going into school with a level of fear that something bad is going to happen.”
Eighty-eight vacant school buildings are for sale — some of the 200 schools closed because of depopulation. High levels of gang violence and premature births combine to make the youth mortality rate the worst of any major U.S. city, according to a recent analysis by the Detroit News.
“Detroit is a very difficult place to be a child,” said Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, an education watchdog group.
While many young Detroiters speak hopefully of the future, their obstacles come up too.
Like many high school students, the Moore brothers, who live about 10 miles from Ben Carson, rely on the city’s crime-ridden, inefficient bus system.
“Some days, I don’t get home until 9 p.m.,” said Robert, a 16-year-old junior aspiring to a military career.
James, 15, says his youth-league football team was sometimes unable to play because field conditions were so bad — “tall grass, nasty bleachers, trash everywhere.”
Like most Detroit schools, Ben Carson has an overwhelmingly African-American student body. More than 80 percent are from low-income families — not surprising in a city where the child poverty rate of 57 percent is triple the U.S. figure.
“They need our arms wrapped around them,” said the principal, Brenda Belcher. “It’s important to create a culture and climate to support them.”
Will to overcome
Ten miles west of Ben Carson, at one of Detroit’s less glamorous high schools, 17-year-old junior Jalen Pickett was on the alert — a police officer was about to shove him during a workshop aimed in part at teaching anger management and conflict resolution to a dozen troubled students.
“How would you react to that?” Officer Melvin Chuney asked the group after using Jalen as his foil.
The setting was an empty classroom at Cody High School. The 60-year-old building is set for a volunteer face-lift this summer.
Jalen, now a diligent student with aspirations to be a defense lawyer, had an inauspicious start to high school.
“I got into a fight my first day,” he said. “I was kicked out a lot, didn’t get along with any of my teachers.”
His penchant for fighting earned him a spot in the Police Department’s Children in Trauma Intervention Camp. It offers students an alternative to expulsion in the form of training and counseling from police officers and other mentors.
“Everybody knows you’re in here because sometimes you made bad decisions,” said the program’s leader, Officer Monica Evans.
Now Jalen is studying hard.
John Matthews, Jalen’s principal, empathizes with his students.
Unlike the city’s elite high schools, the three separate academies at Cody don’t have selective admissions, and the result, Mr. Matthews said, “is a certain feeling of inferiority.”
“But I tell our students that they have more grit,” he said. “We want them to be proud of what they’ve overcome.”
Detroit was a city of 1.8 million residents in the 1950s; today, it has about 700,000. The exodus has included many families seeking improved education. Since 2002, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has declined from 164,496 to about 49,500 in 97 schools now.
Meanwhile, the separate charter-school sector has surged. According to Excellent Schools Detroit, the city has 116 charter schools serving 45 percent of K-12 students. That’s about the same share as DPS, which once served more than 80 percent of all students. It’s one of the highest market shares for charter schools in a U.S. city.
Some of the charter schools and some DPS schools are top-notch, said Dan Varner of Excellent Schools Detroit, but overall he assessed educational quality in both sectors as “very poor.”
Detroit’s bankruptcy doesn’t directly affect the public school system, a separate entity with its own taxing authority, revenues, and governance. Nonetheless, DPS’ deficit is $94 million and is projected to reach $120 million later this year.
And while DPS schools have improved their performance on state-run standardized tests, their showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remains abysmal.
In 2013, DPS schools ranked the worst among 21 major cities in the performance of 4th and 8th graders on math and reading tests. Just 4 percent of Detroit 4th graders and 3 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math, compared with 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in the average large city.
But DPS officials say the district is on the upswing. Current enrollment is little changed from the fall of 2012 — notable given annual enrollment losses of more than 10 percent over much of the last decade.
Whatever happens inside Detroit’s schools, the environment outside can be menacing.
The city-backed Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative recently surveyed 1,300 high school students. Asked if a family member had been shot, murdered, or disabled as a result of violence in the last 12 months, 87 percent said yes.
“Far too many children walk to and from school in fear, lack trust in those who took the oath to protect and serve, and consider retaliation to be a means to an end,” said the initiative’s director, Annie Ellington.
In response, volunteers have formed patrols to enhance the safety of students between school and home.
“We work with people every day who haven’t given up, who love kids, who are committed to making things better,” said Sharnita Johnson, a Detroit native who helps oversee the Kellogg Foundation’s grants to neighborhood and youth programs in the city.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan vowed to have 150 parks in good shape next summer and urged churches to launch an “adopt-a-park” program that might allow 50 more to be revived.
The mayor also plans to work with the medical community on reducing the high rate of premature births and to lobby in tandem with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to expand pre-K education.