Editor’s Note: C. Paschal Eze is the Chairman of the board of The PuLSE Institute. A humanitarian disaster expert and veteran multimedia consultant, he is the Vice President of Communications at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries. For submission inquiries contact the Institute’s editor-in-chief Bankole Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org
By C. Paschal Eze
Schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District may not have the best ratings based on standardized test scores, but they certainly have students that are rich in social consciousness.
At a recent PuLSE Institute, Detroit anti-poverty think tank’s CEOs on Poverty Series Forum in Detroit, several students from the district posed some of the most brilliant questions to the discussants, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Wayne County Executive, Warren C. Evans.
Their participation, thanks to Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti and his entire “Students Rise, We All Rise” team, reflects an understanding of the pertinent place of public school students in such crucial conversation.
The students did not allow themselves to be “deterred” by the high caliber of public figures in attendance and were neither oblivious of the pain points of the issue in focus nor uninformed about how it directly and indirectly affects them and their families.
That got me thinking of the role of school districts in the fight against poverty and social injustice in cities like Detroit.
Why not? Children – in many respects – represent a city’s most important assets. What is a city without healthy, happy and future-driven children? A decadent place, of course. Anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela aptly put it thus in 1996: “The children who sleep in the streets, reduced to begging to make a living, are a testimony to an unfinished job.”
A year earlier, he had wisely warned that “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Yes, a city or country that invests less in education and children’s safety reveals a soul in need of methodical social redemption.
Now, let’s take a look at some ways school districts like Detroit – which are not without peculiar challenges and difficulties – can more meaningfully contribute to the fight against poverty.
Attracting Value Creators
Cities usually need bigger tax base to meet their many obligations to residents. Thus, the higher the number of employed residents, the higher their tax revenue. That’s why when their populations decrease as a result of things like relocation/closure of major factories or significant spike in crime, city services suffer tremendously.
Also, small businesses – especially the mom and pop shops – that create jobs suffer too – and go into life support or extinction. The multiplier effect can be huge.
But what of situations where the major employers remain and crime is low but workers choose to live in surrounding cities for reasons that include quality of school district? It happens in plain sight around us.
One thing that attracts particularly young families with school-aged kids to cities as workers and residents is the school district. A 2015 report in The Guardian says “One in four families in the UK have moved house or changed address to obtain a school place for their children.” And if you think that only applies to the UK, here is a 2016 report in The USA Network’s Democrat & Chronicle: “The majority of people moving to Brighton and Pittsford right now are doing so because of the schools … Some families are moving just a few minutes down the street to jump from Rochester City Schools into one of these districts, and others are setting aside dreams to build a home in favor of an older home in a top-rated district.”
The motivation is plain and simple. Before they bring their knowledge, skills, contacts, purchasing power and other resources to bear on the socio-economic life of a city – helping a good one become better – they want to be sure the relevant school district will meet the needs of their beloved kids.
Are there experienced, effective and motivated teachers (with high retention rate)? Do students score high in standardized tests? Are parents deeply involved? Is busing provided? Are the priorities of the Board of Education right or misplaced? Is there functional and sustainable diversity? Are there many violent incident reports? And do students end up in good colleges? Answers to those and other questions help parents decide on which city to call home.
No doubt proximity to work, home values, recreational facilities and safety of neighborhoods count, but responsible parents who place top priority on the overall wellbeing of their kids will emphasize the school district factor.
Serving as Conveyor of Compassion
Schools are not only for straight-jacketed academics; they also are for developing the moral, civic and social consciousness of children.
On noticing the hardships experienced by classmates from indigent homes, some kids are known to have jumped into action and lent a helping hand, with the active support of their family members and neighbors.
Yet, schools in our cities can do more to empower and encourage kids, to borrow the words of Early Learning Foundation founder Dr. Bob Sornson, “look out into the world, look past their own needs and see the needs of others.”
And when they do, students likely will volunteer in large numbers for good causes in the community, and some may set up their own nonprofits to further challenge and tackle issues around poverty and social injustice.
Ready examples are Kids with Compassion, MK Blanket Wraps and Caleb White Project, all student founded and student run nonprofits helping the less fortunate in metro Detroit.
Kindling Positive Life Change
The “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffet, who graduated from a public high school, once opined: “I’m a big believer in the public school system in terms of equality of opportunity in this country.” He is right.
Think of the number of public officials as well as business and religious leaders around us that are proud products of public schools like Cass Technical High School, and how many of them are using their big platforms and positions of authority, power and influence to improve society.
Never mind that a few sometimes turn their back on public education, perhaps to please their political backers, many of them will admit that their success story had a lot to do with their public school experience.
Do the count. Their public debating skills. Their can-do poise. Their spirit of competition. Their social etiquette. Just name it.
But more importantly, there’s probably no better way to overcome poverty and social injustice than accessible public education. If not for free public education, many – like media mogul Oprah – who are making consequential waves today in society, may have remained in the choke-hold of poverty. Their future was shaped in part by public schools.
So, it is possible that a future president or house speaker of this country is being prepared right now at Detroit’s Renaissance High School or Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School.
Cass Technical High School even boasts a National Merit Scholar Semifinalist, Abdul Repon, who “scored in the top 1 percentile of SAT scores in the state.”
Engendering and Enlivening Community
Many long-running friendships and partnerships we see and admire today were birthed during public school days. And it’s not just among classmates. Their parents got on the friendship and partnership wagon too.
Sometimes, they carpooled to take their kids to sporting and other events in and out of state. Sometimes, they coordinated sleepovers, birthdays and family vacations. Sometimes, they made freewill donations to support friendly families facing financial hardships.
Talk about people supporting who they trust and trusting who they know, and such intra-informal group help comes to the fore. Many problems that are rarely discussed on prime time TV are quietly solved in such groups.
At their inspiration, individuals and organizations organize to tackle hunger during the school year and when students are on break.
Even in rich school districts, there are students from less fortunate families that experience hunger. Ensuring that those kids have good nutrition both during and after school is one way to fight the dearth of hope and help that often besets the less fortunate.
Given the above, it is imperative for school districts to do a better job of harnessing student-parent goodwill to tackle problems like poverty that confront students and parents alike.
Each district should consider establishing (or providing greater support to) a Directorate of Student-Parent Initiatives that will fully support the volunteer, charitable and social entrepreneurial activities of students and their parents.
Among other things, the directorate should ascertain and publish the number of volunteer hours the students and their parents give each year. It also should do the same for their monetary and in-kind donations – as individuals, families and associated social enterprises – to worthy causes.
That way, people in the larger community can get a better idea of the spirited efforts the school district community is making in addressing poverty, and why and how to lend their support.