Monday, July 30, 2007

Chronicles of a Dropout

Originally published in The Michigan Citizen

In the controversy over varying interpretations of Detroit Public School graduation rates, or the district's well-documented financial problems, adults tend to ignore the opinions of the very students who struggle through these difficulties in their effort to obtain a decent education. On the audio cd Rising Up From The Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout, young people use hip hop and recorded interviews to speak their minds, tell their own stories, and tell the stories of friends and family members who have dropped out of school.

Detroit Summer's Live Arts Media Project (LAMP) is a youth-led popular education arts and media program that helps young people develop creative solutions to the problems they face. LAMP's youth participants and an all-star cast of Detroit's best hip hop artists and producers use the disc's 23 tracks to take us on a journey through the world of Detroit's youth and their challenges.

On "Tell Me Why", interviewees explain different reasons they, their friends or family members left school. According to the students, some believe they are treated like "animals."

"Even if you're having a hard time learning, they just put it as 'you're stupid,'" one person remarks. Students commonly face suspensions for dubious reasons like tardiness or not having IDs.

"I was doing good in school," says one teen, "it was just the suspension thing. And I was kind of frustrated, because I wanted to get into a school instead of sitting out here and doing nothing."

Often complex issues force students to leave school. One young man dropped out after being arrested. Another left school to take care of a sick grandmother. A transsexual student speaks of being ridiculed. Others offer accounts of students being bullied, and teachers failing to protect them.

"Drop Out Economics" analyzes the economic trials that can lead a student to leave school, and laments the lack of job opportunities for those who don't have a high school diploma. A young woman asks, "What jobs could be created for high school students, for them to feel independent and stay in school? Some students drop out because they don't have the money to keep going, and the situation at home is tight. What jobs would help them balance school and work?"

For some, the underground economy is the answer. "I know a lot of kids who sell drugs to support their families, because their moms don't have jobs. They have to go out and actually make money."

The voice of Grace Lee Boggs explains the development of the drug economy in Detroit. "In 1985 crack came to Detroit. And what happened was that folks began saying, 'Why go to school with the idea that one day you can make a whole lot of money, when you can make a whole lot of money right now selling drugs.' And it hasn't gotten any better."

The prison atmosphere of some schools can perpetuate the problem. "They have cops roaming around everywhere on the block," a young man complains on "High Security State". "For the people who wanna do good, they mess that up for us."

"They're stereotyping," reasons one interviewee. "Just 'cause my daddy's generation sold drugs and gang-banged, don't mean I'm gonna do it."

There is plenty of blame to go around for these conditions. Many of the emcees rail against America's capitalist system. One student calls on Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to "step up."

But the focus of Rising Up From The Ashes, is to search for solutions. Peer juries are suggested as an alternative to the problem of unfair suspensions. Schools like Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school primarily for pregnant teens and teenage mothers, are highlighted.

When it comes down to it, track 22, makes it plain. On "It's Up To Us", students discuss how they have protested the poor conditions at their schools by organizing walk outs and demonstrations. Grace Lee Boggs suggests that "sit-ins" not "walk outs" proved more effective for the labor movement, and could be used by students to bring about change. Detroit emcee and LAMP facilitator Invincible asks what would happen if students, parents and teachers joined together to petition school administrators to make a change.

Rising Up From The Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout is an important document that examines the plight of a marginalized segment of society - young people - gives them a voice and a provides them with a forum from which to speak. As one organizer of a student walk out recounts, "...since we're kids, nobody takes us seriously." Chronicles of a Dropout proves that Detroit's young people have a strong contribution to make to the discussion about what is ultimately, their future and their lives. It is also a good place for the rest of us to begin listening.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

These criticisms are all over the place, and even contradict each other: schools need to protect us from bullies, but the presence of cops disturbs us. In all my years of teaching Detroit kids, I conclude that these students create these problems for themselves. Although many of these students individually do want to follow the teachers through productive activities, as a collective population, some critical mass of students are creating problems that prevent the positive students, and the teachers, from conducting useful efforts. Until teachers can easily expel negative and even simply non-productive students -- not simply suspend them -- and until schools eliminate easy classes that accommodate negative students, these problems will dominate: two students behaving destructively, and sometimes just one, can indeed undermine 25 attempting to perform useful work.

But the teacher's union will not permit an easy-expulsion policy, since expelling a student means losing the annual $13,000 per student government revenue. Teacher's union officials don't understand that keeping such students and their annuity means losing other students to alternatives such as charter schools, or even drop-out. Private schools do not hesitate to expel misbehaving students.

Detroit already loses about half its students to drop-outs. Expelling misbehaving students could hardly make this loss rate any worse. To the contrary, expelling the students that teachers identify as making their jobs unnecessarily harder could actually result in fewer students dropping out; I expect that this would be the case, as schools became serious enterprises with the lose of students tossed by teachers, remaining students would come to respect these institutions.

Other infrastructural choices by the leadership promote these problems as well, the most fatal of these: sizing middle and high schools larger than the elementary schools. This creates massive social structures wherein the bad students that could be much more manageably distributed among 5 - 10 elementary-sized schools are instead united into massive middle schools and even more massive high schools. Exactly two reasons justify having school sizes increase with grade progression, and neither addresses academic concerns:

1. Bigger schools produce better interscholastic sports teams.

2. Bigger schools enable a greater variety of courses, namely: easy goof-off classes that require light lifting by teachers, and that attract goof-off, troublesome students.

The answers are clear:

1. Expel students who refuse to participate in the teacher's activities.
2. Cap the sizes of middle and high schools to the size of elementary schools.
3. Eliminate interscholastic sports; turn over these activities to the park & rec system.
4. Eliminate electives, and force all students in to basic scholastic classes.

July 31, 2007 7:42 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

The quickest way to make these radical changes it to enable full vouchers for all students. With $13k for each student going into DPS, imagine if each student had this full amount to take to a private school, rather than the current voucher system which applies only to a few students, and which amounts to only some fraction of the full amount. And let private schools take over the closed Detroit schools, which would further upset the teacher's union, which oppose public financing of private school facilities. (Basically, the teacher's union want alternatives to public schools to fail.)

July 31, 2007 7:47 AM  
Blogger Nadir said...

Yes, Paul. The criticisms are all over the place because different students will have had different experiences. There isn't one right or wrong answer for everyone.

I disagree that blame for DPS problems should be placed solely on the students. The DPS administration (not just the teachers' union) bears a great deal of responsibility for mismanagement. The state mismanaged a lot of funds (absconded funds perhaps) when it controlled the district. But not all of the blame can be lowered on the students. That is misguided.

For the most part, students are children who are in need of guidance. I'm sure you wouldn't have advocated the same educational reforms when you were in high school. Many of the students lack guidance from parents who are overworked and underemployed.

You are guilty of the exact behavior that I criticize in the article. You blame the students without listening to them. You have your own preconceived notions about what the problem is, and you aren't paying attention to what they say.

It isn't contradictory that there is both a problem with bullying and a prison atmosphere. We know that rapes occur in prisons and that guards don't protect inmates from each other. We know that security guards in schools can't be everywhere at all times, and that teachers and administrators don't always respond to bullying as quickly as they should.

Again, you ignored that part of the dropout problem is caused by misguided suspension policies. That heavy-handed policy may catch well-meaning students who are serious about learning while keeping uninterested, unproductive students in the classroom.

I still don't know where you get the figure that $13,000 is spent per student in DPS. Current spending is calculated at just over $11,000, but much of that money is going to pay for six-figure incomes for administrators, financial mismanagement and waste. Consider that it will cost more for the district to close 34 schools than they project to save once the buildings are shuttered. The school administration owns property, but is leasing its own offices, and is locked into a lease that will cost them thousands to break.

These aren't problems caused by students or by teachers.

You know I agree with you on some educational reforms. You also know that I think vouchers are not a long-term solution to poor education. They are a band-aid that takes money from failing schools and gives it to rich corporations and companies that don't need it, with no indication that it actually improves student education. Charter schools have been proven on average to be no better than public schools. Part of the reason private schools are better is because of smaller class sizes and the ability to select their students. By allocating voucher dollars, you don't help as many students as you can by just making public schools better.

I think you oversimplify a very complex problem. And place all or even most of the blame on students is a serious mistake.

July 31, 2007 9:30 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

Nadir: I have previously published the per-student Detroit govt anuity, and may have remembered it incorrectly as $13k; it may very well be $11k. Whatever the sum, it exceeds that spent for most of the suburban white districts, putting to rest the claim that "lack of funding" is a problem, or that "more funding" is a solution.

My writing perhaps poorly articulated my view that the students are the cause of their own problems. I stand behind that statement, but qualify it thusly: the adults in charge can solve those problems with the solutions I have articulated. We had these same problems at our beloved BCLS; we provided a wonderful curriculum, if just all the students would have followed it! Instead, the students -- these same Detroit students complaining here! -- created a negative environment.

BUT, we solved it. We solved it by implementing those planks in my proposal.

I reject your assessment that I have "ignored student input" and have "preconceived notions." You worked with me when we solved these problems at our program. We did it by doing something that no schools ever do (as far as I can tell): we officially and deliberately solicited formal feedback not just from students, but from parents. Then we meticulously recored and categorized *all* the input and suggestions, reacted to all of them, and posted on our website (each semester) our "customer input" and our responses to it. Our responses included so many changes to our program that we can practically describe our program as constituting a list of changes suggested to us by parents and students! We did, however, occasionally reject some of the suggestions, but always by posting our reasons for why, and then waiting to see the next semester if these same suggestions appeared.

Now that I have reminded you of all this, I expect that you will retract your assessment in this matter. Just as I forgot the exact figure of the massive per student govt annuity paid to DPS, you forgot that indeed I have a public record of soliciting and considering and reacting to input from students and parents.

The students could, if they somehow organized, solve all these problems themselves. They could all start studying and following teacher instructions and respecting the teachers, each other, themselves, public and private property, and that highest of all human endeavors: mastering academic knowledge and the intellectual arts. They could, hypothetically, do this on their own. Individual students, and small groups of students, do this all the time.

I think that it is important for these students to hear such a truth uttered right to their faces, right into their ears: they do not need teachers or even parents in order to take hold of their lives in general, or education in particular. Most of their complaints I classify as needless excuses. Too many humans before them in even worse circumstances have managed to educate themselves, using only the greatest teacher they will ever have: themselves.

Meanwhile, the failure of students to control themselves represents a needless excuse for the teachers and administrators: they can, as we did at our program, Nadir, implement the same chances that we proved with these same students, and produce with these same students an orderly and magically productive environment where poor black kids from "broken" homes learn the highest academic subjects and perform at the highest intellectual levels.

July 31, 2007 1:20 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

Greedy, profit-mad, evil corporations do a great job not only of providing you with iPods and a car to drive, but even the best university (Harvard, Yale) and k-12 schools in the world. And only in the realm of university education, where govt "vouchers" (Pell Grants, GSLs, etc.) exist, do public education institutions compete successfully with the private enterprises. If "vouchers" works for university education, why not K-12?

I agree that charter schools have on average done no better than the average public school. But if you examine the charter schools, you will find that the overwhelming majority of them attempt to do what the public schools do: hiring non-expert teachers to teach a bunch of electives. Also, charter schools get less per-pupil annuities, and they have to pay for their own facilities.

Even most private schools have lowered their standards over the years. But the great thing about vouchers is that they support private schools run as businesses, and such small operations have at least a chance to radically change the way that they conduct business, whereas the enormous dinasour public school systems have no chance to change.

With private schools (and even public schools) fighting for those voucher dollars, the biggest deciding factor for parent customers will be: test scores. And, Nadir, you and I have already proven a formula for succeeding there. With vouchers, other people like us will figure out that formula, and will be rightfully rewarded with a nice income.

Just like the people who so dependably produce and provide your ipod and car.

August 02, 2007 12:57 PM  

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