Student Walkout Day

Students walking out of Detroit high schools as part of a national protest recalled personal tragedies: ‘We all deserve to be safe’

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Students at Western International High School gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

Many students participating in a national student walkout Wednesday morning were responding to big-headline school shootings like the one that claimed 17 lives in Florida last month.

But, in Detroit — which the FBI called the nation’s most violent city in 2017 — many students flooding out of city schools to participate were remembering their own, less-publicized gun violence tragedies.

Rebecca Feliciana, 17, who was one of nearly 2,000 students at Detroit’s Western International High School who walked out Wednesday, recalled a loved one who had been killed by her ex-husband. The man terrorized and fatally shot his ex-wife and her baby before shooting himself to death.

Feliciana, who is filming a documentary on local violence, has also seen her parents threatened, and she’s been exposed to other acts of violence in her Southwest Detroit community, she said.

“It’s important for our generation to voice our opinions. I’m here because I’m very against guns and gun violence,” Feliciana said. “There should be a lot more safety precautions taken before people are given a gun.”

In a rare show of student unity, protests were held across the country to remember the 14 teenagers and three educators who were slain a month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In some schools the protests lasted 17 minutes

The students at Western High School left their building at 10 a.m. Wednesday. They walked across the street to Clark Park where they released 17 orange balloons to commemorate the victims, said a prayer in English, Spanish and Arabic, and held a moment of silence.

Across town, at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, some students marched two miles to a demonstration downtown in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue at the city and county municipal building, and rode a district-provided bus back. Others stayed for a memorial in the school’s auditorium where they heard support for stronger gun control in speeches from the school’s student council members.

Martin Luther King Jr. senior Dennis Johnson said he wants his school to be a refuge from the gun violence he sees in his everyday life, but he’s not sure if he can “be safe anywhere anymore.”

“Just because I’m 17 or 18 years old doesn’t mean I don’t see this in my everyday life,” he said. “It’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of experience.”

At Western, Detroiter Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled a time when his mother’s shoulder was grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Gunfire sometimes makes him feel unsafe in his own neighborhood, he said.

“We need gun control,” Erwin said. “It’s something real serious here because we all deserve to be safe. We didn’t do anything. People were just shooting-crazy on my block. It’s not safe. It’s not safe at all.”

Western Senior Keaonnia Crawley, 18, recalled a similar experience in her westside Detroit neighborhood, when bullets were fired twice at her house. She’s thankful she was sleeping and wasn’t aware of the incident until it was over, and nobody in her family was hurt.

“We support people who lost somebody to gun violence. I give my condolences to them. Nobody should have to go through this, and that’s why I don’t like going anywhere unless I know the area and the people. Otherwise, I don’t feel safe.”

Wednesday’s national walkout was one of three events planned for this spring. The others include a march on Washington, D.C., on March 24, and a second walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting when 15 people were slain.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti offered support to students, providing extra security to schools planning walkouts as well as transportation for students who wanted to participate in another school’s event.

During the protest at Western, community and cultural leader Consequela Lopez, who lives near the school, offered words of hope, inspiration and encouragement as she addressed student protesters. She asked students to look to one another for a reason to organize, stand against violence and take action for change.

“Violence is a social disease,” she said. “In recent years, it has gotten so bad people feel at liberty to go into schools, and take out whatever their issues are.”

“When you walk around a neighborhood and see altars with teddy bears and flowers, it permeates,” she said about public memorials left where people were killed.

“Every movement has started with our youth and our young, so it’s up to us elders and activists to pass the warrior fight along to our youth and our young.”  

At King, Principal Deborah Jenkins, reminded students that their school was named for a leader who stood up against violence.

“You’ve already been charged … purely by the name of the school you go to. Dr. Martin Luther King stood for non-violence, civility, and equality,” Jenkins said.  

King Senior Zion Garrett encouraged students to speak up.

“Have a voice, and use your voice. AR-15s, why do civilians have them? Why do kids have them? Why does anyone without a military background have one?” he said.

Another senior, Tia Smith, said she believed school shootings will continue to happen unless students speak up.

“After we heard about the tragedy at Parkland, we were moved,” she said.  “We need to protest — we need to do something … It’s only a matter of time. It’s not like if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”

Senior class vice-president, Alana Burke, said, “We don’t want guns and violence in our schools, just like we don’t want it in any other schools.”


call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.