Learning from home without a place to study? These Detroit students built 62 solutions.

Students and adults work on building desks for remote learners
High school students at the Brightmoor Makerspace learned carpentry skills so they could build desks for local elementary schoolers who lacked study spaces at home. (Courtesy of Larry Simmons)

Leon Bray spent his pandemic Saturdays with a hammer and table saw, piecing together a better learning environment for elementary schoolers in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood.

“We’re building desks for kids who don’t have a place at home to study,” Bray said, explaining the project he’s been working on for months. “And I like learning new stuff.”

Students in Detroit have spent much of the year learning virtually from home. As if that arrangement weren’t challenging enough, many of those children lacked a space of their own to focus on video classes and complete homework. That’s one reason educators say the academic toll of the pandemic has been especially harsh for students from low-income families.

“We started hearing people say, ‘Yeah, they gave us computers [for virtual learning], but we don’t have anywhere to put them. “I can’t be at the dining room table all day and night,” said Larry Simmons, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a community organization that operates in the neighborhood where the desks are being built and distributed.

The struggle continued for many students in recent weeks, even as falling COVID-19 cases and widespread vaccine availability allowed most districts to offer in-person instruction. Some families remain reluctant to send their children to school, and some schools haven’t yet reopened.

With classrooms shuttered across Detroit earlier this school year, leaders at Detroit Leadership Academy, a Brightmoor-area charter school, told neighborhood leaders that many students didn’t have a space where they could focus.

“COVID exposed the truth that for a lot of families, their personal resources just weren’t conducive for children’s learning,” Simmons said.

Community leaders turned to Brightmoor Makerspace, a workshop on the campus of a neighborhood charter school, for help. The Makerspace provides tools and workspace to students and challenges them to use their skills to address local needs. Students like Bray, who have developed their abilities over years in the shop, earn an hourly wage while building skills.

“Like a puzzle, you’re just putting the pieces together,” Bray said of the building process. “It’s like [a] second school; you’re just learning new skills.”

So far, 62 parents of elementary schoolers at Detroit Leadership Academy, or DLA, signed up to receive a desk. Most of those desks have already been manufactured and delivered by a team of students at the Makerspace.

Those involved with the project hope production continues beyond the current demand. Simmons said he is seeking funding to continue to build desks for local students. 

“Not only does it directly address family needs, but it addresses basic economic needs of families and their young people,” said Bart Eddy, director of the Brightmoor Makerspace. Eddy said he is looking into continuing production and paying the student workers by selling the desks for a modest price to neighborhood residents.

For his part, Bray plans to build a desk of his own once the DLA orders are completed. He will soon graduate from Detroit Community Schools without attending any in-person classes during his senior year — and without having a personal space to study at home. He’ll need one next year, he said, as he is considering attending a trade school.

“I’m really one of the kids who need a workspace at home,” he said. He plans to build “the same desk, but probably a little bit taller.”

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