Detroit students may lose foreign travel opportunities as budgets tighten

Two high school students practice kendo.
Renaissance High School student Emani Williams (left) practices a torso attack on her partner during a kendo lesson on a recent school-organized trip to Japan. In recent years, the Detroit Public Schools Community District had committed to expanding opportunities for high school students to travel abroad. (Courtesy of Katharine Davis)

With only two years of high school Japanese, Elize Smith was nervous about introducing herself to students in an algebra class in Tokyo this past February. 

But over the next several days, between trips to historic shrines and villages, home stays with local families, and cooking classes, Elize and her seven classmates from Renaissance High School got the chance to practice their language skills and experience some of Japan’s historical and cultural landmarks as part of a school-organized trip. 

“This is my first time really going somewhere and experiencing something new,” said Elize, a 16-year-old sophomore at Renaissance.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had committed to expanding such opportunities for high school students to travel abroad and to restoring extracurricular programs that were largely stripped away under emergency management. The school board is set to approve funding for trips to France and Spain this summer.

But heading into the next school year, the district is talking about stripping away those programs as it prepares for the end of federal COVID relief funding, and international travel may be out of reach again for many students.

“Without COVID funding,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, “it is difficult to justify District funding for international student trips when we are reducing school and district positions.”

In recent years, before COVID halted a lot of student travel, DPSCD helped fund international student trips by dipping into its general fund and using federal Title IV dollars

In 2019, the district sponsored 54 students to travel to Italy. The students represented high schools from across the city, including application schools Renaissance and Cass Technical High School, as well as neighborhood schools such as Mumford and East English Village Preparatory Academy at Finney.

The district funding “ensured students from neighborhood schools participated where the concentration of low-income students is higher and these experiences are less likely to occur,” Vitti said.

Renaissance High School students Raven Reno (back left) and Ezra Keelen (front right) talk to students at a high school in Japan about a traditional game called hanetsuki. (Courtesy of Katharine Davis)

DPSCD’s Department of World Languages counted on these international trips to help increase enrollment in its honors and advanced world language courses, according to a recent report.

This school year, the district tapped its share of federal COVID funds to fill in budget gaps resulting from inflation and lower enrollment. But now the COVID aid is running out, and it will all have been earmarked or spent by the start of next school year. The resulting budget adjustments will mean that fewer students have access to special programs like international travel.

Vitti said that before he became superintendent in 2017, students could participate in school- or district-sponsored international travel, but those trips would typically be funded by wealthier families or through private donations and fund-raising. 

For example, marching bands from Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School traveled to Beijing to perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics and to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In both instances, students raised funds to cover the travel and lodging costs. 

Outside of those trips, most schools didn’t have the resources to send their students abroad, Vitti said, so only students whose families could afford overseas travel or find other means would get the chance.

Ezra Keelen, a junior at Renaissance High School who traveled to Japan with Elize, said more students deserve the opportunity he and his classmates had to travel. Their weeklong trip to Japan was paid for by the Kakehashi Project, a cultural exchange program funded by the Japanese government.

“I definitely think it’s something that more students should be able to experience, because we learned a lot from that trip,” Ezra said. “And it made us want to continue to learn Japanese.”

Elize said she became interested in studying Japanese after growing fond of popular anime television shows such as “My Hero Academia” and “Attack on Titan” at the beginning of the pandemic.

She’s already thinking about going back to Japan, and possibly teaching English there after college, based on a suggestion from her teacher.

“We can be tourists anytime,” said Katharine Davis, Japanese language and culture instructor at Renaissance High School. “We can go to any country and see the sights and eat the food and shop the shops. But interacting with people is really what makes these experiences special, and especially for kids this age.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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