Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

Story booth

This ex-Detroit cop-turned-teacher left in distress. Now, she’s ready to return to the classroom

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Sandra Cooper ponders her past as a district teacher, and hopes for a brighter future upon her return

After 14 years as an English teacher in Detroit’s main district, Sandra Cooper, mother of nine children, found herself under so much stress that she left her job last fall.

Now, half a year later, she’s considering a return to the district, driven by a belief that she can still make a difference in students’ lives.

Cooper, who also is a former police officer, quit teaching because of the stress from dealing with disorderly students, lack of administrative support, and poor building conditions. But she believes the district is now offering teachers more backing and training — and she didn’t even realize until she turned up at a recent job fair that an amended union contract means experienced teachers will soon be paid more

Cooper is among hundreds of prospective teachers who have attended one of the job fairs the district has hosted in recent weeks as it steps up its recruiting efforts.

Chalkbeat spoke with Cooper as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, educators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Here’s Cooper’s story, which has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

“The Detroit Public Schools Community District is changing. That’s why I’m coming back, and I’m coming in at a higher pay rate now. When I left, it was too stressful for teachers. Everybody was stressed out. We weren’t getting any support from the administration, especially about students’ behavior. We didn’t know what to do with them.

We didn’t want to kick them out, but we kicked them out. They tell us to give them some work while they’re gone, and they’re gone two weeks. It meant you’ve got to do this and do that. It was just too much. So I took a break from it for a while.

Now that they are changing the district and giving teachers more support, and allowing them to do more professional development, well, maybe it’s better.

I live in Detroit, and I love Detroit. I have nine children and my kids were here. They all graduated from Detroit Public Schools. They all went to college. So I know it can be done.

I’m not rich. I didn’t go to college until my kids were older. So it’s not like I’ve been working for 25 years and about ready to retire. No.

I really love Detroit and the kids, but it’s a big problem here. I know it is. The school system has a lot to do with it. Because the kids are not getting what they need. They are going to raggedy buildings. They’re dirty. They’re nasty.

If you’re a teacher, you don’t even want to get dressed up to go to work because you don’t have the proper stuff there. You don’t have any place to put your coat. Where’s a locker? Can I lock my stuff up? It’s just little things that annoy you that happen with this school system.

But you know, everything is hard and I want to help. I’m just, maybe a teacher at heart. My kids, I was helping them with homework anyway. I said I may as well go to school and get a degree in education.

Before I had my children, I was a police officer. I got married and started having children, and I said, ‘I can’t do that and be a police officer.’ So I quit that to raise my family.

I was drilling in them that education is important. It worked because they all graduated high school, and went to college.

That’s why I’m back. It’s about helping other students do the same thing, and reach their potential. I’m back because so many students need that. Maybe I can help them in some way. I guess I have. I’ve had so many students come to me and ask ‘Do you remember what you said to me?’

I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was something that made them go to school and take care of themselves.

That’s my joy. When students click with what I’m trying to teach them. They say, ‘Oh, why we gotta write that?’ They are always complaining about their assignments and asking why they have to do it.

Why? So you can communicate. You might be somewhere and see a crime, and you have to write a story about it. If you can’t write it on paper, nobody will know what you’re talking about.

Then there’s that day. They write something. It’s flowing. It’s coherent. And you say, ‘Oh, my God, you got it!’

It makes it worthwhile because they need to know these things. Certain things need to happen for a person to be successful.

It’s stupid for people to say, ‘I’ve got mine; they have to get theirs.’

They are children, and they are not going to see a lot of things. You have to put things in a way where they can see it. This generation now, they are not sitting at a desk reading a book all day. That worked for me and my generation. It’s not working for them. They’ve got too many brain synapses going off to just sit in one place.

So you have to meet them where they are. I’m coming back to do that.”

Story booth

A bad kid turned school principal motivates students with life lessons she learned

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Karen McEwen, principal at Cooke STEM Academy in Detroit, understands why some children misbehave. She was one of them.

Karen McEwen, principal of Cooke STEM Academy, knows what it’s like to be a bad kid in school. She acknowledges she was one of them. McEwen wasn’t the type of student who skipped classes to hang in a friend’s basement or cause mayhem outside school. She did it right in the classroom while sitting at her desk.

“I would write a note, and we would pass it around the classroom. It would say, ‘When the hand on the clock hits 5, we will all stomp our feet,’” she recalled. Sometimes, she led other students to clap their hands or stand up simultaneously. Her ideas were endless, and she was a good at leading the other students to act out until she got caught as the main culprit.

Chalkbeat spoke with McEwen as part of a “story booth” series that invites studentseducators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Now that McEwen leads Cooke, a pre-K to 6th-grade school on Detroit’s west side, she said she draws on her past as a trouble-maker to relate to her students today. 

“I see so much potential in them,” she said.  “I call them scholars because that will ring in their heads. No matter what.

“I tell them, ‘You have to constantly fight for yourself no matter what’s going on at home, no matter what’s going on in your family, no matter what’s going on in the classroom. You have to be prepared.

“You are our future. We are not going to live forever. So you are going to have to take care of us. You are our future doctors and lawyers, and no matter what you decide to do in your life, you have to be prepared.

“You are going to kindergarten, to middle school to high school and then college. It’s not a question of if you are going to college, but where you are are going to college. But you are going to college.”

Do you know someone whose story should be featured in a future story booth? please let us know.