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.”


Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. 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.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”