Self expression

Watch these Detroit elementary students star in music videos about reading

PHOTO: Janice Goldman
Students at Coleman A. Young Elementary School pose in a screenshot from "Pushing to Success."

Students at Coleman A. Young Elementary didn’t have art or music class last year, but their dance moves made it all the way to India.

They starred in “Pushing to Success,” the fourth installment in a series of annual videos orchestrated (and rapped) by Janice Goldman, a former physician who volunteers as a tutor at Coleman Young.

In the video, students and teachers dance and sing along to the uplifting lyrics Goldman types out on her iPhone. This year, the words parodied the hit song Finesse (Remix) by singer Bruno Mars:

With me working with you

We’ll make the whole world change

Because that’s what we do

And they’ll all be amazed

This is a typical verse for Goldman, who focuses her lyrics on educational opportunities — and reading in particular. “Booktown Funk,” her first video, encourages students to read to their cat and to show off their new pajamas while reading.

Despite the silliness of the videos, they take on serious issues. Reading test scores in Detroit are among the worst in the country. A state law going into effect in 2020 will hold back third-graders — 70 percent of them, according to some estimates — who are not reading on grade level.

The videos helped fill another gap at Coleman Young by offering up a chance for self-expression to students who lacked art class.

“Janice brought back the arts without it officially being on our schedule,”  said Principal Melissa Scott. She says her school will likely have an art teacher next year, pointing to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s promise to fill vacancies in music, art, and gym.

Goldman’s method is simple: She picks a pop song in January, taps out a first draft of the lyrics on her phone. For the rest of the school year, she visits every classroom in the building, recording children on her phone as they sing along.  Each class visit covers another piece of the song, leaving Goldman with minimal editing at the end of the process. The entire video is captured on her phone.

Her goal is simple, too: Make sure every student at the school appears in the video.

That makes a big difference for students at Coleman Young, 90 percent of whom are poor and black. Scott says her students can be made to feel like “invisibles” in American culture because of their race and socioeconomic status.

But she said the music videos help, at least for a little.

“You see yourself on the screen, you’re an instant movie star!” Scott said. “My kids absolutely adore seeing themselves in lights.”

Scott isn’t the only administrator to join the fun. Vitti happened to be meeting with teachers on one of the days Goldman was filming, and she made sure he got a cameo.

Creating the videos came naturally to Goldman. Silly parodies of pop songs were already a standard at family birthdays, a zany extension of her time as a high school theater student and her participation in a synagogue choir. When she and other members of the National Council of Jewish Women signed up six years ago to tutor students  at Coleman Young, she found herself drawn into the school community. When the principal agreed to let her create an education-themed parody music video, she knew she’d found her niche.

“I’m just your basic, beyond middle-aged white Jewish rapper,” she said.

The performances by students at Coleman Young helped spread the videos to a much larger audience, and not just within the district. Booktown Funk, Goldman’s first video since working as a tutor, has drawn more than 11,000 views in 50 states and 106 countries, including Papua New Guinea and Kyrgyzstan, since it was published in 2015.

While “Pushing to Success” has only amassed 210 views so far, Goldman says it has already been viewed in India and South Africa. A map on the wall at the school tracks the countries where people have watched students in Coleman Young music videos.

The students’ antics are what make the videos stand out, Goldman said.

“They’d just add their own personality and their own spirit into it, and it just becomes so much more,” she said, adding, “Just having this opportunity to express themselves, it made them feel special.”

Click below to see previous Coleman Young music videos.

2015 – “Booktown Funk”

2016 –  “Happy to READ!”    

2017 – “Can’t Stop the 3 B’s”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.