Last year, when I first started hinting to friends and family about my intentions to move to Detroit, the reactions ran the gamut from fully supportive (Detroit is coming back!) to absolutely against (you’re completely insane).
Most reactions were somewhere in between those two extremes. Many friends and family members warmed up to the idea after reading this blog and spending more time (after their initial emotional and visceral reactions) really looking at what the City has to offer.
There has been one common theme among almost everyone, however—from diehard supporters to head-shaking detractors—everything will be okay as long as you don’t send your kids to Detroit Public Schools.
I can’t talk about DPS without bringing race into the conversation. The sad truth is, in my experience—and many have criticized me for “over-simplification” on this issue—when people say “Detroit is bad”, what they really mean but will not say is that “Detroit is black”.
A local blogger who made a splash some years back, James Griffioen of “Sweet Juniper” fame, called it out in his blog post about moving to Detroit. For context, Griffioen and his wife came from San Francisco, both products of a relatively upper middle class, liberal background. When they made the decision to move to Detroit and raise their kids here, they probably went through an even worse version of what I am going through. He writes, in 2006,
“Despite having known quite a few awesome, successful people who grew up in the city of Detroit, we keep hearing from ordinarily politically-correct liberal people that we simply cannot raise our baby in Detroit. Some list proxy excuses like bad schools, personal safety, and corrupt city government and nonexistent city services to try to convince us that it’s the wrong decision. The bottom line is that Detroit is black and for many people that’s enough.”
I went to a “white” high school in the suburbs, not all that long ago. Before moving to Detroit, I lived in the same district since 2004, and my kids, if we stayed here, would be going to the same high school I went to. While I wouldn’t say I got a bad education, I will say that I don’t think I got the best education I could have. I don’t think my school system brought out the best in me. The city I was raised in is a blue collar, firmly middle class, traditional, white family-values neighborhood. Church, sports, fixin’ cars, factory job, success. There were exactly four black kids in my high school. The two Arab kids got called “sand niggers” and all but one of my gay friends waited until after graduation to come out. I was bullied by football players. I had long hair and liked non top-40 music, and was thus a “fag”. The assistant principal told me he would take me seriously only if I cut my hair. It was a typical all-American city.
There were teachers who tried; I had an all-but-openly gay English teacher who knew what we were up against. I had a truly amazing band instructor. However, the kids who didn’t find fulfillment in sports, and the teachers who respected that, were the silent minority where I grew up. I was encouraged to go into the Air Force because my test scores were so high. I wanted to go to film school in California. My guidance counselor told me that was a stupid idea. He actually said that.
My younger son came home from school today (he’s in middle school in this same district). He was wearing new clothes that he bought yesterday; a fancy button-down shirt and a sport coat. He said that kids told him he looked “gay”. Then he went on to tell me that he’s getting made fun of for being so enthusiastic and participatory in his Mandarin Chinese class. This is a “good” education?
I cannot fathom, other than deeply subdued racism, why anyone would want me to send my creative, totally non-typical, brilliant sons to that school. Because it’s a white school in a white city? Is that what makes a school “good”? Nobody—not one single person—has suggested that maybe the school district that we live in is in any way negative or bad. I’m not sure if people assume it’s good because of where it’s at, or if it just meets the minimum qualification of “not a Detroit Public School” and is therefore not a black school, and is therefore not “bad”.
I don’t doubt that, on paper, the standard of education in this particular school district is acceptable. It’s a Blue Ribbon district. It has won awards. Rather, this is a cultural issue. I don’t want to be in this culture anymore, and I don’t want my kids to go to high school in a culture that calls them gay and stupid for being stylish and excited. I don’t want the happiness beaten out of them. I don’t want them to become angry cynics.
On raising creative children
The experience of not going to film school stuck with me. I actually applied for and got accepted to the film school at USC. I firmly believe that the only thing that kept me from going was the fact that, at age 17, not one guidance counselor or administrator encouraged me to follow my dreams. Be conservative, don’t do anything crazy, you can’t afford it, your parents can’t afford it, you’re not from that world.
I will not let my kids go through the same experience. If my son wants to be a DJ and an electronic musician, I will never, ever say to him “That’s stupid.” Rather, I find someone who can help him learn the software, I get him a copy of Ableton Live, I get him set up with all the equipment he needs, and I encourage him in every way I possibly can. If my son wants to be an astronaut, I don’t say “oh, that’s silly.” Instead, I introduce him to Space Camp, and beg, borrow, and sacrifice entire paychecks so that he can go every year. I buy him adult-level astrophysics books. I refuse to impose limits on their dreams.
I want only to send my kids to a high school that shares that philosophy. I want them to be surrounded by other kids whose parents believe as I do. I want them to be fostered and mentored by successful, creative, artistic adults and educators that understand and respect that kind of parenting. I want them to go to school with kids who aren’t afraid to be openly gay. I want them to go to school with kids who dye their hair pink and blue.
Detroit School of Arts
I recently discovered that the Detroit School of Arts (a joining of two former DPS schools, the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts and the Detroit Communication and Media Arts High School ) is within walking distance of our new house.
The Detroit School of Arts is a magnet school in the Detroit Public School system. It requires application, audition, and acceptance to be a student there. It’s a college prep school that has a completely arts-centric curriculum. It’s a high school without a football team, and a high school that encourages personal expression.
I toured the building today with Beverly Morrison-Green. The building is under ten years old, and holds the distinction of being the first LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building in the City of Detroit. She began the tour proudly by introducing me to the immense broadcast television studio that’s inside the massive building in the heart of Midtown.
We went on to tour the rest of the facilities; the 800-seat, three-floor auditorium dedicated to the late R&B singer Aaliyah (a graduate of DSA), the studios of WRCJ public radio (yes, there is an actual broadcast radio station inside of the school and students are involved in the process), the editing suites, the recording booth, the sound stages, the modern classrooms, the art gallery, the fine arts studios, the dance studio, and all of the very current and modern equipment that stocks all of them.
I experienced an unusual feeling; a twinge of jealousy. I was, to my shame, a bit jealous that I never got to go to a school like this—a school focused on creativity, with modern equipment that would prepare a young adult with relevant skills to help them be successful in their creative endeavors.
When I first introduced Perry to the idea of the DSA as a potential school, he became pretty excited; a school that actually had a major for a field he’s passionate about (electronic music). This is Detroit—this is where techno and electronic music were basically invented. This is a music town through and through. Of course there should be a school that celebrates that heritage.
I’ve spent the last week and a half helping my son gather the things he needed for the application process; three letters of recommendation, an essay, prior report cards, an audition piece. IntoDetroit contributor and good friend Norm “DJMeph” Witte III came over and spent hours with Perry teaching him the ropes with Ableton (music sequencing software), explaining terminology to him, and empowering him to the point where he made his own track. My dear old friend Randy Leipnik from Semper Media (a Detroit area video and audio production company), who has known Perry for ten years, wrote him a glowing and enthusiastic letter of recommendation based on his prior experience with Perry in the studio.
I’ll be frank: Perry’s raw academic performance, as seen on his transcripts, don’t tell an entirely rosy tale; his GPA was under the minimum requirement for the DSA. I feel strongly that a significant factor is that he is in a school system that fails to engage him in a way that resonates with him (and students like him); mostly because I went through the exact same thing. It’s hard to care about your education when you feel that your teachers are just pushing you through an assembly line. It feels like most of the US public education system is designed to cram all children into neat holes; regardless of whether they’re round, square, or triangular pegs; in the end, they should all just get in line. I digress.
I wrote a detailed letter to the admissions department explaining my position and his grades. When I spoke with Ms. Morrison-Green today, she looked over everything and said that it shouldn’t be a problem. My relief was almost overwhelming.
From everything I saw today, it looks like Perry will probably be going to the Detroit School of Arts.
When I decided to move to Detroit, I wanted to fully embrace the city. The only compromise I was willing to make was to send my kids to school in the suburbs (which is technically illegal anyway), but then I got over my fears. My whole adult life has been a pattern of strong and dramatic decisions and leaps of faith. Why should this one be any different?
I’m a staunch defender of Detroit; knowing what I know now, I see how badly portrayed the city is by the media—certainly national media, but even local media. I see how people perceive Detroit, and it drives me nuts. People have such an amazingly skewed perception of what the city is actually like. However, I bought the hype; I bought into the idea that I needed to avoid Detroit Public Schools. I had the same unfounded fears (I had never set foot into an actual school in Detroit, so how would I know?) It was only when I swallowed those fears and started doing the research—and taking the step of actually driving up to the schools, walking in, and introducing myself—that I began to realize that the misconceptions I had about the school system are the same things that plague our city at large.
I believe with all my heart that a child’s education comes, first and foremost, from their parents. With the right parenting, any school will do.
That doesn’t mean we don’t want the best for our kids. In my case, I think the best just happens to be the arts-centric high school a few blocks from our new home.
I’m all in. I’m sending my kids to public school in Detroit, because I believe that they will get the best academic, cultural, and artistic education there.