Educating kids means tackling issues inside, outside of classroom, forum finds

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The challenges of educating Metro Detroit students was the focus of a forum Thursday that gathered school administrators, teachers, students and parents.

The administrators, parents and others spent nearly two hours addressing the effect of chronic absenteeism, childhood trauma and other issues on the K-12 system as well as communities.

Rehema Ellis, NBC News chief education correspondent, left; Quan Neloms, school counselor and educator at Warren E. Bow Elementary School in Detroit; Ann Kalass, CEO of Starfish Family Services; Jason Wilson, founder and CEO of the Yunion; and Terry Dangerfield, superintendent of Lincoln Park Public Schools, gather for a discussion with parents, other educators, activists and others Thursday in Dearborn.

Much of the talk, which was distilled in four panels, involved programs or efforts in districts and neighborhoods that have sparked changes or measurable improvement.

In Lincoln Park Public Schools, feedback from staff on issues that struggling and disruptive students face led to the creation of a “Resilient Schools Project,” which aims to help students cope with trauma such as abuse, Superintendent Terry Dangerfield said.

The initiative meant adding spaces in schools such as "calming corners," "brain gyms" or "reset rooms."

When NBC News chief education correspondent Rehema Ellis asked about school administrators balking at the cost of such work, Dangerfield said the benefits outweigh the price. NBC News Learn hosted the forum.

“I don’t know how you can sacrifice the human element for a dollar bill,” he said.

Panelists at the Henry Ford in Dearborn also discussed how the Detroit Public Schools Community District saw a decline in the chronic absenteeism rate. It dropped from 33% in March 2018 to 26% in March 2019, or 3,800 fewer students.

Danielle R. Busby, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine/ Texas Children's Hospital, begins a panel discussion Thursday about student trauma at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn.

Ines de Jesus, a senior fellow at Attendance Works, a national group that works to address absenteeism, cited added staff, including attendance agents, who check on students chronically absent at least two days per month and follow up to find out why.

“Putting those positions in place begin to address some of the barriers children are having,” she said.

However, de Jesus said, community involvement plays a role.

“It takes everyone coming together to move the needle on attendance,” she said. “It takes the entire community.”

That also means more dialogue to build better relationships, said Monique Marks, president & CEO of Franklin-Wright Settlements Inc. and chair of the Community Education Commission.

“We need more professionals to sit and listen to the parents," she told the audience.

Ellis has said Detroit was selected to have a discussion because "we think this is tremendous opportunity to bring all stakeholders together who care about kids." 

Ellis said Detroit is like many other urban cities, where teachers tend to be first responders and are asked to do more than teach the basics such as tending to children's emotional needs.

A 2016 Brookings Institution study found that Metro Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among among the top 25 metro areas in the United States by population, NBC officials said.

The session Thursday inspired Angela Lewis, a Detroiter whose mother is a retired teacher.

Lewis said community leaders helped shape her as child, and she and others could fill the same role to boost students' academic successes today.

"I'm definitely for community involvement," she said after the event. “There are people who are willing to be available for students."