Detroit Public Schools parent Myesha Williams (right) says her home's "homework corner" helps her kids focus.
Detroit Public Schools parent Myesha Williams (right) says her home's "homework corner" helps her kids focus. Larry Abramson/NPR
In Detroit, officials say they are trying everything they can to revive the city's public school system, from replacing dilapidated buildings to hiring new school leaders. Detroit Public Schools is also focusing on a neglected piece of the education equation: parents.
The effort to involve parents in public education in Detroit focuses on a lot of little things, like "the homework corner" in Myesha Williams' house on Doris Street. "The homework corner is awesome!" Williams says, beaming.
With eight children — five still in school — Williams' home is packed tight. But unlike many families in this city, Williams has set aside a special corner to help her kids focus.
The Detroit Parent Network, a local nonprofit working with the school system, has outfitted Williams' homework space to look like a classroom, complete with a neat bookshelf, a whiteboard and framed pictures. The idea is that this home will serve as a model that neighbors will emulate.
The message to Williams' kids: Learning deserves an exalted place in the home. Williams says the space creates "a sense of peace. You just come in, you sit down, you do your homework. It's cool."
Teaching Parents To Be Positive With Their Kids
Along with homework skills, DPS is also trying to instill better parenting strategies through workshops across the city.
Parent Tina Perez is concerned that the Detroit school system is not improving quickly enough.
One recent session focused on the Hispanic population in Detroit's west side. Facilitator Marie Iles works with a dozen women in one of the city's many new parent resource centers. The mothers sit and drink coffee in a brightly lit room at Phoenix Elementary. They're discussing the role parents play in raising student achievement.
"Now, positive feedback and encouragement to children? What do you think would be some examples of that?" Isles asks the group, as another worker translates her words into Spanish.
Parents respond with examples of how they encourage their kids to learn. One says she played classical music to her kids when she was pregnant. She's convinced that's why they are so interested in music now.
Many of these mothers admit it's hard not to yell when their kids act out or refuse to do their homework. This resource center, they say, gives them ideas for using positive reinforcement to instill the value of success in their kids.
Staying In The District: An Article Of Faith
Tina Perez is the kind of parent DPS wants to hold onto. She's committed to her school — and to helping other parents. But she says she might not be able to wait for the schools to improve.
Perez says her daughter complains that she is already bored with the 8th grade curriculum. "She goes, 'Mom, I'm not learning nothing. I don't open my book. I already know what it's about. To me that's cheating.' That's the way she felt — it's cheating," Perez says.
Perez's daughter has applied to a competitive DPS high school. Perez fears that if her daughter does not get in, they may have to leave the public school system altogether.
For Detroit parents, investing in this school system requires more than just time; it also takes an element of faith.
At Mumford High School one evening, parents gathered to look at plans for a new building. Thanks in part to parental support, Mumford has escaped rounds of school closings, and is set to move into a new facility next year.
Karen Lindsay, chairwoman of the local school parents organization, says she will keep working to improve Mumford even after her daughter graduates this summer.
Lindsay pulls out a piece of paper — her daughter's high school transcript. "I want everyone to receive what my daughter gets," Lindsay says. "She gets straight A's. She plays basketball, ran track. So if my child can do it, everybody's child can do it."
For Detroit Public Schools, the hope is that attitude will be infectious.