After clearing his afternoon schedule, King Bethel threw on a black sport jacket accented with splashes of burgundy, fixed his hair, and warmed up his voice for a song he knew well.
It was a Friday afternoon in December. Another day of virtual classes had just ended for the nearly 450 students who attend Detroit School of Arts, and the holiday break was one week away. A small group of ninth graders had organized a virtual talent show after school, inviting students to sing, dance, or play an instrument.
In a pandemic-disrupted school year, school officials believe these kinds of social activities can help students stay engaged and connected.
As King settled in his chair, a panel of judges, including students and staff members, described the show’s ground rules. He wondered whether a technical glitch might disrupt his performance. The whole setup seemed artificial and strange, he said, such a departure from performing in front of live audiences.
“I don’t feel like it’s authentic as it would be in real life,” the 14-year-old said.
But he would try his best, as he has throughout this strange year, to make his voice heard.
Very little about the 2020-21 school year has felt real or normal.
While some students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District started the fall taking in-person classes, King and most other students have been learning online.
The school year has been marked by a number of challenges. Attendance and enrollment are down, more students are failing, and the district had to move all students online in November because of rising COVID-19 cases. Many students have struggled to adjust to online learning, causing academic and emotional problems.
DSA has bucked district attendance trends. The school’s weekly attendance rate hovered around 90%, higher than the district-wide average of 73.4%, as of this month. Administrators credit consistent staff outreach for high engagement.
In the last few months, DSA has held a gospel concert, a jazz celebration, and a holiday program that capped off the year. School staff hope the virtual events help boost student morale.
Some efforts, however, have fallen flat. Plans for a more ambitious school-wide talent show fell through in the fall, in part because frustrated students didn’t want the responsibility of putting it together. King was one of the few students who submitted a video.
“It’s very challenging,” said Mayowa Lisa Reynolds, the principal. “We just saw a lot of students struggle emotionally.”
Reynolds also has seen an uptick in failing grades, mirroring national trends this fall.
“I don’t want to place a lot of emphasis on that, because that doesn’t mean the kid is failing,” Reynolds said. “It just means they did not turn in some work, or they’re not as attentive as they could be. I want to keep encouraging them and let them know they’re not a failure.”
Despite the school year’s challenges, King has been thriving at DSA. He earned a 3.6 grade-point average during the first quarter, with five A’s and three B’s. He also won a perfect attendance award. School staff have asked him to participate in performances.
King attributed his school success to support from family and teachers.
“They’re looking out for me,” he said.
King also has a good relationship with Reynolds. She’s noticed his eagerness to learn and grow as a performer. It’s been helpful for him to interact with other like-minded students.
“This school was created for kids like him,” she said. “At another school, he might have too much personality.”
Wearing his black sport jacket for the student-organized talent show, King volunteered to be the first performer. He offered up a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” a song introduced to him by his dad over the summer.
At times this year, King has been overwhelmed by the state of the world. The coronavirus sickened his mother in the spring. She’s since recovered, but it was a frightening time for the family.
“Who would have thought we would have a whole pandemic, protests during the pandemic, some of our role models dying. And we can’t forget about the wildfires,” he said. “It’s just a lot of chaos. Things we would never expect to happen.”
Music is his relief.
Before taking his turn in the talent show, King scanned the screen of spectators. Unlike in class, where many students hide behind avatars, everyone’s camera was turned on. Nobody was distracted.
King locked his eyes to the camera, hoping to capture the audience’s attention. He began singing the song acapella. He limited his body movements so he wouldn’t get off tempo or hit the wrong key. He tried to put passion and emotion behind each note.
At the end, he received warm applause and a few compliments.
His performance over, King could have slipped into the background and become just another face on the screen. But he hasn’t just found his voice as a performer in his ninth grade year. He’s also emerged as a leader, quick to help classmates with homework or projects.
When one girl stopped midway through her song, saying her performance was awful, King intervened. He urged her not to tell the audience about the mistakes. It’s better to learn from them.
Shortly after, another student got cold feet. King and the other students encouraged him to overcome his self-doubt. Buoyed by the support, the student sang.
As the judges tallied their scores, King chatted with the other ninth graders.
King already has experienced some setbacks as a young performer. When he was 10, he auditioned to be a dancer in a video. When he didn’t get the part, he cried to his mom. She told him not to sweat the losses, to learn from the failure, and move on. He’s applied those lessons to school and life.
Awaiting the talent show results, he tried not to invest too much in the outcome. When the judges revealed that he had taken first place, he felt proud.
Despite a pandemic that’s forced him to learn behind a screen and made it difficult to perform, King remains grounded. He still finds joy writing songs in his bedroom, and remains curious in school. Virtual classes resume in January.
Until then, King doesn’t want to indulge his fears of the unknown.
“I don’t really want to get too far into it, and then think about it too much, ‘Oh what if this happens? Oh, what if that happens?’” he said.
Instead, he remains hopeful for better days and another moment to shine.