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First lady Jill Biden, U.S. Education Secretary Cardona visit Detroit summer school site

An older man, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, stands before a classroom of students to ask them how they are liking their photography lesson. He has his hand gesturing in front of him. To his far left, another older man, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, stands with his left hand in his pocket. Right beside Cardona, an older woman, First Lady Jill Biden, stands. Two of the students in the classroom are holding cameras.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, visiting Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts Thursday, talks to students during a photography class. He was joined by (from left to right) Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and First lady Jill Biden.

Grace Tucker / Chalkbeat

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

“Don’t be nervous. You’re going to do what we do every day,” sixth grade teacher Adrienne Holloway assured her summer school students as they prepared for an English lesson on figurative language.

Except on this day, their six-person class at Detroit’s Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts would be joined by some new faces: a swarm of press, a huddle of security personnel, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and first lady Jill Biden.

Holloway’s was one of three classrooms at Schulze Academy that served as a showcase Thursday for efforts to combat pandemic learning loss and boost student confidence, and a stop on Cardona and Biden’s tour of summer learning programs funded by the American Rescue Plan, the last of three major federal COVID relief measures. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District was part of a national pattern of learning loss during the pandemic, as students struggled with online learning and other disruptions beginning in March 2020. More Detroit students ended the school year three or more grade levels below standards in reading and math, compared with pre-pandemic years, according to district data shared at a July 12 board meeting.

The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed in March 2021, granted $122 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund to help schools stay open, address pandemic learning loss, and support mental health. It followed two earlier COVID relief laws passed under the Trump administration that also provided tens of billions of dollars to support education.

Summer programs are playing a big part in the effort to help students catch up. Of the $3.7 billion in ESSER funds Michigan received under the ARP, $1 billion is reserved for summer programs, the White House Press Office said. Schulze Academy is one of 19 in-person learning sites hosting K-8 students as part of the district’s Summer Learning Experiences program, which is paid for with ESSER funds.

The summer learning supported through ARP funds means “we can look around and we can look at these programs and see just how far we’ve come since that March two years ago,” when the pandemic forced schools to shut their doors, the first lady said. “And we’re recovering every single day.”

An older woman, First Lady Jill Biden, stands in the center of a classroom giving her remarks on the importance of summer schooling before a microphone and podium. Behind her are three older individuals (from left to right): Schulze Academy Principal Angela Kemp, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

First lady Jill Biden speaks Thursday during a visit to Detroit’s Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts to promote the importance of summer learning. Behind her, (from left to right) are Schulze Academy Principal Angela Kemp, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Grace Tucker / Chalkbeat

The Detroit district, which received over $800 million in ESSER funds under the ARP, spent $10 million to expand Summer Learning Experiences in 2021 and $11 million to expand this summer’s programming, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. As a result, enrollment for this summer’s programs has doubled to 8,000 students, according to the White House.

The district has long wanted to develop its summer services, Vitti said, “but inequitable local and state funding and limited federal funding to meet the needs of our district prevented it from happening.”

After observing Holloway’s English lesson, Biden and Cardona made their way to two classrooms featuring enrichment programming from local organizations: a hands-on photography lesson hosted by Detroit-based after-school program BluCar and a cooking lesson led by Camp Dinner Table educator Yolanda Scarborough.

In each classroom, facilitators from BluCar and Camp Dinner Table briefed the observers on their program mission before opening up for questions from Biden and Cardona. Asking the students how they felt after learning hands-on skills, the pair were able to highlight how programs like Schulze Academy’s summer school fostered academic and emotional growth in students.

“For me, not only as an educator, but as a father, I love what I saw today,” Cardona said. “I love the fact that American Rescue Plan dollars are providing opportunities for students…Yes, they’re learning to cook. Yes, they’re learning photography. And they feel good about themselves.”

Alison Parham, parent to three Schulze Academy students, also spoke to the positive impact of Detroit’s summer programming. She said, “while my students are here, I’m able to work, which is just amazing in itself right there … The class, the opportunities, the money, everything just makes (the program) more valuable.”

In addition to academic recovery programs, Vitti said, the district will invest a major part of its ESSER funds to install or update air conditioning systems in most district schools within five years. That will enable the district to host summer school across the entire city rather than just the 19 sites used this summer, he said.

Cardona and the first lady planned to continue their tour in Georgia despite news that President Biden tested positive for COVID early Thursday morning. “I tested negative this morning and will be adhering to CDC guidelines,” Biden said upon her arrival to Schulze Academy. She remained masked for the entire press event.

Grace Tucker is Chalkbeat Detroit’s newest reporting intern. Reach her at gtucker@chalkbeat.org.

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