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Detroit schools reopen amid optimism about getting over pandemic challenges

A student paints on a piece of paper in a classroom.

Fourth grader Lailah Robinson, 10, paints during art class during the first day of school at Mark Twain School for Scholars in Detroit on Aug. 29, 2022.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

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

Not even an hour into the new school year at Mark Twain School for Scholars, fourth grader Alexander Vinson was already creating abstract art.

“I’m going to start blending the colors,” Alexander said as he used a brush and red, blue, and yellow watercolor paint to fill in triangles and squares. But as he looked at his colorful creation, he began to worry. The colors had started to bleed together, and he thought he’d messed up.

“I love it,” his teacher, Jessica Gunter, told him, praising the vibrant orange shapes he had created. “That’s why it’s abstract. We talked about blending ... once the paper is wet, sometimes the colors get intertwined, and that’s OK. It gives us an expression.”

Students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District returned to class this week amid optimism that after more than two challenging years of pandemic learning, the 2022-23 school year would be a return to normal. 

“I feel like they’re just so ready to be back here,” said Gunter, who has taught at Mark Twain for four years. “Art gives them a chance to express their feelings ... express themselves.”

Alexander, 9, was excited enough to be back in the classroom that he “woke up at 5 a.m.” just to be ready for the first day of school.

Across from him, fellow fourth grader Savannah Boyd-Roxanne said she likes school and is happy to tackle “challenging” subjects like math. Both students said they’re looking forward to doing addition and fractions.

Teacher holds a piece of paper in front of a classroom of students.

Laurelyn Williams teaches third grade math during the first day of school at Mark Twain School for Scholars in Detroit on Aug. 29, 2022.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

District and school leaders are hoping to sustain that level of enthusiasm as they confront the challenges of returning to pre-pandemic normalcy — the same kind of challenges schools across the state and nation have encountered. Enrollment is down. Chronic absenteeism has increased. Students are less engaged. The marginal academic improvements Detroit students had made before the pandemic have disappeared, and far more students are now struggling in key subjects such as math and reading.

“Our focus this year is student achievement, student achievement, student achievement,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said on a visit to the Mark Twain school Monday. “Underneath that is trying to address chronic absenteeism and improving enrollment.” 

The district has lost roughly 3,000 students since the pandemic began, but Vitti is “optimistic” the district will see enrollment gains this year. Already officials have noticed an uptick in kindergarten and first grade students, he said, most likely due to parents feeling more comfortable sending their children to in-person classes.

“Obviously, we want to get to where we were before the pandemic hit in March 2020,” when the district was seeing chronic absenteeism fall and enrollment increase, Vitti said. But at this point, “we just want to see improvement.”

The district is recovering from two years that were disrupted by periods of online learning and COVID precautions such as indoor mask wearing, social distancing, and weekly COVID testing. Now, those protocols are no longer required.

“Without the distraction of COVID this year,” Vitti said, the district should be better positioned to offer students the academic and behavioral support they need to see the growth educators and families have been hoping for.

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From left, Alexander Vinson, 9, Bryant Williams, 8, DJ Paton, 9, and Jesus Quinones, 9, joke around while making their way to their next class during the first day of school at Mark Twain School for Scholars in Detroit on Aug. 29, 2022.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

In front of Mark Twain Monday morning, principal Sheila Langford greeted students and families as they walked up to the building, sharing in the cheerfulness of the day by waving a blue pom pom.

“I feel like I always have high expectations no matter what,” Langford said. “I just want the children to learn a lot and enjoy learning and being actively engaged in their lessons.”

The small school enrolls 185 students, down slightly from before the pandemic. To bring students and families back into the building, Langford and her staff have actively done door-to-door canvassing and community events, tactics the district has adopted as part of its back-to-school enrollment push

As part of its effort to keep students engaged in the classroom, the school has students fill out a survey to determine what their interests are and how the school can better address those wants. The school also is renovating its science lab to make it available to middle school and upper elementary students during the coming year, Langford said. Last year, it partnered with the Detroit School of Arts to offer students digital art lessons.

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Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti talks with second graders during the first day of school at Mark Twain School for Scholars in Detroit on Aug. 29, 2022.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

Inside Mark Twain, Shannon Fawaz’s second grade students warmly greeted Vitti and school board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry as they visited their classroom Monday.

“Who’s happy to be in school today?” Peterson-Mayberry asked.

“Me!” students responded, as several hands shot up toward the ceiling. 

The superintendent and school board president hovered around the students as they got to work on a “Find a Friend” worksheet, a simple exercise Fawaz started the day with to get the students to share their interests and hobbies with one another. Students talked among themselves about their favorite video games or their love of playing soccer.

“It’s so nice to see the kids and feel their energy,” said Fawaz. “To be behind the screen was so difficult ... there were long days trying to make that work.”

Fawaz’s hope: for her students to have a complete school year and “to grow socially, emotionally, and academically.”

“Being with them in person, you can really find out what their needs are and better reach them, and they get to know you better,” she said. “It’s a personal touch.”

Later on, Fawaz set aside time to introduce class expectations for her second grade students. Next to Fawaz’s desk is a chart with each student’s name on it and a collection of green, yellow and red cards.

The different card colors, she said, serve as a system of warnings and are useful to help students recognize when they may be breaking the class’s shared ground rules, such as “stay on task,” “don’t talk out of turn,” and “use manners.” If the students can manage to stay on the green for the week, Fawaz will treat them with cupcakes or ice cream.

As the morning wore on, a couple students began to chat loudly. To remind them of the ground rules, Fawaz called on Dalylah Clark, 8, to walk over and point at the chart.

“Let’s say there’s a time you make a mistake,” Fawaz told her class. “It’s not the end of the world, as long as you grow from it and you change your behavior.”

Several teachers at Mark Twain said they felt the last school year ended on a good note and they’re looking forward to building on it.

Debra Adams, an English and social studies teacher, is stressing relationship building, something she feels has been lost in the last couple of school years.

Her fourth and fifth grade students will have the opportunity to discuss and reflect with their peers on their class lessons and reading activities in small groups. Student desks are arranged in groups of four or five, rather than spread out in rows facing the board — as they were last year to maintain social distancing.

“I never went through this type of experience as a student or a child,” Adams said. “I just want to make sure that they’re comfortable. This is their classroom.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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