Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.

Certified — but ready?

Detroit schools will hire teachers without classroom experience, sparking debate

PHOTO: Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University's traditional teacher certification program is on the list of teacher pipelines for Detroit's main district. So are alternative programs with far fewer requirements. At an EMU hiring fair, teachers said they are having no trouble finding jobs.

Detroit’s main district is proceeding with a plan to hire teachers who are certified but have received no training in the classroom — adding an element of controversy to efforts to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies by the end of summer.

The board of education on Tuesday approved a hiring plan proposed by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, signaling that the district will lean partly on programs that offer so-called interim teaching certificates.

The move drew blowback from board members and parents, who argued that Detroit children deserve teachers who have been trained in the classroom.

“I don’t think the alternative route teachers are nearly as prepared as the traditional route,” LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, told Chalkbeat. “It will increase the academic disparity, as you have less qualified and less experienced teachers.”

Online, where much of the debate over district hiring practices took place, some parents worried that teachers with interim certificates would be unprepared to manage a classroom.

“So your first day of teaching will be your first day ever in front of children?” Cynthia Jackson, a Detroit parent, wrote on Chalkbeat Detroit’s Facebook page. “You don’t think that’s going to be a problem?”

For others, the news that the district will consider candidates with alternative certifications was a call to action. Nikki Key, a Detroit parent who has a master’s degree in business, commented on Facebook that the teacher shortage has her considering a career in education.

“I’ve seen what is being offered to our children, trust me … my lack of classroom time is not your problem,” she said. I actually am one of the ones that want to do the job that no one else is signing up for.”

The hiring plan approved Tuesday calls for district officials to undertake a wide-ranging search, recruiting candidates from other school districts, from traditional schools of education, from historically black colleges — and from alternate certification programs.

These state-approved programs require little more from prospective teachers than a bachelor’s degree. One such program is Teachers of Tomorrow, a controversial for-profit entity that provides prospective teachers with an interim teaching certificate, after they complete only 200 hours of online instruction.

District officials are holding out hope that teachers who haven’t trained in a classroom will nonetheless be an improvement over the uncertified substitutes who currently occupy the district’s more than 200 vacant teaching positions. Vitti has said that the district would prefer to hire traditionally certified teachers exclusively, but that the realities of supply and demand make that impossible for now.

Among those following the debate was Dan Finegan, a 25-year-old Michigan native with a master’s degree in social work. He is among Teachers of Tomorrow’s inaugural cohort.  Finegan expects to start work as a Spanish teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District this fall.

Is he ready to teach? He says yes, but he mainly credits the year he spent volunteering as a tutor in Detroit schools. And he worries that others certified through Teachers of Tomorrow, which offers no student teaching opportunities, won’t know what to expect in the classroom.

“I would not feel ready if I had not worked” previously in Detroit schools, he said.

Finegan had nearly finished his master’s degree by the time he decided against a career in social work. He thought he’d prefer working as an educator and City Year Americorps, a non-profit that places volunteers in Detroit schools as tutors and classroom assistants, gave him a chance to test that theory.

PHOTO: Dan Finegan
Dan Finegan’s experience as a volunteer tutor in Detroit schools convinced him to sign up for Teachers of Tomorrow.

It didn’t take long for the students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School to convince Finegan that he should move to Detroit from the suburbs and become a Spanish teacher in the district. There was only one problem: He wasn’t certified to teach.

So when Teachers of Tomorrow gave a presentation to City Year volunteers, Finegan signed on. He considered other certification programs, but they were much more expensive, and Finegan was already saddled with student loans.

(Prices of alternative certification programs, which have fewer requirements than do traditional certification programs, vary widely. Wayne State’s Dream Keepers program charges current substitute teachers roughly $25,000 for two years of in-class support and training. A program at Schoolcraft College that offers night courses in Livonia costs about $10,000. Teachers of Tomorrow’s online program charges upwards of $5,000, but most of that  is due only after graduates find a teaching job.)

He completed the online coursework in about six weeks and passed the content-area exams to teach English and Spanish. He says he began hearing right away from schools who were turning to online Spanish courses because they couldn’t find a Spanish teacher to meet the state’s graduation requirements in world language.

After witnessing the effects of the teacher shortage in Detroit schools during his time with City Year, Finegan decided he would help fill the gap. He signed a provisional contract with a district school, a non-binding indication of that school’s intent to hire him.

With some additional training and a good review from their principal, educators with an interim teaching certificate can become fully certified after three years on the job.

“After my year of experience, it just became clear to me that I wouldn’t be happy in another district,” Finegan said, adding: “I want to show that I’m experienced, and I’m dedicated, and I’m qualified.”