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Bankole Thompson: Detroit should promise students more than money

March 24, 2021

The Detroit News

By Bankole Thompson

The writer James Baldwin once noted, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

Baldwin may as well have been talking about Detroit’s chronic poverty crisis that has engulfed the future of many of the city’s young people. But because poverty is both physically and psychologically demanding on its victims, it is difficult — but not impossible — to break the cycle of inequality.

An indelible lesson for anyone trying to address the problem of poverty in the city is contained in a recent Detroit News report about the Detroit Promise Path program, which offers scholarships and coaches to select students and a monthly $50 stipend, yet few students enrolled in the program obtained a college education.

According to the report, “Only 7.2% of the students in the Promise Path earned certificates or a degree within three years, compared to 6.8% of those who received tuition alone. Fewer than 100 of the more than 1,000 students in the report’s study earned a degree or certificate within three years.”

Anyone reading the report might ask: Why throw money into the city for these results?

But the answer is more complicated than the usual helicopter approach of announcing big donations. It lies in the philanthropic community developing a framework to better understand poverty and the experiences of those dealing with it.

The report highlights the need for serious wraparound services to establish an unfailing structure to support the mental and emotional health of students who are coming from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, yet are expected to do extremely well in school. I don’t know what a $50 stipend would do for a college student in this era, especially one who is impoverished.

It’s almost cruel to expect a student in economic misery to get by with a $50 per month allowance while working toward a degree. The chances of such students succeeding are extremely low because they are busy fighting on multiple fronts against poverty — lack of health care, lack of transportation, food insecurity and lack of housing — outside the classroom. The problem is exacerbated further by an underserved Detroit Public Schools Community District which hasn’t been effectively preparing students for a college education.

Detroit’s foundation community can look to basketball great LeBron James as an example. He is using his social capital to transform lives. He not only built a public school in his hometown of Akron, but he proceeded to create strong wraparound services that included transitional housing for students who may be experiencing homelessness and other housing challenges.

There has to be a redefinition of the focus of some of the educational investments being made in Detroit. More emphasis needs to be placed on supporting the whole child as James has done. This requires an educated understanding of the challenges of poverty rather than writing a check.

Detroit needs a comprehensive education reform model that places the focus on battling the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. Individual student development is inextricably linked to substantial community-based intervention support systems that can help break the barriers inequality place on academic achievement. Those seeking to fund meaningful and lasting educational experiments in the city will have to make holistic investments to give young people an opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty.

The pandemic has made this need more urgent. Many students from poverty-stricken backgrounds are being left behind as the virus continues to shed light on the deep-seated inequities in education that have been ignored for far too long.

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