It’s lunchtime and social studies teacher William Weir is peeling a tangerine while listening intently to his lunch buddy, I’Lei Sanford, 10, explain why half the school’s baseball team has been sent to the office.
Weir is the third- and fourth-grade social studies teacher at Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts, a traditional public school in Detroit. He is also the school’s baseball coach. He uses membership on the team as a carrot to entice kids to behave in the classroom.
I’Lei, a short, thin boy who wears his hair in wiry twists, plays right field on the team and sometimes drops in on Weir during lunch. The middle of five children and diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, l’Lei says he feels better when he’s around Weir, who never allows l’Lei to forget that he is smart.
I’Lei gives his teacher a colorful play-by-play about the fight on the morning school bus. “I tried to break it up by being sarcastic,” I’Lei explained. “I wasn’t fighting. Honest.”
“With a class like yours, this is why I need time alone,” Weir said, joking. “But anyway, I’m glad you’re here.”
“I am too,” I’Lei said.
The way Weir explains it, there are a few well-worn methods that teachers can use to get Detroit students to excel.
It’s not new math, but it adds up to better results.
To motivate students like l’Lei, Weir believes it’s important to connect classroom lessons to experiences they understand, while finding a way to give them more one-on-one attention in smaller classes.
Bridge visited Weir’s classroom over a two-month period to get a sense of what it is like to teach in a large, urban district in 2015. Weir’s efforts to engage students were sometimes successful and often inspiring. But finding time for one-on-one teaching proved tougher in a class of 25 to 35 students when so many students read below grade level, had special needs or were burdened by poverty.
For Weir, job one is getting students to believe they can do well. To show up to school. To behave. To give a damn.
And when the pep talks don’t work?
“Love and attention,” Weir said.
What’s a nice job?
Detroit is hardly the only big city with a history of educational failure. But it has been the worst in recent history, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math tests.
The state has run the Detroit Public Schools for 13 of the past 16 years. Before schools open in the fall, Gov. Rick Snyder and the state legislature are expected to make another round of changes to Detroit schools, including addressing $438 million in DPS debt. Snyder also has said he wants to reorganize the power structure of public education in Detroit including DPS, charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run reform district comprised of 15 former DPS schools.
Educators at Schulze are trying to prevent the elementary school’s return to the state’s dreaded “priority list,” those schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. The designation can mean, among other things, major staff and curriculum changes. And in Detroit, too many changes have too often led to enrollment decline or closure.
Motivating students can be like trying to set a fire with soggy wood and a damp match. Sparking them to opens their minds, work hard and believe in their possibilities is even tougher in a city where so many students test so far behind.
But if teachers can get their attention, they can begin to teach.
Yet on a school day in April, as students were preparing for the tough, new M-STEP state exams, Weir found motivation in short supply.
In a lesson on the economy of post-Civil War Michigan, students began to zone out during a chapter on train commerce. Their teacher derailed the lesson.
Weir told the students to take off their shoes.
He asked them to find the tag that said which country their shoes were imported from, and figure out how those shoes must have arrived in Detroit.
“Made in China,” one girl said about her Mary Janes.
“Mine say, V-I-E-T-N-A-M,” said a boy. “What’s that?”
“Take out your desk maps, let’s find out where some of these places are,” Weir said. Before the bell rang, the students would learn a bit about world geography and commerce.
On another occasion, Weir allowed a lackluster discussion about farming to peter out. He concluded that students were not participating because they did not see farming as an interesting job. And there was another problem.
Weir’s teaching guide – known as a pacing chart – focused on the topic of the day, the geography of the northeast. But, as Weir would later note, that guide did not take into account what school test scores have said for years: that most of his students struggle with daily lessons because most read below grade level.
Weir believes his students perform better if they can see the practical value of what they learn.
So Weir changed the topic from farming to something else.
“What’s a nice job?” he asked.
“Chrysler,” one boy said.
“Chrysler is a good job because you can pay rent. Because my mama works at Chrysler,” he said.
One at a time, the fourth-graders answered the quintessential question of what they want to be when they grow up: singer, carpenter, veterinarian, Foot Locker worker, registered nurse, football player, professional hip hop dancer, boxer, basketball player, gymnast, movie star and dental assistant made the list.
“Doctor. My mama’s a doctor,” said one girl, who wore a sparkly jacket over her school uniform that identified her as a cheerleader.
Weir’s eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Your mom’s a doctor?” he asked.
“Yes, she’s a CNA,” said the girl, a certified nursing assistant.
“That’s not a doctor,” Weir said. “But you can be a doctor one day.”
Then it was another student’s turn.
A brown-skinned girl in a neat blue and white uniform said, “You can work for rich people as their butler or nanny or something.”
“Where’d you get that?” Weir asked, without a hint of judgment in his voice.
“My grandma used to do that.”
“Why can’t you be one of the rich people?” he shot back, addressing the whole class.
“What do you always have to do?” Weir said.
“Think,” a boy blurted out, as if he knew what Weir wanted to hear.
Weir pulled a cell phone out his pocket and held it up for the class.
“Who thinks you’re not smart enough to make something like this or improve on it?”
Four hands went up in the air.
“Probably not now,” the teacher acknowledged, “but later? Who’ll be smart enough?”
Several of the 25 kids in the room raised their hands.
“People get where they are because of the decisions they make,” Weir said. “I want you guys to start dreaming bigger, OK?”
Eager to please Weir, several voices responded, “OK,” and “Yes.”
Weir looked weary after class ended.
“If you’ve never known a doctor, lawyer and no one in your family has gone to a four-year university, your eyes are not open to all of your possibilities,” he said.
But later, I’Lei gave the classroom discussion a thumbs up.
“I like Mr. Weir because some teachers hesitate,” he said. “Mr. Weir won’t hesitate to tell us anything.”
Elizabeth Bey, I’Lei’s mother, sends four of her five children to Schulze. Teachers like Weir are the reason she sticks with the school, she said.
“My child feels very confident and very happy he or she learned something because Mr. Weir is their idol,” said Bey, a single mom.
Bey used to volunteer at the school but is not sure how much longer she will keep her children at Schulze. Bey’s unease is not unusual in Detroit, where students transfer schools at 2.5 times the state rate, according to Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit that offers school rankings to help parents navigate a fluid school environment.
“There's a lot of (school) hopping and hoping,” said Armen Hratchian, the vice president for K-12 education at Excellent Schools Detroit.
Bey said she disapproves of some changes that the new principal, Angela Kemp, has made at the school. For example, parents are now required to get a pass and an escort before visiting a classroom in the aftermath of a fight between two parents in the hallway last year.
The likelihood that Bey will keep her children at Schulze may lessen even more now that Detroit Public Schools is expected to cut three of the 20 teachers on the school’s staff due to budget cuts.
Among those getting a pink slip: Kemp, the new principal. Principals in DPS have no labor union. They usually get a pink slip and go through a contract renewal process each year.
The school’s gym teacher position is gone, too.
For Weir, the tighter budget means his classes will grow from about 25 students this past year to 35 students in the fall. Weir also learned that he will be assigned to teach sixth grade English and social studies next year.
Assuming he is not transferred, again.
Bridge Magazine is convening partner for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC), comprised of five nonprofit media outlets focused on the city’s future after bankruptcy. The group includes Michigan Radio,WDET, Detroit Public Television and New Michigan Media. Support for the DJC comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative and the Ford Foundation.