Detroit students pave the way to city's rebirth

Springtime in a high school student's senior year is full of exciting rituals: the last day of school, the graduation ceremony, the open house.

Students at Denby High School on Detroit's northeast side started a new tradition this year: the Pathway to Transformation.

On a late May day under clear blue skies, each senior laid a brick they'd decorated, forming a short walkway on the school lawn. When they were finished, a representative of the junior class added a brick marked "2015." The path will grow with each graduating class.

The pathway symbolizes changes happening in the neighborhood, in Detroit and in the students themselves, who faced a challenging path of their own to get to the brick-laying ceremony.

"Future classes will be laying bricks until this community has the quality of life you've deserved all along," Denby Principal Tracie McKissic told the seniors. "We are never going to forget you."

Their work began with a partnership between the school and the team charged with implementing the Detroit Future City (DFC) strategic plan, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals.

Lifelong Detroiter Sandra Turner-Handy, community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council and a process leader for DFC, helped to get the collaboration rolling and was "kind of a mother figure to all of us," as one student said before the ceremony.

"This project was fueled by one of your neighbors, Ms. Sandra Turner-Handy, who is one of the most inspiring and effective leaders working in the city today," Heidi Alcock, DFC director of operations, told the students.

The DFC framework became tightly woven into the year's coursework in several subjects, forcing the students to take a hard look at their city and the role they can play in reviving it.

Each senior had to prepare-and defend before a panel of judges-a capstone project in which they analyzed the DFC plan and proposed their own solutions to blight, unemployment and other problems plaguing the city.

The work went beyond simply proposing solutions; the students were expected to roll up their sleeves and do the work. And they learned how big a difference they can make.

In March, they led local volunteers in cleaning up 16 blocks around the school and boarding up 11 vacant homes. They also successfully petitioned the city to remove a vacant two-story apartment building across the street from the school that made students feel unsafe. Now they plan to turn the lot into a living laboratory for botanical studies.

The Class of 2015 will take on another project the seniors have started: turning the unused adjacent Skinner playfield into a community space with sports fields, a play area, benches where neighbors can visit and a performing arts stage for community events. (It also will be the site of the pathway; the ceremony took place on the school lawn because rains had soaked the playfield.)

Meanwhile, students have added six raised garden beds to the three already on school grounds. The plan is for Denby students eventually to run a 66-bed urban garden that will provide neighbors an affordable source of fresh fruits and vegetables and teach the students about money management and entrepreneurship. The proceeds will be reinvested to develop the garden project.

Senior class president Leon Byars said the year's work opened his eyes to the role he can play in the city's rebirth.

"You always hear about how beautiful Detroit used to be," he said. "But growing up, all I've seen was this negative vibe. This project showed me that Detroit does have the potential to come back and be a great city."

Byars will start classes at Wayne State University in the fall, where he plans to map out a career path focused on Detroit's transformation.

"Anything that will make the city a better place, I want to be a part of it," he said.

Turner-Handy told the assembled seniors that, while many of them were headed off to college, they were leaving behind an infectious energy that will ripple through the community.

"You guys have re-energized me at a time when I wasn't sure if I was going to leave the city or stay here," she said. "I'm staying."


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