Letter to Detroit Suburban Students from an Urban Teacher

To Mrs. Burnstein’s and Ms. Warren’s 9th Grade Students,

This past year you have engaged in a pen-pal writing activity with my freshman at Medicine and Community Health at Cody High School. First of all, I want to thank you for doing this, for sharing things with my students, and for listening to my students. There are few people who do, and I appreciate you taking the time to do that. I also want to apologize. I know many of you did not get as many letters returned as you sent, and, unfortunately, I know a couple of you may not have even received one letter. I’m truly sorry, and I believe you deserve an explanation of why some of you may not have received as many letters as you were promised.

One reason may have been that your pen pal got pregnant. This past year we had five freshman girls get pregnant. Two dropped out of school. One gave birth to a stillborn baby. One has had her baby, and one is still expecting.

Another reason you may have not received a letter is because your pen pal had been suspended. However, this reason is more complicated than meets the eye. Obviously, a person cannot write a letter if they are not in school, but the amount of suspensions a child receives affects his or her performance in school. Once a child is suspended in the inner-city, he or she is less likely to come to school. As suspensions add up, these students are consistently told they are not wanted in the school. Imagine, if you can, walking in to school and being told by a teacher, “you just need to go home.” How would you feel? What would you think?

Some of you may not have received a letter because your pen pal could not make it to school because of family problems. This past year alone fifteen students, that I know of, have had a parent or guardian incarcerated. In some cases, this meant the student had to take care of her four little brothers and sisters. Another student was out of school in custody battles for two weeks.

Finally, the culture my student comes from encourages them to devalue education. The boys are constantly reminded that is unlikely they will live pass twenty-five, and, if they do, more likely than not they will end up in jail. Over half of my students have lost a family member to gang violence. These students come from a culture that embraces the title “murder mitten,” instead of trying to revoke it. A culture, where parents tell their kids to fight, instead of preaching diplomacy. A culture, where parents come to the school to join in fights with their students.

Even good-hearted adults propagate this negative culture. Some students spend their time fighting their parents. At our school, we have one brilliant Senior whose mother refuses to fill out the FAFSA because she is worried the IRS might look into her tax returns. For those of you who don’t know, the FAFSA determines how much money you can get in grants, scholarships, and loans from the government and the school you attend. If a student does not fill out a FAFSA it is unlikely they will have the money to pay for college. In other words, students own parents stand in the way of their college dreams, even if unintentionally.

Furthermore, my students are spoken to as if they are adults instead of children. Adults yell and swear at these students. In some cases, the yelling will go so far to attack the mother and father of the child (a mother or father that might not even be in the child’s life). These students come from a culture that accepts inadequacy. Eighty percent of my students received at least two F’s in their eighth grade year of middle school. Instead of being forced to retake those classes they were pushed on – like a malfunctioning piece in an assembly line – these students were passed on with the message that it doesn’t matter whether or not you pass.

Many of you have probably seen the images of the abandoned buildings in Detroit. Those abandoned buildings are my students’ homes. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is.

To try and shed more light on the plight of these students, I’ll tell you about a field trip we took last week. Last Wednesday, we took students to a Tigers baseball game. For ninety percent of the students, it was their first Tigers game ever. Some students live only 10 minutes from Comerica Park, but it was the first time they had ever been inside. They are from the city, but they do not get to enjoy the city.

That being said, I do not want you to assume this is some vindication for some of my students’ inability to complete a letter. It’s not. Just like you, they are students. Just like you, I expect them to do their work. And some do, amid all these obstacles. Last night, I had a student text me, his English teacher, to help with his math homework. There was no one at home to help. Other students stay after class to catch up on missing work and/ or get additional help. While ordinary on the surface, it is actually a very difficult task. For one, eighty-five percent of our students walk to school – some as far as three miles. Add on top of that that two of the top three most dangerous blocks in the entire country are within a mile and a half of the school, you start to gain a new appreciation for staying after school to do work.

This letter is an apology, but it is also a letter to make up for all those you didn’t receive. It is an attempt to express what my students were unable to this year. It is hard to understand the world my students come from without experiencing it. It’s hard to understand the anger that flows through their veins – the anger at absent parents, the anger at a system that has failed them, the anger at their own shortcomings. It is hard to understand that adults do not try to save these children’s lives with every fiber of their body without experiencing it firsthand. It’s impossible to understand the complexity of Cody High School dynamics without walking our halls. It’s a culture that tries to hold children back, yet eighty-five percent of our ninth graders are on pace to pass on their classes and move on to tenth grade – one of the highest percentages in Detroit Public Schools. When you look back on this experience, I hope you do not see my students as statistics but as kids, like you, who are trying to improve their lives.

Thank You,

Mr. Kautz

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About mkautz10

I was born and raised in Punta Gorda, FL. My life changed when going into eighth grade I moved to Charlevoix, MI. Four years later, I would move back to Punta Gorda, relax in Indianapolis in a school for three semesters, then finish at the University of Michigan with my Bachelor's; the same spring I graduated I began a Master's program. Now, I teach in Detroit at Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody. My jobs include teaching 9th grade English, writing curriculum, head of Instructional Leadership Team, creating standardized rubrics and literacy assessments for the school, ACT tutoring, driving students to and from school, developing literacy programs, and other educationally productive things!
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One Response to Letter to Detroit Suburban Students from an Urban Teacher

  1. Elizabeth Papanek says:

    Matt, I came across your blog and as a passionate educator myself with a love for inner city schools to teach the kids who need us most, I can truly appreciate your letter. What you do every day for these kids is more than some have done for them their whole life. Always remember that. I remind myself of this daily. From a fellow educator of young minds, Lizz Papanek

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