In the wake of Detroit’s 1967 rebellion, and similar unrest nationwide, a group called the Kerner Commission dug into the underlying causes.
Their main finding was that America was heading toward two separate, unequal societies: one white, one black. One of the deepest inequalities was in education.
In the late 1960s, a new program in Detroit schools tried to address those inequities. It showed tremendous promise. Then, it ended abruptly.
I talked with someone who was a teacher in that program. As it happens, I know her very well. She’s my great-aunt, Theresa Luxmore (I just call her Aunt Theresa), and she was a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools for 35 years.
When I was little, I remember she always talked about “her kids.” It took me a while to figure out she meant her students. These were kids from some of the toughest neighborhoods on Detroit’s east side.
“They were pretty much all enjoyable,” she said. “By and large, they tickled me more than they were hard to get along with.”
My Aunt Theresa started teaching elementary school in the early 1960s. After 1967, the Detroit Public Schools became a battleground for the city’s growing racial polarization.
The district faced a problem: How to guarantee its growing African American student population a truly equal education, in the face of mounting neighborhood decay and growing white resentment?
There were lots of competing theories and contentious opinions. This was a time of heated fights over integration via bussing in Metro Detroit, with many white and some black families violently opposed to the idea. Some black activists demanded more direct control over schools, introducing ideas like the Afro-centric curriculum.
In the meantime, some new, experimental programs emerged in Detroit schools.
One of them was called the Neighborhood Educational Center. It launched in 1968 with a $6 million Title III federal education grant, the largest such grant ever given at the time.
Then-DPS Superintendent of Schools Dr. Norman Drachler told the school board in early 1968:
“The NEC grant reflects an increasing determination by both federal and city officials to focus money sharply on a limited number of disadvantaged children. When federal money is spread over a large number of children as it has in the past, we can at best produce excellent models but we cannot be expected to produce great academic gains. Now for the first time, federal funds are being used by educators to find out how much it will cost to move disadvantaged children in a target area into the average range of scholastic achievement.”
My Aunt Theresa recalls that “initially, it was supposed to be in the area in which the riots occurred”—the epicenter was the city’s west side—but because of some other government programs already running on the east side, it was launched there.
But the focused intent was to address one of the deep inequities cited as a principal cause of the uprising. “The whole idea was, there’s inequities that exist, therefore we have to do something to change this,” Aunt Theresa said.
So the NEC ended up running in six neighborhood schools on the city’s east side—four elementary/middle schools, and two high schools. The students weren’t pre-selected, but teachers had to apply for the program.
“The premise was to establish smaller class sizes, and have a new type of evaluation so that we were really stressing how students learn rather than how teachers teach,” my Aunt Theresa said.
And that meant lots of ongoing, year-round learning for the teachers too. “That summer, before the program even started, we started attending workshops,” Aunt Theresa said. “The first thing they did was to set long-range goals for students and teachers.”
The program centered around “clusters” in each grade—four teachers (plus a “special” subject teacher, like music) and about 66 students per cluster. There were some major guiding principles and levels of oversight, but teachers also had lots of freedom in the classroom.
“Each set of teachers set up the clusters the way they wanted to,” Aunt Theresa told me. “Sometimes we’d work in small groups, sometimes we’d put all the students together, and had a big project. Each cluster did it a different way.”
Aunt Theresa’s cluster decided to primarily split up 22 kids among three teachers; the science teacher worked with the kids separately. That alone made a huge difference from the usual 40-plus students per class she usually had.
Another big NEC theme was defining and measuring student learning with regular tests.
But for the most part, teacher clusters got to design their own tests, and use them in individualized ways to measure a student’s progress, and they could give students lots of independence.
“We created games that fit the tests. We created learning centers. We had folders that may have had worksheets,” Aunt Theresa said.
“Our students were very independent. They would pick up their task sheet each morning so they knew what they were going to do. And if they would get stuck on something, if one of us was free, they came to us, or they could go to another student. And that was ok.”
It took some figuring out as they went along, but Aunt Theresa said it seemed to work.
“The people who pretty much adhered to giving the test when the students first came in,” she said. “If you did that, and were diligent about it, they seemed to do pretty well. There was a lot of growth.”
NEC students took the regular standardized tests too, and outside researchers validated the results. I asked my Aunt Theresa if she remembered the results for her cluster that first year?
“Of course!” she said, laughing. “They did very well.”
There were a few who made little or no progress. “But we had--and I can even remember some of their names--that when we received them in the fourth grade, they may have been at 3.1 [grade] level in the fourth grade,” Aunt Theresa said. “And they left maybe reading 6.2 [grade level]. We had quite a few kids who did that.”
Three stick out in my Aunt Theresa’s memory: Marlon McDay, Maurice Wofford, and Norman Chapman.
“Because they grew so much,” she said. “They came in with lower test scores, but you knew they had something on the ball, because just the way they interacted with you.”
The program had a mix of kids; predominantly black, but not exclusively. Their home lives ran the gamut from solid middle class to deep poverty.
“Some of them, you could tell were very well-cared for,” Aunt Theresa said. “And others you could see were terribly disadvantaged. And, you know, we might have to send them down with a bar of soap and clean up in the morning.”
Partly for that reason, the cluster’s science teacher came up with the idea of having everyone teach different non-academic skills. That included the school janitor and engineer.
“Everybody taught something,” Aunt Theresa recalled. “It might be woodworking, it might be sewing, it might be artwork. We had it at a specific time, on Friday, and the kids loved it."
Almost from the start, the Neighborhood Educational Center program was hailed as a success. The American Institutes of Research said in its three-year review: “The NEC project incorporates most, if not all, of the features which characterize successful programs.” A 1970 article from the American Library Association’s journal reported: “Many children who were previously behavior problems have responded to the individual attention they are receiving and to new approaches to learning.”
Researchers recommended that Detroit Public Schools continue the NEC. And it did, for another two years. But that initial $6 million grant was cut over that time, and the NEC program required a lot of additional resources in the targeted classrooms.
After five years, “All the funds were gone,” Aunt Theresa said. “And the [school] board said, ‘We can’t take away from the other students. We’d have to pull their money away from the other schools, and we can’t afford to do that.’”
By all accounts, the NEC was a model educational program--one that showed real success helping some of the most disadvantaged kids learn in the aftermath of Detroit’s violent upheaval. But because it required sustained investment, and as memories of the 1960s unrest faded, it was simply allowed to die.