Detroit has made a lot of progress in the last few years in several areas but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. One area that needs it most is the education system. For years Detroit Public Schools has changed hands between the state and the local school board. The result is millions of dollars in debt and limited progress. Nevertheless, there are many resilient groups and individuals working hard to change that and provide Detroit students with a meaningful education. Jordan Brett is one of those individuals. Jordan is a DPS alum and Executive Director of the Postsecondary Alliance for Student Success (P.A.S.S). The organization serves over 400 educators and professionals in the greater Detroit area, providing them with supplemental resources and finding opportunities that meet the needs of students. I recently sat down with Jordan to discuss his motivation for tackling education concerns in the city and his hopes for the future of education in Detroit.
How was your DPS experience?
DPS was cool. I was always on the Honor Roll but when I transitioned to college, that’s when it was a reality check. I realized I was not prepared. Being educated in Detroit Public School you get used to being educated as a majority but then you go off to college and you are a minority.
Do you think you were academically well prepared?
I think I was academically well prepared but I wouldn’t say it was fully a result of the school system. I grew up in a single parent household and I have one sister. I’m the youngest and I never wanted to be a burden to my mother and my mom wanted to make sure I wasn’t a burden to her [laughs]. She had us in the Boys and Girls Club, summer camp, a ton of supplemental education programs.
What motivated you to get in to education?
I would say my own personal story of using education to give back but also to get out. To get out of those stereo-types. Sometimes it’s hard believing in the odds because you always have to climb up to something. We have the achievement-gap, the skills-gap, the wage-gap, racial gaps, class-gaps. There’s always this gap. And the black man is always at the bottom. The African-American man has the highest high school drop out rate, the lowest college enrollment rate and the lowest college completion rate. To be able to navigate that system I graduated undergrad in three years when I was 21, I graduated with my Master’s degree in one year and I’m pursing a Doctorate. I’m more so pursing a Doctorate for other people and not necessarily myself. I think I’m skilled enough to make a living out here but I think continuing to pursue education and reach the highest heights will really motivate other young people – especially African American males – to pursue their dreams.
Was that your motivation for starting P.A.S.S?
Somewhat. There is a shortage of resources out there that are easily accessible. I know teachers often have to teach through social barriers. Sometimes kids fall asleep because it’s the first source of heat that they have. Sometimes kids’ lowest grade is in their first hour class because momma has to drop off five kids at five different schools catching the city bus that isn’t always reliable. Sometimes teachers need additional support. Schools provide them with the curriculum but that’s not what’s going to help a kid be successful.
P.A.S.S. is able to connect multiple resources and funnel them to educators and professionals who work with students. A lot of what we do is provide supplemental activities and host and endorse events – college fairs and career fairs. Sometimes in school you don’t use what you learn until you graduate. That’s not how it should be. If we’re teaching math we should be able to have an opportunity for kids practice math skills in the real world by getting them a job, showing them how to balance a check book and open a bank account.
The state of Detroit Public Schools is an on-going conversation in this area. What do you see as the biggest obstacle?
I won’t limit it to Detroit Public Schools and I’ll say Detroit schools as a whole because they are all suffering. Until we have quality educators – and I’m not talking about teachers necessarily – I’m talking about everyone because everyone can be an educator.
When you have a generation of parents who are giving birth to a child on WIC, their teenage years they’re eating Bridge card food, their parent is on Section 8 and later in life they’re on disability. To them, if that’s the model they grow up in, when they grow up they’re fine. They don’t know about valuing education and making more money. There is a piece of empowerment that comes from education. You can’t empower through government assistance but you can empower through self-assistance. For me, until adults put a child in the middle of the room and keep them as the focus, then I think there is an even lower place the education system can go.
What can the community do, the individual inside Detroit or outside Detroit who wants to make a difference?
There has to be an investment that is not only financial. People have to share their story, stop trying to be the superhero. Sometimes you have to present what not to do instead of what to do. Kids are hearing all the time, ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong. Do this not that.’ But if you had a panel of people who said, I didn’t go to college and this is how life turned out for me… How did a homeless person because homeless? How did this person end up in jail? As well as, how did the CEO become the CEO. When you force choices on kids, they’ll never embrace that choice but when you give them options and say these are the choices I’ve made and this is what happened. Common sense is going to push kids in the right direction because nobody grows up and says I want to be at risk. No one’s career path is homeless or drug-addict. My recommendation is for all people to become educators and share their story – whether it’s a good story or a bad story – to lead people in the right direction.