Mike Morse, a Detroit native and well-known local attorney, recalls fondly the superhero backpacks full of supplies that he got every year growing up while attending Leonhard Elementary School in Southfield.
“I remember it was always an event,” he said. “It was a thing getting the new pencils and the 64 box of crayons and paper. Everything was perfect, and I was lucky enough to get a new one every year.”
So when he learned that many Detroit Public Schools children showed up on the first day without supplies — and that in many cases, teachers were buying them — he decided to do something. Two years ago, he donated 400 backpacks to kids at one school.
It wasn’t enough. So last year, he donated 23,000 backpacks — one to every child in kindergarten through fifth grade across the school district.
That wasn’t enough.
So on Tuesday, his team of volunteers will distribute 33,000 backpacks on the first day of school — one to every child in kindergarten through eighth grade in the city schools — each filled with pencils, a glue stick, eraser, notebooks, pocket folders, scissors, a water bottle — and a 24-pack of crayons.
Morse said he wasn’t doing it just to cheer the children, but to help ensure that Michigan’s largest city maintains a viable public, nonprofit school district, something it needs for its ballyhooed renaissance to continue.
Morse isn’t alone. More than a dozen companies and even more foundations help maintain the district consistently, said spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson. For instance, the Ford Fund, in conjunction with UAW Ford, has donated $3 million for arts, music and athletic gifts each of the past three years. Henry Ford Health Systems and St. John’s Health Clinic have provided thousands of dollars in health care services for students. And the Lear Corp. has donated $1.5 million for tutoring programs and repairs at Clark School.
It isn’t charity. It’s an investment. The dividends? Tens of thousands of productive citizens to sustain Detroit’s renaissance.
I don’t see how Detroit can come back, fully come back, without a school district,” Morse said. “Downtown is so gorgeous and fun, and so much is there, but that’s not, in my opinion, the city of Detroit. Downtown is small, and that’s not where the people are. That’s not where Detroiters are.”
It’s certainly not where most of the city’s children are. More than 90% of Detroit’s school-age kids live outside the 7-square-mile area that makes up Midtown and downtown. If Detroit is to have a future, it will be nurtured and led by the youth in the neighborhoods who must become our future business and community and political leaders. For those youth to be prepared, leaders across metro Detroit must embrace the children.
“It does take a village to raise a child,” interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather said. “I knew that when I was a teacher. I knew that in every position I’ve been in in this district. Even as a student, I remember various partners would come into a classroom or assembly and someone would be talking about what they were sharing with us.
“What it communicates, what it does, is let a child know that somebody thought they were important enough to invest in them and make sure they had something. I don’t know how you measure it, but any time someone gives you a gift, it makes you feel special.”
That is the conversation we should be having from now on about the Detroit Public Schools. Yes, we need to clean up the corruption and throw the crooks in jail. Yes, we need to make sure that the books are balanced so the state never has to come in and run up a deficit again. And yes, parents must be held accountable.
But more important than all of that is changing the way we treat our children. And the children in the city schools are — like children across the state — the responsibility of everyone in the state. I dare you to not care about a child who could grow up to be president, or governor, or a teacher or an Olympic swimmer.
Jimmy Settles, vice president of the UAW-Ford, does it for the kids.
He recalled being at Northwestern High School one day last year because the principal asked for help to repair the school’s swimming pool.
“We saw the gym on the way to the pool,” Settles said. “There was a big crater in it, and they couldn’t play volleyball. A pipe had burst, and you know what happens after that.”
So Settles said they decided to fix the gym. Oh, they also fixed the pool, which was the original goal.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “The swimming pool was just mud and garbage. And the school looked like a penitentiary. It didn’t have windows or enough lights.”
Fourteen months and more than a million dollars later, the school has new lights, fantastic athletic space and new music programs because, well, it’s necessary.
But they didn’t stop there. Settles said they also bought musical instruments and found retired teachers to run programs at Northwestern and at Sampson Weber Middle School down the street.
Why do so much?
“These kids,” he said. “We complain about them all the time, that they don’t have anything to do, that they don’t have facilities. We do it because if they are truly our greatest assets we ought to treat them like they are and give them the opportunities that most kids have in surrounding areas. We do it for the love of the kids.”
Mike Morse encourages other business leaders, attorneys, accountants, anybody with a job and an ounce of concern about children who need help to jump right in.
“Why would people move back? How can this city be great without a great public school system?” Morse asked, adding that there’s plenty of need.
“I’m getting calls from other school districts saying, ‘What about us? What about charters? What about Highland Park and Hamtramck and Eastpointe who need help, too?’ Others could come in and partner with me. I can’t do it alone. I need more people to step up to the plate. If they don’t want to do backpacks, they can do uniforms. Or there are safety issues. Some of the buildings are falling apart. There’s lots they can do.”
Morse, who said he plans to give away even more backpacks next year, urges everyone with a connection to Detroit, with a memory of their childhoods, with the means, step up.
“I remember my mom — she was a Detroit public schoolteacher and librarian back in the day — she used to tell stories about how much she loved it and how great the kids were and how she had this love for it,” he said. “My dad was an attorney in the city, and I would go to his office and meet his clients and the parking lot attendants and lots of people, and I remember having this warm feeling about Detroit.”
Morse offered thanks to Meijer, the superstore that partnered with him last year and this year, allowing him to buy this year’s backpacks and supplies for about $350,000.
“And they gave me 14 Meijer trucks to deliver them to DPS,” he said excitedly.
For people like Mike Morse and Jimmy Settles and the heads of companies who already get it, here’s what they get: The city schools are a garden.
“When you plant a seed, you never know when it’s going to bloom,” Meriweather said. “But at some point, that will happen. You don’t get flowers without the seeds.”
For this city to make a comeback, this school system must make a comeback. For the schools to make a comeback, we need the city.
We need to plant the seeds. If not, we don’t get flowers. We get weeds, or worse. And we still have to bear the costs of what does grow.
Me? I’d rather have flowers.