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Howard Students Help Stamp Out Illiteracy in Detroit for Spring Break

DETROIT – So, what would make dozens of students trade spring break in Miami or Cancun for a week in Detroit?

In Miami, the sun is shining, the beaches are inviting and the azure sea is warm.

In Detroit, unemployment is hovering near 20 percent, home foreclosures are rampant and there are lots of gray, overcast skies as the winter trudges along.

And the rate of illiteracy is staggering, which is why scores of Howard University students began rolling into Detroit March 13 for their annual Alternative Spring Break.

Instead of taking a vacation at the typical spring break destinations, these Howard students are volunteering to help the local Detroit students and adults who are struggling with their reading skills.

This year, nearly 300 Howard students will be working on youth development in Atlanta and Washington, on gun violence in Chicago, on literacy in Detroit and on the environment and other issues in New Orleans.

This will be the second year that Howard students worked in Detroit. Denys Symonette of Orlando, Fla., is the student coordinator. Her job is to arrange housing, food and transportation for the students and to develop a week of community service programs for the students.

The students are working March 15 to March 19 with youth at Highland Park Community High School, Martin Luther King Jr. High School and the Henry Ford Academy, which has students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

They will also be working with adults in rehabilitation at a Salvation Army facility. Finally, they will be working with City Council President Charles Pugh by going into Detroit neighborhoods to promote a program to have residents become more active in city government.

Symonette, 20, said for all the students it is a chance to serve the community, and to give back part of the legacy of Howard and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“For me personally, this is part of my spiritual journey, part of my faith as a Christian,” Symonette said. “If you’re a Christian, you help people.”

Students Pledge To Bring Light To Bleak Learning Environment

By Courtney Zellars
Print Journalism Major
Howard University News Service

DETROIT -- As the bus loaded with Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) students pulled into the parking lot of Highland Park High School, one thing was strikingly noticeable: the school had no windows.

While the students had been forewarned, the reality was still devastating. Trash littered the property, clinging to the chain link fence of the perimeter as if afraid to let go.

The grim atmosphere was intensified once inside the high school. Only one in every five students graduate from the high school, which is located eight miles northwest of downtown Detroit.

The rest end up in low-paying jobs or try to better themselves with trade school. College is a priority for very few of the school’s black students. As the participants of ASB shuffled through the metal detectors around the school entrance, their mission for the week was reaffirmed, to breathe hope into the lives of the students.

After a brief meeting with the principal, the students divided into two groups. One group assembled with the underclassmen in the auditorium while the other group did the same with the upperclassmen in the gymnasium.

As a welcome to the Howard students, the school’s marching band played “Best I Ever Had” by singer Drake, and the school choir sang the school song and “Ode to Africa.”

A panel of Howard students introduced themselves to the high school student and faculty body. Following the assemblies, ASB had lunch with the high school students, attempting to get to know them.

“My first reaction was that the students were more prepared than what I had initially thought,” said freshman finance major Derak Carrington II, a Detroit native, after speaking to a student who had received an acceptance letter from Florida A & M University.

Many of the students do have dreams and have aspirations that go beyond high school. One student wants to go to Morehouse College and learn how to design computer games. Other students want to be engineers or writers. One student said she wanted to one day be a college student and return to her hometown to persuade others to follow in her tracks.

Amari Hart, a 9th grader, said she wants to be a veterinarian.

“I like working with animals,” she said.

With those dreams, however, come challenges. Amari, for example, knows one college she wants to attend, Wayne State University, which she toured. But she doesn’t know if the school has a veterinarian program.

Jasmine Tucker, freshman sociology major, met with a 17-year-old student who wants to go to college, but she might not attend because of things that have nothing to do with her financial or intellectual abilities.

“She said her boyfriend didn’t want her to go to college,” Tucker said. “She had selected schools out of state, and he didn’t want her to be that far away. So, she said to please him, she probably won’t go to college.”

Still, Howard students are determined to help make the students’ dreams a reality.

Carrington said he would like to spend this week helping the students equip themselves with those resources.

“I’m good at networking,” said Carrington. “This week I plan to show these high school students how to network as well.”

William Leon Ward, a graduate student at the Howard University School of Divinity, said his focus changed after a day with the students.

“I thought I came here for reading and literacy,” he said. “But I see now that I can’t do reading and literacy without racial uplift.”

When a high school student asked him to describe college, Ward responded, “preparation for liberation.” Although the student didn’t quite understand what he meant at first, Ward persisted, working with him until the message was clear.

“We developed a goal,” Ward said. “For six weeks, he promises to go to class regardless of if it’s boring or not. He kept repeating the phrase as well as the goal, saying that he needed to hear that.”

The Howard students will continue at the school for a week.

“At the end of the week I just want to gain a sense of reward in knowing that someone was able to see beyond their current situation,” said Howard student Erin Keith, a freshman political science major from Detroit.

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Photos by Justin D. Knight, Howard University


Photos by Justin D. Knight, Howard University


Photos by Justin D. Knight, Howard University


Photos by Justin D. Knight, Howard University