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By Marian Wright Edelman with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass reporting from Detroit, Michigan
In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about his grandparents, who were part of the World War II “generation of heroes” who “built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” The President said, “My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth. The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share—the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.”
For decades, the cornerstone of fulfilling the American dream has been getting a good education. But that cornerstone has crumbled for millions of America’s children. The President said making sure students graduate from high school and are able to go to college must be a priority. He said, “Higher education can’t be a luxury—it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” The economic imperative of graduating from high school and college is especially critical for the 16.4 million poor children if they are to have the best opportunity to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. But instead of leveling the playing field, inequities in funding, resources, and access to high quality teachers for public schools place millions of poor children in low-performing schools with inadequate facilities and often ineffective teachers. Thirty-five percent of Black and 29 percent of Hispanic high school students attend the more than 1,600 “dropout factories” across our country where 60 percent or fewer of the freshman class will graduate in four years with a regular diploma. For these students, the cost of tuition might be just one more thing on top of poor preparation that makes college seem like another impossible barrier separating them from the rapidly disappearing American dream.
Getting a high school and college degree and achieving the American dream could easily have seemed impossible to eighteen-year-old Toni Thomas. Toni gets up each morning in the small room she shares with her mother in Mom’s Place, a transitional housing shelter for the homeless in Detroit, Michigan, and takes the bus to Wayne County Community College. She plans to transfer to Wayne State University in two years to study engineering. Her goal sounds a lot like the President’s definition of the basic American promise: “having a good job and my own house and my own car and my own money.”
Unlike many teenagers her age, Toni has had none of these. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass learned when she met Toni and her mother while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Toni grew up moving from place to place in poor neighborhoods in a once booming but now poor city. Her mother, Linda Dinwiddie, describes herself as “lost in drugs for a long time.” Toni said, “Until last year, until I was 17, pretty much she’d been on drugs most of my life. I wanted her to get off of it. Her using meant we had to get up and move. Sometimes we didn’t have food.” Extended family gave what support they could—especially Toni’s grandmother, who died several years ago—but Toni and her sister, who is now 26, often scraped by on their own. Throughout it all, Toni kept one goal in mind: “I wanted to graduate from high school on time.”
During Toni’s junior year, her mother Linda was gone—first hospitalized with asthma attacks and blood clots, and then staying in a residential drug treatment facility. “She gave me and my sister her food stamp card so we could eat and everything,” Toni said. “She’s a good person, a caring person. She just got hooked on drugs.” Before their mother left, they’d been living in an abandoned house that their cousin had lost in a foreclosure. Toni and her sister continued to live there while their mother was gone. The utilities had been shut off although someone in the neighborhood illegally hooked up the electricity for the stove and small heaters. “In the wintertime, we’d scoop up snow to get water, put it in pots and boil it so it would be like sterilized,” she said. “We put sheets up around the windows to keep the rooms warmer. The beds and stuff had got moldy so we slept on the couches.” Her sister cooked. At the end of the month when the food stamps ran out, “we tried to get food any way we could or go to somebody’s house,” she said. Sometimes, Toni would spend the night with one of her two closest friends and go to school from there. “They had a better environment in their house than I did.”
She stayed in school and tried to keep up. At one point she failed three classes but took them over in summer school so she could graduate on time. Then she got in trouble for fighting and transferred to West Side Academy, an alternative school. “It’s a school for a second chance. It helps you get your grades up and do better,” she said. There, she got on the student council, went to Lansing for a student government meeting, and met the governor. “It was fun. It was interesting,” she said. A science teacher encouraged her to join the robotics team where students build robots and compete with teams from other schools. “I’d go after school and on weekends helping build the robots,” she said. “I learned how to use tools. That’s how I got interested in engineering.”
In May 2010 after Linda got out of the treatment facility, Toni and her mother moved into Mom’s Place, part of Cass Community Social Services. “I’m proud of her. I’m proud she got off drugs,” Toni said. Linda said she is very proud of Toni for not getting into trouble and for finishing school “in spite of what I put her through. She kept herself together.”
Last summer, Toni got an AmeriCorps job with the Detroit Parent Network, going door to door giving information about the organization. “It’s about helping parents get their kids in better schools,” she said. It provided a salary and $1,100 towards college.
Toni has a distance to go to graduate from college with an engineering degree. West Side Academy is one of Detroit’s 44 persistently low achieving schools, and in her first year in community college, she is taking mostly remedial courses, including pre-algebra. “I’m not sure I can handle it, but I’m going to try my best,” she said of college. “That’s what I been doing, trying my best.”
Toni is a role model for all the struggling young people like her who continue striving and trying their best despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them. Countless other struggling children have not been able to overcome the same odds the way Toni has and have been sucked into our nation’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline™. We must reroute all children into a pipeline to college and productive work with investments in early childhood, education, out of school programs, and youth and parental jobs. Each child should have a chance to reach their God-given potential. The AmeriCorps program and a caring teacher made a difference in Toni’s life. How many young people will never get the chance to see how far their best can take them? We don’t have a moment or a child to waste.
Read more about the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times” series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass.
Julia Cass is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines and non-profit organizations. She has written extensively about civil rights, poverty and the prison system. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 20 years, she shared the Pulitzer Prize with other staffers for the paper’s coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. She also received an award for her reporting on the Pennsylvania prison system.
She is the co-author of Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr, published in 1990 by Farrar Straus and Giroux. It won the America Bar Association Award for best writing about the legal system that year and the Lillian Smith Award for writing about the South.
She has also worked as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News and as executive editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English language daily newspaper in Argentina. In addition, she has trained journalists and journalism students in enterprise reporting in Panama and Botswana. Several years ago, she contributed to writing CDF’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline® report. More recently she wrote Held Captive: Child Poverty in America for CDF.