School of the Week: Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy, where a resounding theme of resiliency echoes throughout

Imagine losing your home to a fire… Not only do you lose the structure, but all of the contents and memories within it. That’s the best way to describe the feeling of loss shared by educators and parents at Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy after the building caught fire in May of 2011, caused by lightening igniting the roof.

“Just to pass by that building, it was sad. We had so many memories there. It was like having your house catch fire, and you lose everything,” said Audrey Nelson, LSCO President of 22 years with the original Malcolm X Academy.

History so rich, it embodies what “is Detroit”

Named after two black icons—Paul Robeson, a famed black actor, singer, social activist and Malcolm X, a former leader of the Nation of Islam—Paul Robeson and Malcolm X academies were joined into one school building located at 2701 Fenkell St. in the fall of 2010.

The Albert Kahn-designed, gothic structure on Fenkell at Linwood was heavily damaged by a fire in May 2011 and was closed as a result.

Local media ran news stories with ledes such as, “The Paul Robeson Academy is going from bad to worse.”

But not in current principal Dr. Jeffrey Robinson’s eyes. The fire was just one more obstacle that the African-centered school could write in its own history book as having overcome.

Back in 1992, the “virtually all-black Malcolm X Academy moved into a virtually all-white pocket of Detroit… the reception was so hostile it reminded many people of Little Rock in 1957, not Detroit in 1992,” according to a news report in The New York Times.

The new location was a closed elementary school in Warrendale, a white working-class neighborhood of residents who opposed having an all-black school in its community. The residents went as far as spray-painting white swastikas on Malcolm X Academy’s new building, making bomb threats against the school, and on several occasions, picketing the school before classes began in September.

And this was 1992.

“This school is truly one of DPS’ jewels that embodies the rich history that IS Detroit,” said Dr. Robinson.

The importance of knowing where you came from

Dr. Clifford D. Watson is the founder and first principal of Malcolm X Academy. Dr. Watson’s original African-centered school proposal was accepted by the district in 1989 making Malcolm X Academy the first public African-centered school in the United States.

“We hold a standard in terms of the district’s initiative to be African-centered, which is the process of making students the center of all learning; teaching students what African Americans contributed to American society and to the world,” said Dr. Robinson.

“African-centered education is about teaching children to have full pride in who they are, their culture, their heritage and also to ensure that culture and heritage is respected, not trampled or walked over, or found to be insignificant,” he added. “African Americans have some of the richest histories and cultures of anyone in the world.”

Dr. Robinson said the African-centered curriculum at Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy allows his students to truly know where they came from.

“We want our students to know that they descend from a line of kings and queens,” he said. “It’s only when students know where they came from that they are able to know where they can go from here. We’re teaching our children to have full pride in their heritage, to learn and incorporate that heritage into who they are, and into the adults they will become.”

And most importantly, once they receive an education, they are duty-bound to come back and give back.

The Mama of Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy

In keeping with the school’s African-centered heritage, all women at the school are called “Mama” and all men are referred to as “Baba.”

For Nelson,that namesake is even more meaningful than honoring the African culture.

“When I’m here, or even if I’m not here because I’m a representative of the school, I’m the mother of all the children here… I love each and every one of them just like they are my own,” she said.

Nelson has three children who have attended the school, two—ages 30 and 19—have graduated and one is currently in the seventh grade. She’s been with the school for 22 years.

When her oldest son started at Malcolm X Academy, it was through a lottery program because so many students wanted to attend the school. And she’s been an involved parent ever since.

“When a parent participates in a child’s education, the child actually does better,” she said. “You can’t just leave it entirely up to the staff. Parents have to participate.”

“I learn something new every day.”

Eighth-grade student Kayla Young has been at Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy since pre-school.

“Every day, I learn something new,” said the 13-year-old. “And it helps not only with school, but how to handle personal conflicts better. The program has helped to boost my confidence. I now think before I act, and I know that everything is not worth an argument. I’m confident enough to walk away.”

Fellow eighth-grader Anthony Daniels, 13, added: “I like being here because they ground me in my African heritage and I think this is the best school to prepare me for high school and college.”

Both Kayla and Anthony participate in mentoring programs offered by Michigan State University.

The MSU “My Brother’s Keeper” program was initiated in 1990 with Dr. Watson. African-American college students from MSU visit Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy to help prepare them for college life. The mentorship program includes about 45 middle school students who are matched with 25 MSU students.

This program was designed specifically for males, considering Malcolm X was originally an all-boys school. Once the school became co-ed, a similar mentoring program was created for young ladies titled, “Daughters of the Collective.”

Robeson-Malcolm X students also participate in the MSU GEAR UP program. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a statewide, sustained and collaborative effort that provides early intervention services and a scholarship component to low-income, underrepresented students and parents. Source:

The students visit MSU twice per month, sometimes overnight, and also take courses on campus on Saturdays. Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy also has fine arts and educational partnerships with Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The school recently celebrated a 21-point gain in writing on the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) Test.  Writing and literature were a major part of the school’s improvement plan last year.

Administrators designed the POWER (Place of Writing with Enhanced Resources) Lab so that students could “learn more about writing and publish their work to see the benefits of writing and gain a new respect for it,” said Dr. Robinson.

Something you didn’t know…

There was much controversy surrounding naming a school after the late Malcolm X. But as Dr. Robinson stated, “Malcolm represents the message that we want to translate to all boys: That you can make a mistake and still turn your life around and make an impact.”

Something else you didn’t know…

Attending the Malcolm X Academy graduation ceremony was the last public appearance of Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, before her death in 1997, according to Dr. Robinson. Shabazz, who was raised in Detroit, attended the school’s graduation ceremonies annually. Dr. Robinson can recall one visit where he and his staff took Shabazz out to lunch after a graduation ceremony and she spoke candidly to the group for four hours. “She really liked that we were a public school and not a private school, so that all students could receive the African-centered education. Not just those who could afford to pay for it,” Dr. Robinson said.

Unsung Hero: Alma Gardner, Custodian

“I clearly have the best staff at DPS,” said Dr. Robinson. “I have never worked with a group of people more dedicated. Seventy-five percent of the original Malcolm X Academy staff is still here.”

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