School of the Week: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School

A unique role in preparing students and preserving history and culture…

From biology and the environment to the history and current state of civil rights, from family, community and social joys and challenges to college and careers, the 1,550 students at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School have every opportunity to learn and grow within a well-rounded, full-scale contextual project-based educational environment designed to meet their needs and ensure success. The high school serves the local community and includes two examination programs: MSAT (Mathematics, Science, and Applied Technology) and CISC (Center for International Studies and Commerce).

The life cycle.
“Get Ready for College,” a group of nine King High School students chant during the morning announcements, delivered from the large Career Center to the immediate right of the main entry. Their College Transition Advisor Tracy Jones adds a reminder about upcoming important deadlines for the FAFSA Federal Student Aid Application.

High school exists to prepare students for college and careers, but also the life and community that awaits them. For King High Principal Dr. Deborah Jenkins, ensuring her students’ awareness of the life cycle-from conception to death is her personal and professional mission. And it’s evident everywhere.

The Career Center is home to a sizable snake in an aquarium on a counter along the main pathway. Jenkins points out that students can watch and investigate the reptile’s shedding of its skin, a key part of its life process.

An ecosystem of natural life cycles and learning cycles: 1,440 minutes in a day and 1,461 days during four years in high school. From the perspective of someone with 82 semesters of experience in the school system.

But the natural environment physically engulfs and mentally and emotionally stimulates the students when they’re near the glass lined back walls of the school’s multipurpose King Center and inside the nearby Academic Engagement and Enrichment Center. Both are unique physical settings specially designed for the school, the latter open from early morning to early evening and filled with numerous project centers and professional workstations surrounded by cultural artwork, sculptures, college logos, some bunnies, and more snakes.

Principal Jenkins and Academic Engagement Advisor Shedrick Ward, who cares for the 120 plants representing 30 species and oversees the Engagement Center, speak about some of the plants having babies – such as the baby spider plant stems sent down from the mother plant –as well as others that may appear to have died, but still have recoverable roots. Still others develop brown leaves they require attention.

A 41-year DPS veteran (he prefers to describe it as 82 consecutive semesters), Ward says both the students and the plants require daily engagement to thrive. “We also teach them, for example, that pruning doesn’t mean hate. It means love. To remove something that’s inhibiting full growth helps the plants, and the students, achieve success.”

The Engagement Center focuses a great deal on preparing all students with the soft skills necessary to be prepared for college. Ward speaks also of the 1,461 days that transpire during a student’s four years in high school. “Both the high achievers and those who need support have one thing in common: They have 1,440 minutes in each of their days. The question is how they spend it.”

The continuing life cycle in the battle for civil rights, including diverse cultures.
On January 19, nearly 3,000 individuals attended the school’s annually sponsored 1.5-mile Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebratory March on the national holiday that honors the school’s namesake. A key part of the day’s events involve role playing, skits and interactive displays covering every aspect of the civil rights struggle from its beginnings to today. With an emphasis on children of the struggle and the theme, “I Am The Change,” nearly all of the displays remain in place, creating an ongoing full-scale educational workshop for the students studying here on a daily basis.

Principal Jenkins created the program with a broad coalition of partners and explains a full section devoted to the South and then another on the North. Guests were required to receive a pass to get to the North. “To leave one home in search of another” is inscribed on one sign, another nod for the students to life’s journeys.

That section focuses on the life of the civil rights movement in Detroit, with Michigan Roundtable for Diversity-sponsored displays describing icons including Detroit’s Paradise Valley, Conant Gardens, and the Eight Mile Road/Wyoming Ave Wall built to segregate two of the city’s neighborhoods in 1941. Jenkins points out the role that Asian Americans, Latinos and others played, as well as the impact of Native Americans and African Americans on Detroit’s lower east side marrying and bearing children.

The school’s partners for the King Celebratory March and program include the UAW, The Parade Company, and many schools, Prince Hall Masons, fraternities/sororities, businesses and churches. Participants included Congressman John Conyers, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, City Council President Brenda Jones and DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

Protecting the King culture, becoming academically successful and offering a full range of student, family and support services.
Throughout the school’s four academic wings are dozens of other posters, photos and artwork including a full size Rosa Parks’ Bus interaction developed for the King Holiday celebration and available for students to engage with each day. Included are trophies, jerseys, graduation documents and other artifacts from Detroit’s Eastern High School which served this community before the first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School opened and the new, 245,000-square foot facility opened in 2011. The Academic Engagement Center, the role playing and workshops, the displays, instructional technology and so much more of the school are all part of protecting and preserving culture as well as the history of the struggle, ancestors and leaders, the community, and the school itself and its unique heritage.

They all play a part in academic improvements aimed at student achievement, such as King High School’s jump of 13 points off of the State of Michigan’s ”Priority School” list.

And they all support the students’ soft skills, which Principal Jenkins believes is essential for maintaining a culture and climate conducive to learning in a building whose facilities are often stretched to capacity. “Our school’s vision is based on Dr. King’s quote, ‘Intelligence plus character is the true goal of education.’ We place a lot of emphasis on civility, eye contact and respect.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School athletes are perennial champions in major and minor sports and the new facility boasts an Olympic size pool. Its famed full Fine Arts Department includes Dance programs whose students have traveled nationally and internationally as well as the high school’s famous band, the only band in the world that has attended two Olympics-Beijing, China and London, England, the principal notes.

The school places a great deal of emphasis on providing the students and their families all of the supports necessary for success. On this chilly morning in late January, representatives from St. John Health System, the school and the district are developing final plans at the site for a soon-to-be-opened family clinic, with a special outside entrance to serve parents and neighbors.

“We are doing our best to keep the legacy alive,” Dr. Jenkins concludes.

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