Youth Face Uphill Struggle Amid Detroit’s Troubles

Corey Williams, Comcast News, October 17, 2009

Like the rundown houses and shuttered storefronts in his Detroit neighborhood, bleakness abounds in LeRoy Taylor’s future.

He is among tens of thousands reaching adulthood in a city where the American Dream appears just outside their reach. Taylor, 20, spends empty hours on basketball courts, zoned out in front of a television or aimlessly pedaling through streets he desperately wants to leave, but doesn’t have the work skills, education or money to do so.

“I fill out applications. No one will call me back,” said Taylor, stopping his bike long enough to hustle change for cigarettes near a west side bus stop. “It’s useless. It’s real scary.”

Too few jobs are only part of the problems facing youths in this troubled city. Its public high schools are considered among the nation’s worst. Planned budget cuts to the recreation department will reduce hours and slash into staffing.

Then there’s crime.

A 15-year-old and his mother were charged Wednesday with murder after a 19-year-old bystander was shot to death at a recreation center. The county prosecutor said the 35-year-old woman allowed her son access to a handgun and drove him away after the shooting.

Five other 15-year-olds were among six teens arrested earlier this month for as many as 10 armed robberies and carjackings. And in late June, seven teens were wounded during a bus stop shooting after summer school.

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About 32 percent of the city’s 900,000 residents struggle in poverty as Detroit limps through the auto industry’s collapse. Factory and manufacturing jobs are gone.

Roughly one in four working-age adults is jobless. The situation is more dire for 16- to 19-year-olds in Detroit who face an unemployment rate of 57.4 percent, according to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, citing last year’s U.S. Census figures.

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Until a few months ago, Detroit Cares was known as the Last Chance Academy for students who failed in traditional school settings. The privately run academy, under contract with Detroit Public Schools, receives its funding from the district. Traditional courses are taught alongside cosmetology, building trades and culinary arts.

Detroit high school students historically have done poorly on standardized tests. For example, 32 percent of 11th graders met or exceeded reading standards and only 14 percent did the same in math on the 2007 Michigan Merit Examination. Statewide averages were 60 percent in reading and 47 percent in math.

District records show fewer than six of 10 high school seniors graduated in 2008, while the dropout rate was just over 27 percent.

An emergency financial manager appointed in March by Gov. Jennifer Granholm is restructuring the schools to improve education and student safety while trying to reduce a $259 million budget deficit.

“I don’t think college preparation is the cornerstone of Detroit Public Schools anymore,” said Sheffield, the founder and chief executive of Detroit Cares. “The vast majority of these kids are looking for a high school diploma and to get jobs.”

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But money is in short supply in Detroit.

About 7,000 young people were employed under a summer jobs program, but its funding ran out. Recreation center hours, threatened with new reductions, have been cut to help trim the city’s $300 million budget deficit.

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