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Carstens Elementary School

When former principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens in 1997, student achievement was abysmal and morale was low. Two years later, her philosophy of sharing leadership with her staff, empowering teachers, welcoming help from community members and removing barriers to progress paid off. On the state assessment in 2009, third-graders at the school outperformed their peers statewide in all tested subjects. That same year, the Michigan Department of Education recognized Carstens as one of the top five Title I Distinguished Schools.

In this high-poverty school, staff members cater to students’ basic needs. A parent resource center serves families in crisis, helping them with short-term utility assistance, access to food and other social services. A local businessman delivers sleeping bags for every child so students don’t have to sleep in the cold at home. School staff members give breakfast to hungry students, and community members supply fresh and nutritious food. LensCrafters visits the school to provide students free eye exams and glasses.

Carstens meets students’—and even parents’—educational needs. The school offers a “parent university” where parents can take courses in the summer while their children attend summer school. When students have academic or behavioral issues, a resource-coordinating team consisting of a social worker, administrator, teacher, school psychologist and speech therapist collaborate to find solutions. One teacher notes that those solutions range from requesting a student be tested to something as simple as finding the student a warmer coat.

The school has formed community relationships. Members from the nearby, affluent Grosse Pointe neighborhood visit the school at least three times a week to read to students. A lawyer volunteers to help parents with legal services. A Detroit Free Press editor visits the school to pique students’ interest in writing. And staffers from a local library volunteer their time to engage students. Locals have dubbed this tight-knit community partnership the “Village in Motion.”

Elbert Bennett, a third-grade science teacher, attended Carstens as a child. He returned to his alma mater to help his community. “I definitely had offers in many different places, but my heart was here,” he says. Bennett has taught at Carstens for 13 years. In that time, the school adopted the principles of the Comer School Development Program, which Bennett says emphasizes consensus-building and collaboration. He notes that current principal Janice Richardson has continued the pursuit of excellence that her predecessor promoted among the school’s faculty and staff.

Bennett says that the school tries to expose students to the world beyond their high-poverty neighborhood. Field trips have included visits to the zoo, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and even the Toledo (Ohio) Science Center, a 45-minute drive from Carstens.

Despite the school’s many successes, parents and students are not flocking to Carstens, due to the effect of Detroit’s economic downturn on the school’s struggling neighborhood. Because the school serves just 285 students in a facility meant for 526, it was placed on a list of planned closures by the district’s emergency financial manager. The closure was meant to help alleviate the district’s fiscal crisis. But after witnessing the incredible work being done at the school, the emergency financial manager decided to save it. “At the end of the day, this school does represent a real center of excellence in a neighborhood that needs a lot of help,” he told the Detroit Free Press in June. “If you look at this neighborhood, the only beacon of hope is this school."¹

¹Seidel, Jeff. “Carstens, a Beacon of Hope, Shines On.” Detroit Free Press. 8 June 2010.



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