Dearborn Public Schools: State’s third-largest district still growing

Dearborn Heights resident Yasmin Mallah made a life-changing decision during her senior year of high school when she decided she didn’t want to become a doctor after all.


She was able to gain insight through Dearborn Public School’s Michael Berry Career Center, where she shadowed health professionals and saw first hand what their jobs entailed. She also took early college courses at Henry Ford Community College as a high school junior along with advanced placement classes that transferred to the college.

Now the 2011 Dearborn High School graduate is on her way to earning a master's degree to be a nurse anesthetist.


According to district communications director David Mustonen, Mallah’s experience is due to Dearborn Public School's emphasis on careers, something that begins in preschool and carries through 12th grade and into college. And, he says, that program is helping students gain insight into viable career paths at an early age.


“I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor because there were other options,” says Mallah. “I was able to understand what I wanted to do.”


Ready, set, grow


Serving the city of Dearborn and a small northeast section of Dearborn Heights, Dearborn Public Schools is the third largest school district (after Detroit and Utica) in the state in enrollment. In the 2016-17 school year, there were 20,700 students. And despite many districts in the state suffering from declining enrollment, Dearborn schools is still growing.


“This is our 28th consecutive year of growth for our district,” Mustonen says.


Typically, the district grows annually by about 100 or so students, but this year there was a spike of more than 400 students additional pupils in the system. The district currently has an annual budget of over $200 million.


One reason for the growth is the constant influx of immigrants, many from the Middle East, into the city. Dearborn schools graduate approximately 1,100 students annually. As of last year, about 60 percent of the district's students were Arab American, ranging from being brand new to the country to fourth-generation Americans.


Mustonen says there have been some subtle changes in the way the district operates to accommodate the high percentage of Middle Eastern immigrants and Arab Americans. For instance, the school calendar is adjusted to allow students to observe Muslim holidays, and halal food items are offered in the cafeterias. The district offers Arabic-language programs, allows for consideration of prayer time and rules regarding modesty of females in physical education and sports.


“A challenge we face is the high number of students who come to the district who are either economically disadvantaged or have not had an experience of any kind of a formal school background,” Mustonen says. “We might get a ninth grader from overseas, and they haven’t spent the last two years in school at all.”


Despite some of the obstacles faced by some students, this year there was a 93 percent graduation rate in Dearborn, which is a five-year high and a significant jump from the 76 percent graduation rate in 2011. The dropout rate has also decreased by 72 percent from 113 drop-outs to 32 percent, according to Mustonen. The state average graduation rate for 2016 is 80 percent.


Students prosper in STEAM


At the middle-school level, Dearborn district students are offered a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) curriculum. The Henry Ford Early College program allows students to start in the ninth grade, and after five years earn their high school diplomas and two-year college degrees or certification in a medical field. The program is provided by a partnership between the school district, Henry Ford College, and Henry Ford Health System. Students take all their classes at Henry Ford College, and the curriculum is free.


A similar program that begins in the ninth grade offers students five years of instruction in manufacturing and technology in cooperation with the district, Henry Ford College, and Ford Motor Company.


Now in its fourth year, the Henry Ford Collegiate Academy allows students to enter during the 11th grade, continue in 12th grade and finish after another year. Students remain at their home high schools while attending this program.


“They don’t lose any of the high school experience, and in their 13th year they’re entirely at the college,” says Mustonen. “They save two years of tuition, and they’re still a year ahead of everyone else.”


It takes a community


Mustonen points to other partnerships with the City of Dearborn, community organizations, parental involvement and unions, as the forces behind much of the district’s success.

For instance, he said, a teacher evaluation system was developed with unions that were also used to improve classroom instruction. And learning intervention programs start young in Dearborn.


“By identifying students at an early age we can get interventions,” Mustonen says. “If they’re falling behind or ahead of the curve we can provide instruction. We offer students a variety of programs for them to take part in, especially in the early grades.”


And during a time when state aid cuts slashed art and music programs in districts across the state, Dearborn’s creative arts classes are flourishing, Mustonen says. One of its premier classes was developed in the early 1980s by Dearborn teacher Russ Gibb, who started the district’s film and video program.


Students' work is featured annually in a film festival at the Ford Community and Performing Art Center. Alumni have won numerous local Emmy awards, gone on to prestigious film schools, landed jobs at agencies and cable television stations, and created feature films, according to Mustonen.


Teacher Kurt Doelle, an instructor of the Russ Gibb Digital Media program, said his goal is to give students a degree of freedom when pursuing their subject matter.


“If they want to do something they are passionate about, I’m all into letting them invest in their own ideas,” Doelle says.


The Russ Gibb Digital Media classes were a perfect fit for senior Michael Alec Berry, program station manager and great nephew of Michael Berry, who was instrumental in financing the program decades ago.


Berry now wants to pursue film in story development, directing and discerning how scenes are shot. He plans to attend the University of Michigan—Dearborn and major in computer engineering.


“This program helped me out of my shell and helped me find who I really am,” Berry says. “You build up connections with people, and it’s given me confidence in my work. This class teaches you a lot about life and dealing with people.”

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Read more articles by Diane Gale Andreassi.

Diane Gale Andreassi is a Detroit-area freelance writer who worked as a full-time community news reporter and editor.