School of the Week: Ralph J. Bunche Preparatory Academy

A whole new school and a whole new perspective for staff and families at Bunche Academy

Newly assigned principal, academic engagement administrator quickly set the tone and create a shared vision to attract students, beat the competition

The first communication that new Principal Cindy Lang sent to the teachers at Ralph J. Bunche Preparatory Academy this past summer was to ask their help to do something that had not been done before—to come to the school on warm August days for the purpose of fanning out across the school’s rather vast boundary to knock on local families’ doors.

Lang and her staff were about to take some bold actions that would announce that it’s a new day at the school, and neither time nor the school’s trajectory was among their initial assets. Bunche teachers, like many hundreds in DPS, would soon begin a monumental campaign to seek new students in an effort to stabilize enrollment. At this particular school, with a host of new competitors including a high-profile new charter campus two blocks to the north and a shrinking market, this was a school turnaround that needed to be both built and communicated in record time.

In late summer, Principal Lang sought and received approval to change the school’s name mid-campaign, met with her staff to build and expand new programs and advocated for a large scale cleanup of the overgrown, but tree-filled, park-like campus that hid the school and provided negative curb appeal from most prominent directions. Crews hurried to make improvements within hours of the first Neighborhood Block Party set for Saturday, August 24—Open Doors Day.

By Count period, Bunche Academy logged an overall K-8 enrollment of 489, a stable mark that exceeded demographer projections as Detroit Public Schools on the whole stabilized its enrollment after more than a decade and a half of large declines. But Bunche had to do so while building a new brand and creating a new preparatory environment with expanded programs to educate the whole child.

Now, two and a half months into the new school year, the results are evident in more than just attendance sheets and successfully converted families from local charters and suburban districts.

A school of excellence for this community

Lang and AEA Frederick Cannon state that they created a shared vision for the school staff and worked hard to be extremely visible at all times.

“One parent said to me, ‘you’re touchable,’ and others thanked me for always returning calls and being available to meet at any time,” Lang says. “This school is a family. We interact. The PACSA president considers this home. We make decisions together.”

“It’s about educating the children, and also enjoying what they’re doing,” Lang says of the staff’s willingness to move in new directions. “It’s rigorous. We expect more. But we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Cannon says the school is focused on educating the whole child and providing all the necessary programs in a preparatory setting. Retaining art was important as an avenue through which the students can express themselves. Focusing on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math), participating in First Robotics and ensuring that newspaper, yearbook and character skills were among the offerings were a shared goal. Expanding field trips to universities and nearby Belle Isle were necessary. The school has and will continue a longtime tradition of large participation in Academic Games challenges. The school also has a new Parent/Family Handbook and a new, school-developed website.

Science teacher Diana Koss’s students are excited to be studying and planning the habitat and plantings necessary to attract Monarchs to a newly created outdoor butterfly garden on a formerly underutilized amphitheater in the front center of the green campus. The students will also be working on mapping out hiking trails on Belle Isle. And Koss’s students and the entire student body are also focused on the school’s participation in the Go Green Challenge. Cannon explains to a visitor that bags on the floor outside of classrooms nearing the 4:10 p.m. dismissal bell are not trash, but recyclables.

Koss has taught students in their near lower east side set of communities for 19 years, earlier at Campbell School and at Bunche’s original location approximately a quarter-mile away and says the new programs are a draw. “We’re becoming ever more increasingly student focused,” Koss says.

Fourth-grade Math teacher Latrelle Pierre says that the strong set of academic and enrichment programs builds student confidence, enhances their ability to seek alternative ways of problem-solving, and helps to overcome historic digital divides.

How the children learn is the same way the others do, just in a different language

Bunche also ensures that all students are included in all school programming. One of four students at Bunche is enrolled in one of an array of specialized student services programs, including 35 students in grades PK-8 in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program. Longtime Hearing-Impaired certified teacher Julie Julien stresses the importance of viewing the program as one in which the students learn the same way as other students, just in a different language.

“American Sign Language is their primary, or native language, and we ensure that all of the instruction, even when we have an MSU Extension guest speaker on nutrition, is taught in this language.”

Have you been to Bunche lately?

Together the parents and the staff additionally planned a school-wide Harvest Fest; are organizing Thanksgiving baskets and a hat, scarf and coat drive; collaborating with an alumnus’  local company whose employees will forego office gifts to instead give to Bunche’s students; and are planning a new Winter Wonderland. “Every door will be decorated,” Principal Lang says.

As Detroit Public Schools embarks on its next enrollment challenge—sharply increasing historically weak retention rates—Bunche is again leading the way. A School Open House is planned for each three-month period here, with a renewed push to fan out in the neighborhoods with flyers. The principal at nearby Chrysler School is developing ways for matriculating fifth and sixth-grade families to explore Bunche.

Word-of-mouth referrals have already begun, and Lang tells stories about mothers telling their close friends that the school is one they need to check out. “One parent told me that she had to tell her girlfriend ‘it’s different; bring your children back.’”

“This is not the same Bunche or the old Duffield, and we need to continue to get the word out,” Lang says.

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