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Good Growth

High school students lend their voices to the effort to create equitable economic growth in Detroit 


How do you make sure that growth is good?

This was the overarching question students at The School at Marygrove (TSM) explored for their final projects about creating equitable growth in their hometown of Detroit. It was the culminating assignment for the economics class taught by lead teacher Brandon Moss and student teacher Hunter Janness.

Marygrove students

The students’ work wasn’t just for a grade: they were speaking directly to Detroit City Councilmember Angela Whitfield Calloway. Whitfield Calloway—a graduate of Cooley High School who went on to earn degrees from Spelman College and Detroit College of Law—is a former adult education instructor, human resources administrator, hearing officer, and lifelong Detroiter. Although the students in class are too young to vote, Whitfield Calloway believes these students’ voices are as critical as any of her constituents’. 

The students formed groups, with each one researching a different area they saw as crucial to equitable economic development in Detroit. Topics included access to housing, mitigating air pollution, fixing roads, encouraging small businesses, improving bus infrastructure, and reintegrating Detroiters who have been incarcerated. 

“I have not seen teenagers so engaged in identifying problems in their city and fiercely, confidently pursuing solutions,” says Whitfield Calloway. The councilwoman enthusiastically encouraged each group and followed up with questions that pushed the students’ thinking even further. 

Marygrove students

One group, whose project was titled “Housing in the D,” discovered that more than 1,000 people became homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 300 of Detroit’s currently unhoused individuals are under the age of 18. According to the students, the city’s 26 shelters can’t meet the demand. Families without secure housing struggle to participate in the economy and the educational system. Their team proposed investing in housing and supports particularly designed for single mothers facing homelessness.  

Several other groups presented on various aspects of transportation in Detroit, including road conditions that impinge on the local economy; Detroiters who struggle to get to work because they can’t afford gas, vehicle maintenance, and insurance; and buses that aren’t perceived as being safe or clean. Their solutions ranged from AI-powered road condition monitoring to crowdsourced data on public transit. 

If this doesn’t sound like a typical high school economics class, that’s because it isn’t. However, the students are showing mastery of terms such as GDP, supply, demand, profit, and opportunity cost, among many other common economics concepts. “Rote memorization teaches you an accepted framework within economics but it doesn’t teach you to think ‘economically,’” says Janness.

Marygrove students

Moss and Janness first introduced the language of economics in apprehensible ways. “We did this by applying labels to phenomena they already intuitively understood,” says Janness. That was the foundation for building a curriculum in which students would be prepared to ask authentic questions, synthesize their own knowledge and experiences, and think critically about equity as it pertains to the economic growth of a large metropolitan area. 

“You undersell the importance of the topic if you’re not teaching them about the implications of GDP, for example,” says Moss. “They can listen to the news and hear that the GDP grew and it can be implied that that’s a good thing, but it’s important to us that they can ask questions about what that actually means. Is all growth good? Does where the growth comes from matter? How is that wealth distributed?”  

Project- and place-based learning, which are at the heart of the TSM curriculum, are powerful for many reasons. Moss and Janness say that structuring learning this way has led students to learn about themselves and their communities while also giving them opportunities to make real contributions that they feel good about.

Moss and Janness are impressed by their students’ progress during the year. They found that the students were asking better questions, astutely using sources to do research, and challenging each other to imagine creative solutions to problems that they identified in their own communities. 

In addition to the learning objectives of the state’s economic standards, the class incorporates the Learning for Justice standards put forth by the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Learning for Justice publishes resources to help foster shared learning and reflection for educators, young people, caregivers, and community members. 

Marygrove students

Janness, who completed his undergraduate degree in economics, is thrilled to share his interest in economics with his students. The final presentations were the culmination of the class as well as Janness’ experience as a student teacher. 

Since Janness is pursuing the Michigan Education Teaching School pathway, he joined TSM at the start of his one-year Master of Arts with Certification program. He worked with his attending mentor teacher, Moss, and his field instructor, Bill Waychunas, to plan the ambitious lessons he taught. 

Janness is now a resident teacher at TSM and is able to continue working with TSM students and families. Janness is a mentor to intern teachers while benefiting from the continued support of his colleagues at TSM and the faculty and staff of the SOE. His placement in the school allows him to keep helping his students use their agency, ideas, and passion to shape their community. 

Whitfield Calloway is also eager to hear more from TSM students, who peppered her with questions about how city council works, how residents can communicate with city council, and how local taxes are determined. “You’ve given me a lot of ideas to take back to council tomorrow,” she told the class.

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