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Michigan Radio reporters will present a series of stories this month about social class and how it impacts our daily lives; from the way we plan our cities and neighborhoods; to the type of education our children receive.We'll look at class interactions on the dance floor and in the court room, and we’ll ask whether upward mobility is a myth or reality. That and more in our series The Culture of Class.How does socioeconomic class affect you? How do you think it affects life in Michigan? Share your thoughts with us

Using the arts to level the playing field

After just one year in Mosaic, nearly all of the students say they plan to go to college.
Ian Tadashi Moore
After just one year in Mosaic, nearly all of the students say they plan to go to college.

Michigan’s economy is steadily becoming more "knowledge-based" than "factory-based." 

That means, in order to land a job and earn a decent salary, a college degree is that much more crucial. But for many lower income kids, higher ed is out of reach. But an arts group in Detroit is helping to level the playing field among teenagers...with very real results.

Using the arts as a "hook"

Sheridynn Frazier goes to school in Redford, and she admits there was a time she wanted to drop out. "I just don’t really like it at my school," says Frazier. "It’s just not a safe place to be. The rumors, the backstabbing, all that."

But she stuck with it. And focused her energy on singing with Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit, a nonprofit arts group made up of an acting ensemble and a choir. She calls Mosaic her "home away from home."

"I love it," says Frazier. "It taught me a lot, it challenged me a heck of a lot! They push us, they don’t really push us, but they give us a helping hand to know that we’re loved."

Different backgrounds, same high expectations

There are 160 students in Mosaic – the vast majority African American - and they come from all over metro Detroit. Anyone can audition, there’s no minimum GPA requirement, and it’s free to participate.

Rick Sperling is Mosaic’s founder and CEO. He says "about a third of the kids are below the poverty line, the other third are working poor – low to moderate income, and a third are above that. So you have a mix, and that’s very dynamic."

Sperling says they level the playing field by providing extra support to those who need it, whether it’s with home issues or school. But the same high bar is set for all students, no matter what background they come from: show up for rehearsal on time and ready to work, respect one another, and stay in school. No exceptions.

As for college, a University of Michigan study found that when students first enroll in Mosaic, fewer than two-thirds say they want to go to college.

But after just one year in Mosaic, nearly all the students say they plan to go to college. Many say they want to go on to graduate school, too.

In other words, this relatively small arts group in Detroit has succeeded where so many others have failed. When schools or churches or families couldn’t or wouldn’t, Mosaic stepped in to give these kids a future.

Mosaic is filled with "pops of rainbow color"

Jeniah Head, 17, has been in Mosaic for three years, and she says one of the biggest skills she's learned is time management. But she says what really lured her in was a resume workshop:

"Cause I’d never heard about that," says Head. "School doesn’t talk about. They just say get a good job, but don’t tell you how to get one."

And Mosaic's members say the group has taught them lots of other skills that will be important for their future success: how to network, how to dress professionally, how to be disciplined, how to work well with others. Things more privileged kids pick up more or less automatically.

Coming here everyone is so unique," says 17-year old Jasmyne  Brantley. "I was just used to steady, steady blue, and this is like pops of rainbow colors here."

When Brantley joined Mosaic as a sophomore, she says she was depressed. She describes her home life as an emotional rollercoaster, and she says the different personalities in the acting group were a lot to handle. But now she says she loves being at Mosaic, it makes her feel "safe."

Jasmynn hopes to go to Wayne State University and double major in theater and social work, so she can someday be a drama therapist.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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