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For kids in Detroit, a good school may not last

Brianna Foster-Nuñez and Alyssa Nuñez have been to three different schools since 2013.
Zak Rosen
Michigan Radio


This fall, it’s looking like Alyssa Nuñez and and Brianna Foster-Nuñez might switch to a new school.


It’s a pretty common experience in Detroit, where students switch schools 2.5 times more frequently than kids in the rest of the state.

Brianna and Alyssa’s mom, Desiree Foster, is increasingly frustrated by all the upheaval. “I just want them to get a break and let things fall into place for once,” she tells me in the parking lot of Detroit Public Schools’ special education placement office.

Foster, like both her kids, has a rare form of rickets that makes their leg bones fragile and brittle.

“They lose so much school already because of different appointments or surgeries or sicknesses. To have to constantly flip flop schools, it’s hard,” she says.

A school "like home"

Let me back up, and explain why the Fosters have been bouncing around so much. It started with the closure of Oakman Elementary, a DPS school where both girls started in kindergarten. It was a place designed for kids with special needs. The school offered physical therapy and smaller class sizes. The hallways had a handicapped bar wrapped all around the building. But Oakman also had a general education population.

“And It taught a lot of those kids who may not have ever been exposed to someone different, how to treat a person and how to be courteous and to be a friend of somebody who’s different, not to be afraid to reach out to them,” says Foster.


Oakman Elementary was a beloved place for students and parents. A lot families I spoke with referred to it as more than a school. “It was a like a home, a family,” was a constant refrain. So it came as a shock to the school’s community and supporters when it was put on the district's chopping block in the spring of 2013.

Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager at the time, Roy Roberts, blamed the closure on dropping enrollment and an overwhelming need for building upgrades that the district couldn't afford. Parents and activists contested the claims. In the end, though, there was nothing left to do.

A tough transition

Desiree Foster's older daughter, Brianna, wears black, plastic glasses and she loves the boy band Big Time Rush. She has a slight developmental delay and learns in a special education classroom at school. Because of the rickets, she usually moves around in a wheelchair or walker. When Oakman closed, she and her sister Alyssa switched to Lighthouse Academy, a new charter school in their Southwest Detroit neighborhood. From the start, Brianna said it was a tough transition.  

"These girls that speak Spanish, they were right behind me, making fun of the way I walk and stuff. There’s a lot of people that are handicapped and they’re making fun of them, the way they’re walking, and I think that’s not right, and it makes me feel really sad,” she recalled.

Another issue was getting a handicapped accessible bus to pick the girls up. Desiree Foster was assured there would be arrangements made for her daughters, but it never happened.

So at the end of the school year, in 2014, Foster pulled her girls out. Lighthouse’s principal says since the Fosters left, the school has secured transportation for disabled students. But now there aren’t any of those students enrolled at the school.

After Lighthouse, the girls enrolled at  Marcus Garvey Academy, a Detroit Public School over seven miles from their home. It’s been especially hard for Brianna’s younger sister, Alyssa, who walks very slowly.  

“There’s one class upstairs and another class downstairs, and then there’s another class upstairs,” she told me, sitting in her living room with her mom and sister.

Alyssa also has rickets, but she doesn’t use a wheelchair or walker. So she ends up being late for everything. For Brianna, who spends most of her day in one special education classroom, Marcus Garvey has been a good fit, and her mother has noticed significant growth and improvement.

Another school year, another school?

On the last day of school, just a few weeks back, the Fosters got some discouraging news. They were told Brianna might have to move schools again.  Desiree  Foster says the school told her that next year, Brianna’s classroom will be on the second floor. And since there’s no elevator, she can’t get up there.

In late June, Desiree Foster drove over to DPS’ special education office to figure out a solution. When she got there, the person she was supposed to meet with wasn’t there.


Foster will eventually find who she needs to find. She’ll figure out some kind of plan for her daughter. What else can she do?

Support for Bringing Up Detroit comes from the Skillman Foundation. Kids matter here.


Zak Rosen is a multimedia producer. His radio features have been heard on NPR, APM, PRI, the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Helsinki. He was a staff producer on NPR/PRX's State of the Re:Union. Prior to that, he was a founding producer of WDET's Detroit Today. He has written for Yes!, The Huffington Post, Model D, and The Red Thread.