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Bringing Up Detroit is a new series from Michigan Radio and independent producer Zak Rosen. The year-long series examines the inner-lives of three Detroit families as they navigate the city’s often unpredictable school systems, economy, transportation networks, and neighborhoods.Support for this series comes from:0000017b-35e5-df5e-a97b-35edaf6d0000

A Detroit family's long journey to the first day of school

Marc Grassi watches his daughter, Franca, eat breakfast before her first day of school at St. Clare of Montefalco in Grosse Point Park, Michigan.
Zak Rosen
Michigan Radio

On her first day of school, Franca Grassi woke up, ate a bowl of oatmeal with diced nectarines and maple syrup. She brushed her teeth with the help of a Mickey Mouse iPhone app. Then her parents, Nikki Rittenour and Marc Grassi, drove her to school in their station wagon.



As Michigan kids pour back into school this week, figuring out where Franca would wind up on her first day was an exhausting undertaking.

“I remember us talking about having the summer to decide, and then the summer just disappeared," Marc Grassi recalls.

At the beginning of the summer, Grassi and Rittenour were still looking for a school for Franca. They had moved to midtown Detroit from Asheville, North Carolina in 2014, and as soon as they got here, their search for the right school began.

Nikki Rittenour confesses, “I’ve totally become one of these people who, like, when you meet a parent in Detroit, that’s the first question that I ask them. So where does your kid go to school?”


In the last year, Nikki and Marc visited no fewer than 10 schools. Charter, public, and private. But for most of the summer, they weren't ready to enroll their daughter at any of them.



Finally, by the end of August, they had whittled their long list down to two schools, both private: St. Clare of Montefalco, a Catholic school in Grosse Pointe Park, and Friends School of Detroit, Michigan’s only Quaker-run school, not far from downtown Detroit. Both institutions promised small class sizes, a dedicated parent network, and a racially mixed student body. But just a few weeks back, Grassi and Rittenour learned that Friends School would not be opening this year.

“They had some administrative troubles, financial troubles, building troubles,” Rittenour explains.


So, that made their decision to commit to St. Clare of Montefalco that much easier. Marc Grassi and Nikki Rittenour might seem like especially choosy parents. But they’re not asking for much. Just some organization and some stability – something a lot of schools in Detroit, no matter who runs them, seem to be struggling with.


Marc Grassi, Franca Grassi and Nikki Rittenour, on Franca's first day of school.
Credit Zak Rosen / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Marc Grassi, Franca Grassi, and Nikki Rittenour, on Franca's first day of school.

Grassi and Rittenour acknowledge how lucky they are to be able to afford a small, private school for their daughter. Other Detroit families aren’t as fortunate. Many don’t have a car, so they can’t send their kids across the city to school. Many don’t have time to spend investigating the entire city’s school landscape. And that landscape is constantly in flux. Schools are opening, closing, changing leadership at a rapid clip. And the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming.

No matter who you are, or where you live in Detroit, the ground is constantly shifting when it comes to schools.

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.
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