When Brian Peck became a teacher, he wanted a job in the Detroit Public Schools. His dad grew up in the Osborn neighborhood and his uncle went to Osborn High School, so naturally he felt an affinity toward the place.
“It’s great to serve here,” he says enthusiastically of his present post as a Spanish teacher at Osborn Preparatory Academy.
What he didn’t realize, though, was just how many challenges there were.
“I’ve been here five years, and we are going on our fourth principal in that time,” he says.
Peck is also quick to point out there is a lot of opportunity to improve the school, which just combined its three schools into one huge institution, renaming it Osborn Preparatory Academy. There are now 726 kids in four grades. In Peck’s estimation, the school needs drastic improvement, but finds there’s a lot of support to do so.
“The community wants a public school, and the students take a lot of pride in their school,” he says. “I am humbled by the parents and the teachers and how much they do.”
The State of Michigan has tried to close Osborn many times because of its consistently poor performance in state testing. The school has been met with sanctions and was even on Governor Snyder’s list in the latest round of legislated closures.
When the schools consolidated last year classrooms were remodeled, and a good deal of the classroom books were thrown out and not replaced. Imagine a literature teacher without copies of The Crucible or Things Fall Apart to pass out to students.
“The library was pretty outdated,” says Peck, “and our district doesn’t have a lot of money.”
Until recently, the library books hailed from the 1960s and 1970s. Peck’s church held a book drive last year, and FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) has helped, but there was still a need for sets of novels.
That’s when DTE Energy stepped in. The largest combined electric and gas utility in Michigan sets the month of August aside each year for its Month of Caring, a 31-day period where the company rallies employees to give back to their communities, especially the community in which they work.
“We try to get the whole company doing something,” says Nancy Moody, vice president of public affairs.
Moody says DTE Energy often works with its partner schools, and this year picked Osborn at East Seven Mile Road and Hoover.
Its “Stuff the Bus” initiative is organized around a typical school supplies drive before the school year. When the company reached out to Osborn, the teachers were, of course, very appreciative of any supplies that would come their way. They quickly, however, told DTE Energy what they really needed was help getting books.
The teachers had none of the classics or any of the books or authors that interested their primarily African-American student body.
“We came up with the idea to at least buy the classics we needed,” says Peck.
Moody was struck by the idea, and couldn’t wait to help out.
“We instantly thought, ‘This sounds like a huge opportunity,’” she says. “This is not a school where the kids have an iPad and can call up a book that way. Last year, none of the teachers had sets of books.”
The response from DTE Energy and its employees was immediate.
“The school needed 600 books in all – 17 sets total – within 24 hours,” says Moody. “When we put out a call for volunteers, our employees pulled together. We gave them the titles needed, and they signed up to buy them, then came in to sort and stock the books, too.”
Fifty-five DTE Energy employees stepped up to help sort and pack on Thursday, Aug. 31 – just in time for the start of the school year. It also concluded the company’s second annual Month of Caring, where more than 2,000 employees volunteered 5,000 hours to help communities across Michigan.
The reaction from the teachers? True joy, true gratitude.
“You just don’t know how wonderful this is!” and “You can’t imagine what a difference this will make for us,” were just a few of their responses.
The teachers recognized the DTE Energy team didn’t only tell them what they’d do, they listened. “I’m at a loss for words to describe the experience,” says Moody. “They were overwhelmed.”
Peck says the faculty’s goal is to make the students independent readers. The school has no librarian and last year there were very few books on the shelves in the library at all. The students have been helping to rebuild the library for two years and Peck says there’s now a pretty robust selection for the teachers to use, from fiction to autobiographies to a wide selection of African-American novels. He’s even working on a group of books specific to the Hmong population at the school. The Hmong are from China and Southeast Asia.
“English teachers have a lot to accomplish in class, but what got them into it in the first place was great literature,” he says.
DTE Energy’s work with Detroit schools doesn’t stop with Stuff the Bus. The company hires youth from their partner schools, and this year hired 35 kids from Osborn. Students are connected with a mentor – hopefully for a summer internship – and brought in summer after summer to learn skill sets that make them fully employable.
Moody is proud of what they accomplished at Osborn, but wishes she could have been there on the first day of school to see the kids touch their books.
“This truly transforms their lives,” she says.