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Pushing kids to succeed in Detroit Public Schools amid a literacy crisis

Murcy Jones holds her twin granddaughters outside her home in Detroit, MI.  Eliza Mills/Marketplace

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Murcy Jones always wanted to be a teacher. She grew up and attended public school in Detroit, always at the top of her class. She graduated as a member of the National Honors Society and was accepted into Michigan State University. 

“I just went out into the world thinking that I had all the tools I needed in order to succeed,” Jones said. “When I got to Michigan State I was in for a rude awakening. I found out that I was behind the curveball. I promptly flunked out, and it kind of scarred me. So I didn’t go back to school for another 20 years after that.”

Jones says it was her children who inspired who to go back to school — she and her husband always emphasized the value of an education, and she felt that it was time to practice what she preached. She started out at junior college, where she got straight As, then graduated from Wayne State University. After her bachelors, she received two masters degrees and was finally able to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a teacher. 

Jones encountered a problem many Detroit Public School graduates face. Despite passing and even excelling within the city’s public school system, she was not prepared for college. In her 15 years as an elementary school teacher in the Detroit Public School system, Jones has seen a lot of change. Detroit’s public schools have been in some form of state control since 1999. The past 15 years have been a constant struggle for stability. Schools open and close irregularly, there are hundreds of teacher vacancies and the physical school buildings are poorly maintained.

Those stability issues have been a detriment to student literacy, according to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of a group of students and families against the state. Public Counsel, a pro-bono firm which brought the lawsuit, argues that the state has denied children attending public school in Detroit a constitutional right to literacy. 

The state, in turn, argues that it is not at fault, and that there are “many other factors that contribute to illiteracy, such as poverty, parental involvement (or lack thereof), medical problems, intellectual limitations, domestic violence, trauma, and other numerous influences.” A federal judge will hear arguments regarding the state’s motion to dismiss the case this Thursday.

Murcy Jones is familiar with the state’s argument, and she said her students hear and see it everywhere. There is an overwhelming sense — from pop culture, from the state, from their friends — that they are not good enough. She said that’s simply not true. 

“I service a lot of underprivileged, poverty-stricken students who have a lot on their plates. I try to give them hope that there is something out there other than the environment that they’re in, that they’re born into,” Jones said. “Because I came from that, I let them know that I come from that, and look where I am. You can do better than what people say.”

Jones says she prefers working with younger students, who have been less beaten down by the system. She hopes that good teaching early on will set her elementary school students up for success. She knows that her students will face immense challenges — she experienced many of them firsthand during her time in school — but she also knows they can overcome them, with the right resources. 

“When I was at Michigan State, I felt worthless. I felt like I was a failure. I felt like nobody cared, because they didn’t teach me what I should have known,” Jones said, “and for that to be a deal-breaker, it weighed heavy on me for a long time.”

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