Learning lessons in diversity

Area’s growing diversity especially seen in schools

News Photo by Julie Goldberg From left to right, Alpena Community College international students Yuki Nishibashi, Musa Kabbah, and Austin Brain work recently on a computer in the college’s library.

ALPENA — Musa Kabbah, an Alpena Community College student from Liberia, says he has never experienced discrimination living here.

Kabbah, who was a foreign exchange student at Alpena High School three years ago, said he had a lot of friends and everyone was glad he was an Alpena student. That’s still true as a college student, he said.

As U.S. Census data shows Northeast Michigan becoming more diverse — the number of Northeast Michiganders of color increased 55% between 2000 and 2017 — the trend is seen even more starkly in area schools.

In the 2018-19 school year, 6.2% of Northeast Michigan K-12 students were people of color. At Alpena Public Schools, the number of students of color has more than doubled since the 2002-03 school year.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Alpena Community College was 93.4% white, 2% Hispanic/Latino, 1.5% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 1% Asian, 0.9% black or African American, and 1.3% unknown for race and ethnicity in fall 2018.

Though area schools remain overwhelmingly white, students of color and those from other countries said they are rarely made to feel like outsiders.

But there are issues.

Some students of color have said they’ve heard racist remarks. And, though data is limited, state test results show Northeast Michigan schools, like those statewide and nationwide, sometimes fail to bring students of color up to the same level of performance as their white peers.

Area school leaders said they’re aware of those achievement gaps and train teachers on how to overcome them.

Despite those challenges, Northeast Michigan’s students of color said their experiences have been mostly positive.

“When I came for college, it was even better, because I get to do a lot of stuff now,” Kabbah said. “It’s very good to be here.”


The state does not break down standardized test performance unless at least 10 students scored in a particular category in each grade. Because there were too few students of color tested in each grade, achievement gap data is unavailable at most area schools and limited at APS.

But, where data available, white APS students almost always outperform their classmates of color. In third-grade reading, for example, the share of white students of color who tested proficient or better was more than 11 percentage points higher on last year’s tests than that of students who identified as more than one race.

The 14 seventh-graders of color tested last year outperformed their white peers on the seventh-grade math and reading tests.

Statewide, achievement gaps are more obvious. On third-grade reading tests, for example, more than half of white Michigan students were proficient or better last year, compared to less than 20% of black students.

Many factors contribute to achievement gaps, including poverty levels, language barriers, home-life struggles, and more. In 2017, Education Week reported on a John Hopkins University study that found black students are far more likely to graduate on time if they have at least one black teacher.

But Northeast Michigan students of color are unlikely to learn from a teacher who looks like them. Of the 376 teachers in Northeast Michigan school districts, only one is not white, an Asian teacher in Hillman Community Schools, according to state data.

School administrators say they don’t recruit teachers or principals of color. They hire whomever is best for the job.

“We don’t recruit, because we’re an equal opportunity employer,” Posen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Michelle Wesner said.

Area school leaders said they’re constantly working to address achievement gaps.

“Our comprehensive strategic plan, school improvement plans, and professional development schedule drives training and coaching on a daily basis,” Alcona Community Schools Superintendent Dan O’Connor said. “We constantly are training and supporting staff on narrowing the achievement gap.”

O’Connor said the district has an instructional coach assigned to Alcona Elementary School who works with teachers daily and supports them to improve instructional practices.

“We also have designated time each Friday after students leave for professional development and professional learning that is geared toward improving outcomes for students,” O’Connor said. “The district also sends staff to professional development throughout the school year.”

But achievement gaps are not the only concerns in area schools.

Russ Rhynard, chief assistant prosecutor for Alpena County, said he hears reports too often of racially charged insults and hurtful words that are spoken both to and by children.

“We have way too much of the kind of verbalization in our schools, especially in our high schools and junior high,” Rhynard said. “We know what that can do to a kid and their feeling of worth. It can make a kid even contemplate self-harm.”

International students at ACC see differences between Alpena and their home, and have had minor issues while living in the area.

Yuki Nishibashi, an international student from Japan, said he never thinks of discrimination while living in Alpena, but has had at least one instance where he was made to feel like an outsider.

“A little boy said, ‘I don’t like Asian,'” Nishibashi said. “He was like, ‘They drive me crazy.’ I don’t know why he thinks that.”

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Overall, however, the ACC students with whom The News spoke don’t see discrimination as an issue in the area or at school.

Nishibashi, the student from Japan, was a foreign exchange student at Alcona High School two years ago. Last school year, 93.5% of Alcona Community Schools students were white. There were two Asian students.

When Nishibashi moved to the area, he had to get accustomed to the differences between Japan and Alpena. One of those differences: Northeast Michigan is actually more diverse than Japan.

“There’s more diversity here at the college,” Nishibashi said. “I didn’t know how to interact with other races, so it was an issue, and the hardest part for me was to get used to the diversity here.”


Beyond training teachers to address achievement gaps, area schools are embracing other programs to address diversity issues.

For example, the Alpena Board of Education in September approved the creation of an Alpena High School Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

There are 48 students in the club.

Alpena High counselor Lori Vought said students were interested in having a safe space to share their stories. She said many students choose to share their coming-out stories.

“We’re going to work with students, not only giving them a safe space, but also giving them tools to be able to cope in a world that sometimes isn’t as accepting as we would like it to be,” Vought said.

Alpena High counselor Barb Matteson said that, though the club is a safe, contained space in the school, life isn’t going to be that easy.

“It’s OK here, and we’re working with students here and hopefully providing them those skills so they can be able to endure those types of things when they get out of our safe environment,” Matteson said.

Schools also have invited cast members from Thunder Bay Theatre, which brings faces of diversity to students through educational programs and workshops. In January, the theater taught students about Martin Luther King Jr. and race relations in American history through a play featuring the theater’s professional actors.

Jeffrey Mindock, producing artistic director at the theater, hopes such programs offer a safe place for young people who haven’t been able to find acceptance for the lives they choose to live.

Alpena Superintendent John VanWagoner said college trips, career exploration events, robotics programs that bring students from across the state to Alpena and students from Alpena across the state, and other activities prepare students for the more diverse world they may see if they decide to leave Northeast Michigan after graduation.

“We have many opportunities for students to learn about diversity and to celebrate the differences between people around the world,” VanWagoner said. “It is embedded in our curriculum across the district.”

News staff writers Crystal Nelson, Julie Riddle, and Steve Schulwitz contributed to this report. Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.

About this series

U.S. Census estimates and other data shows the face of Northeast Michigan is changing. While that face is still far more likely than not to be white, straight, and Christian, the 2020 Census next year is likely to find a far more diverse region than it did a decade ago. The News’ reporters spent weeks interviewing area residents, officials, and experts from outside the area to understand what those changes might mean for the region and for area residents of color.

Saturday: How is Northeast Michigan changing? A look at what the data tells us

∫ Today: While the region as a whole is diversifying, that’s especially true in area schools

∫ Tuesday: Some Northeast Michigan groups are actively welcoming the region’s growing diversity

∫ Wednesday: Northeast Michigan’s demographics are changing; is the region doing enough to keep up?

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