Education Equity: Inspiring Voices from Detroit

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

Education experts in Detroit share multiple pathways to student success involving school resources, parent advocacy, and community partnerships

Every young person in America deserves to have the same opportunities to learn – regardless of zip code, gender, family background, or ability. Educators, youth, caregivers, and community leaders throughout the U.S. are recognizing the intersectionality of issues students face, and are raising their voices and collaborating to break down systemic barriers to learning. One city that is meeting this challenge head on and demonstrating the power of collaboration is Detroit. Educators, parents, students, and community organizations have developed a multifaceted and integrated program to serve students with learning differences and increase education equity.

During a virtual event on April 5 hosted by Benetech, an esteemed panel of Detroit-based educators, parents and community professionals shared their blueprint for engaging and supporting students:

  • Lohren Carter-Nzoma, Assistant Superintendent, Exceptional Student Education at Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD)
  • Sharene Nathan, Parent Advisory Council, DPSCD Office of Exceptional Student Education
  • Dr. Linda Cobb-McClain, Program Director, Black United Fund of Michigan (BUF)
  • Nancy Brown, Benetech, Bookshare Outreach Coordinator in Detroit

Serve the Whole Child

The statistics are sobering: According to The Nation’s Report Card, 83% of elementary students read at grade level. For Lohren Carter-Nzoma, Assistant Superintendent of Exceptional Student Education, she views this situation as an opportunity to bring in updated best practices and interventions from many sources. A self-proclaimed disrupter, she says that equity and inclusion are a right, and she is on a mission to help students with exceptional needs succeed.

“Students with exceptional needs are general education students first, and then we offer additional services under the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework to assist struggling students,” she says. It is important to first assess the whole environment to determine the source of the learning deficit. “Is it due to absenteeism, social and emotional health issues, or home environment? Is English their second language? Did they miss significant instruction during their formative years?” She urges educators to be careful of assigning labels without first examining the big picture. Then schools can turn to resources like assistive technology (AT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that help exceptional students access the curriculum.

Reading Success is Foundation for Future Success

Sharene Nathan, a leader in the DPSCD parent advisory council and mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter with autism, stresses that parents are essential partners in their scholar’s education. She urges them to understand their child’s needs and learning style so they can be a champion for their child’s success in the classroom.

Ms. Nathan herself has dyslexia which gives her firsthand knowledge of what students with learning disabilities are experiencing and makes her a trusted advisor for other parents. She shared the success story of her own daughter, Tyrise, who also struggled with reading and learning. Tyrise uses the Bookshare platform to access ebooks, leveraging her preferred text-to-speech narration with word highlighting to help her decode and comprehend what she’s reading. Ms. Nathan noted that as Tyrise’s literacy skills improved, her academic performance and confidence increased too. Now she’s in the honor society at the Detroit School of Arts and looking ahead to college.

“Bookshare gave Tyrise the tools and confidence to succeed in everyday life,” says Ms. Nathan with pride.

Nancy Brown, Benetech’s Outreach Coordinator for Bookshare in Detroit, shared that she offers Bookshare training for teachers and parents in the Detroit area so students with reading barriers who qualify can get free access to over one million ebooks in the collection.

Community of Partnerships Expands the Circle of Support

To scale support for education pathways which extend outside of school, Dr. Linda Cobb-McClain, Program Director at Black United Fund (BUF) of Michigan, pointed out the importance of schools and parents working with community partners.

BUF of Michigan is equipping thousands of underserved youth annually with the tools to succeed academically, financially, socially, by exposing them to a wide choice of careers. BUF collaborates with corporations, foundations, universities, and community partners to provide enriching experiences and mentorship for Black youth. 

As part of the E.Y.E.S. (Empowering Youth for Everyday Success) Initiative, students can participate in a variety of programs, in-person and virtual, to build skills toward careers in medicine, aviation, and financial literacy, and also receive tutoring in reading and math. Says Dr. Cobb-McClain,

“Partnerships and collaboration with organizations are so important to support youth and their goals and provide professional mentors who look like them.”

Enthusiasm and Energy on Full Display

Benetech thanks these dedicated professionals for sharing their expertise and passion for all students. The collaboration between schools, families, and community partners in Detroit touches many lives and is an excellent example of progress in achieving education equity.

“I would say, as a parent who loves my village, we need our stakeholders,” said Ms. Sharene Nathan. “Whether you are a corporation, a mom-and-pop shop, or a start-up, we need your presence and your monetary support. But above all, we need your presence. I invite everyone to come inside our community and see what we are doing phenomenally, as well as the things we still need to do for our scholars to make sure that they are being amazing before they leave our village.”

Benetech is committed to providing accessible materials to students in underserved communities. Learn more about Bookshare’s vital role in bringing over one million digital books to students with reading barriers and our partnerships with organizations, like BUF of Michigan, DPSCD, Downtown Boxing Gym, and others, who are committed to ensuring an equitable education to students in Detroit, by visiting:

If you represent a local community organization in Detroit and would like to learning more about partnering with Bookshare, please contact [email protected].

If you’d like to learn more about and partner with Benetech in other areas of the US, please contact [email protected].