In my role as one of three co-chairs of the Detroit Blight Removal Task force, I was engaged in an interview with an out of state reporter. As we began the interview, she asked a series of questions designed to identify my role in the community, my educational background, professional experience, and current employment. As I described my position as the president of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, she asked, “What does blight have to do with it?”
This question made it clear that she, and perhaps many others, have no understanding of the impact of environment on student learning.
Educators have long known that the environment requires as much attention as instructional materials. The environment sets a physical and psychological tone. As humans we react to the world around us. Context matters.
When children encounter blighted structures, overgrown lots, and abandoned buildings on their way to school, it communicates overtly and covertly the value that we place on their safety and their emotions. It creates a low level of stress that they carry into the classroom. It hampers their ability to begin the day on a positive note, which in turn, interferes with their learning.
Everyone understands that the classroom environment is critical to learning. We focus on cleanliness, friendly and supportive interactions with teachers and other adults, functioning technology, colorful posters and artwork, and new or gently used textbooks. We discuss the impact of student behavior on peers. We recognize the need to have a classroom that is challenging, with low stress, where inquiry is encouraged, and positive relationships are built.
We must also understand that learning takes place outside of the classroom before the student arrives at school.
Thus, we must be careful to teach our children that we care about them by providing an environment, without blight, that precedes the formal instruction which will occur when they arrive in the school building. Thus, the removal of blight is an important precursor for the community to achieve its educational goals, as well as its quality of life goals for all Detroiters.