Wayne Memorial High School

Creative instruction and exceptional opportunities for students who are underserved make Wayne Memorial High School stand out  

By Patricia Montemurri

There are 2,400 miles between 16-year-old Joel Hernandez’ high school, Wayne Memorial in a blue-collar Detroit suburb, and Santa Clara University in California’s Silicon Valley. When Joel earned a scholarship to attend the college’s 2023 Summer Engineering Seminar, the experience fueled boundless hopes not only for his future, but for that of his sibling. 

“My parents never graduated from high school. I feel like it’s my duty to set an example for my younger brother,” said Joel, 16. He’s thinking about a career in engineering or the law “because both are about problem-solving.” 

Joel is enrolled in Wayne Memorial High School’s Upward Bound program, a national federally funded program aimed at propelling students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds to become the first in their families to attend college. 

“Everything I’ve learned about college has been through Upward Bound,” said Joel, about the daily Upward Bound class offered at Wayne Memorial.   

The Upward Bound program for 10th, 11th and 12th graders focuses on developing writing and problem-solving skills, providing individualized instruction, assessment practice, doing college tours to Michigan state universities, and researching scholarships to expose students to numerous summer programs. 

The creative instruction and opportunities emphasized for students such as Joel are among the reasons Wayne Memorial High School stands out. Wayne Memorial’s 11th grade students from Latino families scored at or above the statewide average on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT for the 2021-2022 school years, one example of why the 1,450-student school was named a Building the Hope school by The Education Trust-Midwest. 

Other programs distinguishing the school are a Multilingual Language department assertively engaged with the community and teachers, and a college and career readiness office focused on aligning data about student aptitude and interests with exposure to future professional job opportunities.   

“We meet kids where they’re at,” said Wayne Westland Community School District Superintendent John Dignan. The district is among Michigan’s 15th largest school districts and enrolls about 9,800 students.  

At Wayne Memorial, about 39 percent of students are Black, eight percent are Latino, six percent are of two or more races, and 45 percent are white. Nearly 60 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Many of its students come from households where Spanish, Arabic or Albanian is spoken. 

“It’s our job to grow and extend every opportunity we can for every single student in our district. Leveling the playing field for our kids – those are our marching orders,” said Dignan. “Equity has to be the lens that we look at through every aspect of our organization.” 

It’s our job to grow and extend every opportunity we can for every single student in our district. Leveling the playing field for our kids – those are our marching ordersEquity has to be the lens that we look at through every aspect of our organization.” 

John Dignan 

Wayne Westland Community School District Superintendent 

Bound for equity

Embedded into the daily schedule at Wayne Memorial for the last 41 years is the Upward Bound class, with a curriculum uniquely designed and approved through grant competition by the U.S. Department of Education. 

The Upward Bound program is designed for students from low-income backgrounds (below or at 150% of the poverty level) or whose parents did not graduate from a four-year college. Some 67 percent of students must meet both criteria. 

Nationally, the vast majority of Upward Bound programs are based at a local university and draw eligible students from area high schools who participate in after-school, tutoring or summer programs facilitated through a local college or university.  

“What is really special about Wayne Memorial is that we have Upward Bound in school every day. We interact with them every day, as opposed to the college model where you might see the kids every two weeks,” said Yvette Jonna-Moore, director of the school’s Upward Bound program since 2018.  Since the program is an inherent part of the school day, it eliminates a potential obstacle for low-income families who may struggle to get their kids to after-school or weekend programs. 

“Upward Bound changed my life,” said Christiane Canfield, who teaches the class she took as a Wayne Memorial High student, Class of 2003. “It’s rigorous across the board. Upward Bound gives kids that extra push.” 

Part of the Upward Bound philosophy at Wayne Memorial centers on exposing students to diverse curricula and experiences. Canfield taught her students Korean during the last school year, in part, because she studied the language while teaching in South Korea for several years. As intimidating as it looks, she said students latched on with fervor.   

“Sometimes, until you experience it, you think you can’t do it,” said Canfield. “Sometimes, it’s just knowing that you can.”  

Senior KyShawn Carr embodies that sentiment. She spent three weeks in summer 2022 at the Ivy League’s Brown University in Rhode Island, studying communications and ethics. As part of the Upward Bound program, she researched and won a scholarship to attend. 

“Upward Bound made me see I am someone who could actually go to these types of schools,” said KyShawn, who’s pondering applying to the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. “I was hours away from home. The college experience was 10 times better than I expected.” 

At Wayne Memorial’s 2023 commencement, seven Upward Bound seniors were among the 10 valedictorians on stage, representing families whose ethnic backgrounds were Latino, Black, Middle Eastern and Asian. Among Wayne Memorial’s 2023 graduates from the Upward Bound program were students who were named a Gates Scholar, a Questbridge Scholar, a Dell Scholar, an Equitable Scholar, an Amazon Future Engineer Scholar and a McDonald’s Black History Maker. 

The Upward Bound application process begins during 9th grade.  All Upward Bound students attend a six-week summer school.  

Wayne Memorial received a five-year Upward Bound grant of $2.2 million in 2020. In the 2022-2023 school year, 88 students in the school were in Upward Bound.  

Upward Bound students are introduced to SMART – a goal-setting rubric which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Here’s an example of a simple goal – selecting a book of interest that’s at or above their reading level and setting a goal to read it and report on it in two weeks. It’s also as visionary as imagining what college they want to attend, what they might want to study and where they see themselves in five years. 

“If the student gets in, we want them to stick for four years. We want them to be prepared to do hard work,” said Jonna-Moore 

Upward Bound juniors take the SAT three times during 11th grade, so teachers can spot areas of weakness to target. The program also arranges college tours throughout Michigan. 

“The goal is for every student who is doing college applications senior year to have set foot on every public college or university in the state of Michigan,” said Jonna-Moore.  

That means Detroit-area students from Wayne Memorial are getting their first views of Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula. It’s an 8-10-hour bus ride to engineering school powerhouse Michigan Technological University and two other state schools, Lake Superior State University and Ferris State University, both four-year Michigan colleges which participate in the TIP program that provides free tuition for two years for students who are Medicaid health insurance recipients. 

“Our goal is to bridge the gap between first-generation students from low-income backgrounds, who may not have the family support system available to them, to become competitive enough so that they can hold their own when they get to college against kids who went to high schools with more opportunities,” said Jonna-Moore. 

Accentuating students’ their multilingual foundation

Another important strategy for success is the belief by staff at Wayne Memorial that students’ cultural experiences and heritage should be honored and reflected in their instruction. Wayne Memorial High, as part of the Wayne-Westland Community School District, utilizes culturally and linguistically responsive practices to enhance academic success. 

The district enrolls some 600 students in its Multilingual Learner Services program, renamed recently to retire the typical ELL (English Language Learner) designation.  

The rebranding “honors students’ primary language as an asset rather than a deficit and focuses on students’ strengths and what they know, as opposed to what they don’t know,” said Sally Nalu, the program’s director, who understands what it’s like for immigrant families arriving in the U.S.  Nalu and her assistant, Lina Mona, both were newcomers from Iraq to the U.S. as youngsters and grew up in homes where Arabic and Aramaic were spoken. 

The program’s name change seeks to mitigate stereotypes, said Nalu. Teachers and staff might assume students from immigrant homes lack content knowledge rather than English language skills. Over summer 2023, some 73 Wayne-Westland district teachers took SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol) training, to better serve and make core content vocabulary accessible to multilingual learners in their classrooms. That’s in addition to 130 who underwent SIOP training since February 2022. SIOP training, says Nalu, works for all students, not just multilingual learners. 

Engaging families of multilingual learners is key to students’ success, said Nalu. “It’s about customer service,” she stresses.  

Several times a year, her office makes presentations to multilingual learner families about the breadth of district services. Staffers make sure families know about and sign up for programs such as summer school, college tours, programs to recover lost high school credits, and to fill out college student aid forms. 

It’s not just academic support either. Lina Mona, the district’s Multilingual Learner family liaison, steers them to a family resources center, where they can pick up household necessities, too, as well as learn how to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with the help of staffers who speak Arabic, Spanish or Albanian. If a family contacts Mona’s office with questions, she asks questions back to make sure they know about the full range of services available to them. 

“By building that relationship with our families, the students can see we are here for their benefit,” said Nalu. “They can see their multilingual status as an asset, and a part of this country, part of society.” 

Data drives college and career readiness

From kindergarten to 12th grade, the Wayne Westland Community School District also seeks to provide students with exposure to college and career readiness opportunities. Assessment data works as a guide and an inspiration. 

Daryl Beebe, the district’s Executive Director of College and Career Readiness and Social Emotional Learning, has revamped district programs to use data and innovative thinking to engage the kaleidoscope of students.  

“We’re creating an experience for every grade level,” said Beebe.  

The State of Michigan requires that every student, grades 7-12, have an EDP, or Educational Development Plan. This district uses Xello software to chart a student’s interests and aptitudes. For those students who show a diverse array of interests or nothing that stands out, Beebe says the most vital thing he can do for them is provide opportunities. 

“I think exposure is one of the greatest tools that we have. It breaks down economic barriers,” said Beebe.  

So that means bringing students to eye-level with people and experiences that can jumpstart a calling and career. 

Beebe and his staff recently launched the district’s first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) fair. Another event, the “Discover Your Path” fair, showcased representatives from the trades and local corporations. 

“Students had the opportunity to participate in hands-on experiences. We had plumbers. We had the electric company. We had bricklayers. Our district bus drivers provided demonstrations on how to fix a bus. We had car dealerships here, ” said Beebe. When it was over, one administrator told Beebe that students left enthused and hopeful, expressing comments such as “There’s so much I can do. I never knew I could do a job like that.” 

Currently, Beebe is charting an increase in the number of students who seem to be gravitating towards careers that are artistic and expressive. He wonders if that’s an outgrowth of young people’s interaction with the explosion of social media images. To build on that, the district has arranged visits to graphic design and animation studios.  

“We found out that animation is in everything. It’s in your car. It’s on your watch,” said Beebe. “I think some of the interest in arts is from social media. A lot of the things that they see and do flow around that.” 

Even when Wayne Memorial students visited a Detroit Tigers game, the focus wasn’t on becoming a Major League baseball player. Rather, it was on the wealth of careers visible at the ballpark — from groundskeepers to tech operators who can program the giant scoreboard, from landscape architects to marketers to public relations professionals. 

“You may not remember the Pythagorean Theorem from school, but kids remember experiences,” said Beebe. “You’ve got to give them hands-on experiences.” 

Through creative instruction and monitoring students interests as well as assessment data, Wayne Memorial High also is giving students hands-on hope.