MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — Between funding, teacher shortages and student safety, there are a lot of challenges schools face both historically and today. Many of these issues impact urban schools even more.

Just 17% of school districts in Michigan have more Black students than White students. With a 98% African American student population, the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System is one of them. Statewide, it ranks in the top 6% with the highest percentage of Black students, which district leaders say can come with many stigmas.

“I think there’s a negative perception about schools that are considered urban schools, that they’re out of control, there’s less learning and so I think that’s one of the biggest hindrances,” said MHPSAS Superintendent Arnetta Thompson. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge she has to navigate, however, is funding. 

“For us, in particular, I know that we have not traditionally been competitive in terms of pay and so we’re really working to change that,” she said.

In addition to not being able to provide as many programs, not having enough money makes it difficult to hire the diverse talent they need to see a district thrive. 

“Most school districts their goal is to have their teaching staff reflect the population that they serve. In any of the schools, all the schools that I’ve ever worked in, it was never that,” Thompson said. 

Black teachers make up only 27% of the teaching staff in the district. Muskegon Heights Academy principal Erica Patton said that can directly impact learning.

“I know that people that look like me and have gone through some of the things that I’ve gone through, I think I would be a little bit more comfortable and accepting as a student. And not to say that other people don’t bring great things to the table, a lot of times just having someone that looks like me is a comfort,” Patton explained. 

Getting teachers to come, however, isn’t easy. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows urban school teachers find it more difficult to teach students with disadvantages like those who live in poverty, struggle with speaking English and come from broken homes.

“Children are different today than they were years ago, and a lot of times parents are not as involved, so we end up as teachers taking on a lot,” Patton said. 

She added that the responsibility shifts beyond teaching to include coaching and sometimes even parenting, making recruitment efforts even more of a challenge. The superintendent said the effort is still there. 

“We’ve actually gone on a recruiting tour for historically Black colleges and universities. Before the pandemic, we were really thick into that process, but again it’s hard to pull people up. You’re coming from most of the HBCUs are in warmer climates, and now you’re trying to get them to come to a colder climate. It’s not much of a draw if I’m only paying you the same amount of money you would have if you stayed.”

On top of that, in order to create a recruiting budget, that money has to be taken from somewhere else. This all leads back to one of the biggest challenges — a lack of funding, which education leaders say can’t be addressed without outside help.

“We know across the country there is a deficit in teaching staff not just in districts but the state the government they have to find ways to help us recruit,” Thompson said. “We always hear from politicians that education is important, but that’s the first thing that is cut when budgets come out. I feel that they need to put their money where their mouths are and help us rebuild this educational structure in our state.”