Walmart and Detroit Schools Team Up To Teach

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walmartFour inner-city Detroit schools have teamed up with area Walmarts to offer students a for-credit after-school class that teaches job-readiness and shows students how to apply for entry-level positions. The program has raised both eyebrows and controversy. Like a lot of things Walmart does, it's made people ask, is the store helping or hurting the community in which it does business?

It's no secret that Detroit has been hit harder by the recession than many other places. A city that was already down has lately been plagued with a 50 percent unemployment rate. With a shrinking tax base, the public school system, which has been in the red since the early 1990s, is really struggling. The city routinely closes public schools and opens charter schools in their place. More and more teachers are laid off each year.

The upshot of all these problems is that the city's largely minority student base is receiving an increasingly stripped down education that is "more privatized," says Donna Stern, national coordinator at the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight For Equality By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN as it's commonly known.

All that is currently known about these classes is that students will receive 11 weeks of job-readiness training during the school day in exchange for 10 academic credits. The specifics about what the class will teach are unknown to the public at this point and there is no outline or checklist that has been publicized about what job-readiness training is through the Walmart program, or what skills Walmart is aiming to teach these students.


Walmart Is Not The Answer

BAMN argues that the Walmart program "leaves the business of education in the hands of businessmen, not educators," Stern says. For her the issue is that, rather than getting Walmart to to fund enrichment programs or art or music classes, the company is using an after-school program to teach vocational skills that are usable primarily at its suburban stores. "These are skills for jobs that do not even command a living wage," she argues. "This is not a promising training program for education or jobs." Stern noted that many Walmart workers supplement their wages with welfare.

Others within the education sector concur. Patricia Kokinos, author of the book Angel Park: A Novel About Ourselves, Our Schools, and Our Nation, echoes Stern's concerns that the store is primarily putting its resources toward cultivating future employees and customers. The program is, "about as backward as I can imagine for kids who have to face the 21st century with some knowledge and critical thinking skills," she says.

Rich Demanowski moved from Utah to New Hampshire in 2007 to start a business as a photographic artist. During his first year there he took a second job to help pay his rent and cover his start-up costs. That job, of course, was at Walmart. He earned $11.75 an hour selling cell phones and service plans at the store's "Connection Center."

While he admits he's not Walmart's biggest fan, he says the retail job was far better and less grueling than work he'd done previously as a prep chef and dishwasher, jobs that he says paid less than his Walmart gig. When I asked Rich if working at Walmart was good and educational for him, he said sure. "It let me earn an appropriate wage for simple work."


Walmart Is One Answer

One of the biggest advocates of this Walmart-school partnership is Sean Vann, principal at Douglas High School, one of the four schools involved in this pilot program. Thirty students from Douglas will get jobs at Walmart and Vann thinks it is a great opportunity for them. As he told the Detroit Free Press, "The program will allow students an opportunity to earn money and to be exposed to people from different cultures, since all of the stores are in the suburbs."

Jamie Beck, a former career counselor and now-owner of Baby Elephant Books in Los Angeles deems the program, "innovative, promising and brilliant." She notes, "Not everyone has what it takes to be the doctor, lawyer, professional athlete, fireman, etc. When we expose kids to practical life skills and practical options we allow them to make better choices in the long term."

She continues, "Maybe these kids will learn a skill and get a job now or right after high school. Maybe it will motivate them to go to college or trade school, to aspire to be more. Or maybe it will just teach them how to apply all the things they are learning in school or supposed to be learning."

There's no question that Detroit is suffering, and in these tough financial times many people believe that any job is a good one, but you still have to examine if it is appropriate for Walmart to try its hand at educating, or if this is just another attempt to eat up anything that stands in their way. In Detroit the stakes are high, and many people believe that Walmart is leading the charge.

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