Learn the hustle

A recruiter found her at a neighborhood coin laundry, and now 19-year-old Jeanette Miller is walking daily across the marble floors and riding the glass elevator at Compuware Corp. headquarters with a plan for her further advancement.

The high school dropout is a student at the new Hustle & TechKnow school, located in Compuware's downtown building. Miller met Principal Ida Byrd-Hill at the laundry while the financial-consultant-turned-educator recruited for the school. Byrd-Hill looked at gas stations, party stores and clubs for teens who had failed at several attempts at high school and needed one last chance at a diploma.

"We found them," Byrd-Hill says. "We passed out a flier that looked like a party invitation."

The school's brightly colored promotional material shows jets, cars and jewelry. "Learn corporate survival techniques," it boasts, "Trillions of dollars are exchanged daily." "Financial Success, built on knowledge" appears in a school crest. The message is not subtle: "Join the hustle," the flier says.

But Byrd-Hill explains, "Corporate America is the ultimate hustle." The business world — or another professional environment — is the destination Byrd-Hill hopes to help the students reach. She first recruits them with language from the streets that they understand, then exposes them to people who work in business and, finally, helps them connect to jobs or higher education.

"To us, a high school diploma is really just a beginning. It's everything after that where you get going," Byrd-Hill says. "Making that transition from the neighborhood to corporate American is a big transition."

But it's a transition Byrd-Hill, students and some Compuware executives believe can be made. The view from the 15th-floor computer classrooms and the lure of the corporate salaries are intended to motivate 50 enrolled teens to finish high school, earn degrees and find rewarding jobs. Not all have succeeded in the program. Fifty students remain from 65 who originally enrolled. Byrd-Hill says not all of them liked the school's structure and expectations.

But students who remain are not only studying for diplomas or GEDs but learning business etiquette and communication as well.

"This school is different," says Miller, who had her daughter at 16 and then quit high school a semester short of graduation to care for the infant as well as her ill mother. She calls her old school "wild" with students smoking in the hallways, ditching classes and regularly fighting.

At Hustle & TechKnow she has four teachers, a counselor and regular encounters with Compuware executives. "It makes me feel like I'm going to be more successful. I look up to them because they're helping us out," Miller says.

A massive problem

The school is one of the 13 programs contracted with Detroit Public Schools in the district's "Last Chance" program for high school dropouts. The alternative schools aim to help students earn diplomas or the knowledge and skills needed for a GED.

The schools are a partial answer to a massive problem for Detroit. According to the Michigan Center of Educational Performance and Information, about 40 percent of Detroit high school students drop out, but the district estimates 2,000 students could return to these alternative programs during the academic year.

District spokesman Lekan Oguntoyinbo says the alternative high school programs play a vital role for the district.

"They're very important because they help us in our efforts to not only stem the dropout rate but also to bring students back into the classroom and help them get a GED," he says. "It helps the city and it makes those children employable and it also gives them an opportunity to go to college down the road and get better jobs."

Nine of the programs approved for contracts are operating, according to Hildred Pepper, the district's chief contracting officer. Some others, like the Banner Schools group based in Florida, say their contracts came too late — the Detroit board of education approved them in August — but are planning for next year. Others, like the Detroit Urban Arts Academy, are waiting a year to reorganize and possibly transform into charter schools. They would then operate independently of the DPS and get funding directly from the state.

But even Hustle & TechKnow and the other eight schools in operation are operating with an uncertain future.

The DPS is to provide the schools with 80 percent — or $5,625 — of the $7,500 per full-time student the state gives the district. But because the schools operate outside of the Detroit Federation of Teachers contract, they are supposed to have union approval to continue operating. The union has not done that this year. Talks are not continuing, says Lamont Satchel, the district's chief of labor relations.

While the uncertainty of the ongoing dispute and its effect on the school's future is "frustrating" at Hustle & TechKnow, Byrd-Hill says the school's unique partnership with Compuware is making operation possible.

The school's single classroom is located in the first-floor retail space of the Compuware complex along Monroe Street. The corporation has donated the space there as well as use of its 15th-floor computer labs. Wearing Compuware badges for access, students reach the labs through the corporation's lobby and up the elevators. They ride with corporate employees who also share the training classrooms.

"My belief is kids need to see somewhere where they can succeed and work and achieve," says Denise Knobblock, Compuware's chief administrative officer who has been a diehard supporter of Hustle & TechKnow after meeting Byrd-Hill.

The exposure of the students to the business world and of the business world to its future employees is by design. "We're not just putting corporate America in front of them, we're putting them in front of corporate America," says Lori Autrey, the school's technology coordinator.

Autrey also owns a computer training company where she helps adults learn technology skills. Businesses, she says, are looking for new employees who understand and can use technology as teens already do.

But before Hustle & TechKnow students move into those professional jobs, they need to improve their basic literacy skills, Byrd-Hill says. School begins each day with journal writing and a vocabulary test. Then students move to the computer labs for Web-based coursework in life skills — business protocol, employability, career exploration — and other computer work.

While the students are in their own computer lab, professionals in suits who are attending training in other rooms shuffle by, and the students notice them.

'Your last chance'

Nineteen-year-old Chris Blythe says he's modified his wardrobe — and his attitude — since beginning this daily exposure to corporate America. He arrived at Hustle & TechKnow because of "bad decisions." While selling drugs on the streets of his west side neighborhoods for five years, he dropped out of four high schools seeking "cars, jewelry and all that stuff."

"I just wanted to have it and thought I could get it and that I was wasting my time in school," he says.

He spent some time in South Carolina where his mother lived and returned to Detroit to find "all the people that live in my old hood doing the same things. I don't want to be like that." A neighborhood friend told him about Hustle & TechKnow and he enrolled. He's now planning to finish the 10 high school credits he needs before heading to college. "This is your last chance," he says. "If you don't get it done here ..."

In the six weeks the school has been open, Hustle & TechKnow students also have directly interacted with Compuware executives, who have spoken to classes. Knobblock is finding other big-name speakers. Internship and co-op programs are being formed.

"You can meet some people and really do something with your life," says Major Hicks, a 17-year-old four-time high school dropout. While walking through the Compuware lobby recently, he spotted Knobblock, who stopped briefly to chat with him.

Knobblock, who sits on several boards and knows dozens of leaders throughout the city, says she plans to use her connections to find students internships and jobs.

Altruistic motives aside, Knobblock says, it's good business for companies like Compuware to be involved in education. "They realize the kids are their future employees," she says.

And while Compuware is donating space and computers that make it financially feasible for Hustle & TechKnow to operate, Knobblock says there is more that the company provides.

"It's not all about money," she says. "Corporations have the people that can make things happen."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]