Detroit principal fights for troubled school, in troubled city

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DETROIT – The walls are adorned with various awards and certificates, pictures, a small refrigerator, and baseball caps representing the U.S. Army and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. The two things that stand out the most in Kenyetta Wilbourn’s office, however, are the small cage on the floor where Alphonse, her 3-month-old Yorkshire Terrier puppy, sleeps and the long, aluminum baseball bat sitting front and center — and at the ready — on her desk.

“Initially, I did carry a bat and it sent a positive and a negative message,” said Wilbourn, 36, the principal at Detroit’s Denby High School. “It was something that I carried because the conditions at the time required it. The building was not safe. The community was not safe.”

Wilbourn took over as principal three years ago, and has led a distinct turnaround at the once-troubled school on the city’s dangerous northeast side. In the early days of her tenure, the bat was a regular accessory and she admitted that she would have had no issue using it if needed.

“If I am to be the steward of this building and these children, then if someone – gang member or whatever – comes into this building to harm one of the students and they come in more than a group of one, then I will have a responsibility to make sure that those children are safe and that they’re able to make it home to their parents every day,” she said.

Wilbourn, who goes by the nickname “K.C.,” draws immediate comparisons to Joe Clark, the New Jersey principal who was immortalized by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film Lean on Me. But it goes further than just the baseball bat. Denby, once teeming with gang violence, is now a veritable fortress.

An 8-foot wrought iron security fence surrounds the school, and security guards and a metal detector immediately greet you at the front door. The hallways are clear of students, the building is clean, and the guards, along with Wilbourn, patrol the building with a strict hall pass policy in place. Wilbourn will even patrol the school’s perimeter in her car.

“Denby, three years ago, was a warehouse for children,” said Wilbourn, a Spelman College alumna who is currently working on her PhD in education. “It was plagued by gang activity, a lack of culture, direction, and vision, and had undefined roles for adults and children. It wasn’t safe.”

Wilbourn is short in stature, standing just 4-foot-11 in heels – “When I started teaching, I was 5-foot-3,” she joked – yet she commands respect among students and staff alike. A former Army reservist, she even dons a JROTC uniform on Wednesdays in solidarity with the students.

Her stated goal is to help Denby become one of the city’s top high schools, which is a distinction currently reserved for Renaissance, Cass Technical, and her alma mater Martin Luther King High School, better known in DPS as the “Big Three.” Her hope is that Denby becomes “The Renaissance of the East Side.”

Wilbourn has made waves by being the rare administrator in the Detroit Public Schools to vocally challenge the city on the issue of blight, which surrounds Denby along Kelly Road. The school is located in the 48205 zip code, which the FBI named the deadliest section in the city last September.

“I’ve driven through parts of this city and this neighborhood and, as a former social studies teacher, it reminds me of the days of slavery,” Wilbourn said. “I’m waiting for the North Star and Harriet Tubman. That’s just how desolate it is. How can you drive down a street, and if you didn’t know it was 2012, you could very easily think this is the 1800s?”