Detroit Public Schools woo middle-class families

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools is trying to “attract middle-class families to one of the worst school systems in the country,” writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. The district is competing with charter, suburban and private schools — and the tendency of middle-class parents to move when their oldest child reaches school age.

Dara Hill, a college professor and mother of a four-year-old, diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. Why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

Nichols . . . typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. It’s also a five-minute walk from Hill’s home . . .

An education professor, Hill joined a parent group called the Best Classroom Project. Parents, mostly middle class, share information and coordinate school visits.

School officials hope to use the Project to “reach the city’s small middle class as a means of ultimately growing a larger one,” writes Butrymowicz. In the district’s downtown offices, a “war room” is devoted to strategizing on how to raise enrollment.

On one wall, a Sun Tzu quote a translation of “The Art of War” hangs next to a poster someone has titled, “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer, posted next to it, is “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

But it’s not all corporate doublespeak.

Officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced first. They’ve picked 20 schools to serve as community hubs. They’re open 12 hours a day and filled with resources and classes for parents. Music or art is now taught at every elementary school — although many schools can’t afford to to offer both.

They’ve also launched new academic programs, like the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. They praised the school and its academics, but in the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9 percent of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1 percent did in science. About 40 percent were proficient in reading and writing.

“A handful of parents from the Best Classroom Project opted to send their children to high-performing DPS schools this fall, but Hill’s leading contender is a private school,” writes Butrymowicz.

Bad choices in Detroit

Detroit parents have lots of school choices — most of them bad, conclude Center on Reinventing Education researchers in Education Next.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of philanthropic, education, and community leaders, gave only 16 percent of the city’s public schools (district or charter) a C+ or better in 2014, based on academic status, progress, and school climate measures. Some neighborhoods have no schools with a passing grade.

Half of charters are no better than DPS schools and the rest are only slightly better, the report concludes.

There may be 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in traditional and charter schools, so competition for students is fierce.

But parents “struggle to navigate the city’s complex education marketplace and find quality options for their children,” researchers write.

Parents “cite safety issues, lack of transportation, and lack of information as serious barriers to finding a good school.”

Detroit Public Schools (DPS) lost two-thirds of its enrollment between 2005 and 2012. The city’s population has declined and remaining families are turning to charters and schools in neighboring suburbs.

“No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school,” the researchers write.

“It’s a free-for-all,” one observer said. “We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…. Detroit hasn’t set the conditions to make school choice work for families and kids.”

In 2013, 4 percent of Detroit’s 4th graders were proficient in math and 7 percent in reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It makes cities like Chicago and Cleveland look good.

More time, more dropouts

Fifteen Detroit schools lengthened the school day by 24 minutes and the year by 35 days, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. The state took over the failing schools in 2012.

Southeastern High School of Technology and Law lost 400 students — half its enrollment — in the last two years. About half the missing students transferred, estimates Jeff Maxwell, who recently resigned as principal. The other half dropped out.

“A year-round school with a sound program is a great idea,” said Chris Savage, community activist and author of the Eclectablog. “They need to get their program in order.”

The state’s Education Achievement Authority is trying new approaches.

Grade levels were dropped as teachers were encouraged to divide students strategically and to let them collaborate in small groups. All students use an online curriculum to go through lessons at their own pace.

. . . Computer usage starts with an hour a day in kindergarten, but high schoolers at Southeastern might spend most of the day on netbooks. This means that high school teachers are responsible for monitoring students’ progress and meeting with them one-on-one, rather doing whole-class lectures.

In a daily advising session devoted to social and emotional learning, students discuss topics such as “bullying, fighting and skin color,” writes Butrymowicz.

Students at Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. The school is using its expanded learning time to address social and emotional issues through group discussions. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Students at Detroit’s Southeastern High discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In the 2012-13 school year, the Education Achievement Authority claimed that 64 percent of students achieved at least a year’s worth of growth in reading and 68 percent did so in math on internal assessments.

But the students’ state standardized test scores told a different story, concluded Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State. He found that 58.5 percent of students showed no reading progress from 2012 to 2013, and 78.3 percent made no gains in math. More than four in five students who scored proficient in math in 2012 did worse in 2013.

Malik Canty, 17, stuck with Southeastern.  He told Butrymowicz he’d read only one book on his own, Percy Jackson and the Titans Curse, in his first 12 years of public school. By graduation this month, he’ll be up to two.

He plans to go on to community college.  Eventually, he’d like to study medicine at the University of Michigan.

Who destroyed Detroit?

Who destroyed Detroit? asks Deborah Meier, calling it a “bombed-out shell of a city.”

“It was first and foremost the fault of some quite well-educated, high test-scorers in the management of the auto industry and in high places in Washington D.C.,” she concludes on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

Don’t blame “corporate reform,” responds Robert Pondiscio.

There is an idea at loose in overheated corners of the edusphere, which I pray you do not share, which sees a manufactured “shock doctrine” conspiracy to drive American education onto the rocks in order to seize control and make a buck.  It’s a lovely, comforting illusion, isn’t it?  We are capable, wise, and all would be well if the malefactors of great wealth were not aligned against us.  That is far easier to accept than our own shortcomings, low expectations, failed notions about schooling, and stubborn refusal to adapt.  Perhaps we were as complacent about our schools as Detroit’s auto execs were about their factories.

Test scores are “not a definitive measure of ‘intellectual prowess’,” writes Meier. Pondiscio agrees, but asks “what of it?”

Testing did not destroy schooling. It revealed the rot and complacency within too many schools, especially those serving our poorest children, like Detroit’s.

We adapt, we grow, or else we stagnate and decay. The factories that employed generations in Detroit stand empty.  One hundred years ago, they didn’t stand at all. A generation hence, maybe two, something else will stand in their place.  But not if we pretend nothing’s wrong, Deb.  Not if we choose not to run the race.

Pittsburgh was the Detroit of the late ’70s when the steel industry collapsed, writes Pondiscio.  “Today it’s a lovely and livable city, with a diversified economy built on education, technology, and finance.” Pittsburgh adapted.

Revving up for Detroit’s rebound

Detroit is losing jobs and people. The city is bankrupt. Hopes for an economic rebound center on job training for the city’s low-skilled workforce. Community colleges are focusing on manufacturing, information technology and health data management.

Detroit schools compete for students

Detroit schools — district-run, charter and suburban — are competing for a “dwindling poool of students,” reports Bloomberg News.  “The prize is the $7,200 in state funding that follows each student in the bankrupt city.”

Detroit Public Schools has turned a closet into a “war room” for attracting students after losing about two-thirds of its enrollment during the past decade. Charters advertise smaller classes and tablet computers or gift cards to woo children. A state authority that took over low-performing schools is fishing for pupils, as are suburbs whose enrollment is declining, too.

Detroit Public Schools enrolled 80 percent of the city’s children a decade ago. Now only 42 percent attend district schools, which post abysmally low test scores and a high dropout rate. Another 42 percent go to charters, 9 percent attend schools in nearby suburbs and 7 percent are enrolled at schools run by a state agency created to take over low-performing schools.

Middle-class parents are fleeing Detroit:  The city lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, while the number of children ages 5 to 9 dropped by 47 percent.

Charters are advertising on radio and television. They attracted Chanel Kitchen, 16. She left a city high school last year where there were 42 children in a Spanish class for a charter with about 14.

Detroit Public Schools, which has closed more than half its buildings, is advertising its new, improved offerings.

That includes music and arts offerings and schools combined with social-service centers, such as at Marcus Garvey Academy on the east side. Besides instruction for elementary students, it offers a health clinic, pool, food bank and a parent resource office with computers and classes such as one last week on household poisons.

“You’ve got one-stop shopping,” said Principal James Hearn.

The competition for market share is “disgusting,” said Sharlonda Buckman, chief executive of the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit offering development programs. Nobody is managing the education market, she complained.

The Detroit Future City recovery plan calls for “thriving schools as anchors for neighborhoods,” reports Bloomberg. “Hypercompetition” for children is no help, said Dan Varner, chief executive of Excellent Schools Detroit, a group of education, government, community and philanthropic leaders. He wants the state to regulate the education market.

Competition is forcing schools to offer what parents and students want. Advertising helped Chanel Kitchen find a school with small classes. Would less competition create “thriving” neighborhood schools?

Urban progress? Scores are very low

Some big-city districts are making progress, according to the new NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessments) results released by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Despite the “cheerleading,” gains are minimal and scores are very low for low-income and minority students, responds Fordham’s Andy Smarick.

In fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math, about one out of every four students reaches proficiency in the average large city. The brightest spot is fourth-grade math, where one in three are proficient. Specific examples: In Baltimore, 16 percent of eighth graders read proficiently. In Philadelphia, 18 percent of eighth graders score proficient in math.

. . . Only eight of 21 cities had even one statistically significant gain; two saw a drop in one area; and 11 cities made no significant gain whatsoever.

Washington, D.C. improved the most, followed by Los Angeles and Fresno. But all three remain below the urban average.

Detroit is the lowest performing city in all four categories (fourth and eighth grade reading and math) and it’s getting worse. In eighth grade, 3 percent of student are proficient in math and 9 percent in reading.

Cleveland is next worst with Milwaukee in third place. “We should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts,” writes Smarick.

“White students in these cities do quite well—even better than white students elsewhere,” Smarick observes. “They and non-poor students significantly pull up district averages. For example, 71 percent of Atlanta’s white eighth graders are proficient readers.” Low-income, black and Latino students are way, way behind.

Charlotte, North Carolina schools do fairly well, writes Julia Ryan, but overall urban schools are “a mess.”

As urban charters grow, where’s the tip?

Urban students are choosing charters in growing numbers, according to a new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nationwide, one in 20 students now attend charter schools. In post-Katrina New Orleans, 79 percent of students attend charter schools. Detroit has hit 51 percent. Washington D.C. is at 43 percent. Flint, Mich., Kansas City, Mo. and Gary, Ind. each have 30 percent or more of students in a charter school. More than 10 percent of students are enrolled in charters in Philadelphia and New York City.

But charter competition hasn’t had the effect once expected, points out Andy Smarick, a former Bush administration official who now works at Bellwether Education Partners.

Ten years ago, he recalls, proponents of the nascent charter school movement came to a consensus: If charter schools could reach 10 percent of market share in big cities, the movement would reach a tipping point and create enough pressure to spur public schools to improve in order to compete for students.

“That tipping-point pressure never materialized the way I expected,” he said. “We have not seen districts drastically improve even when charter school market share gets to 25 percent.”

In the face of fierce opposition, charter schools”are proving to be the toughest, most enduring of all education reforms,” writes Paul Peterson on Ed Next.  “Charter schools are gaining in respect, numbers, and political adherents, mainly because they are digging deep roots in local communities.”

Detroit schools offer Count Day bribes

Wednesday was Count Day for Michigan public schools. Ninety percent of state funding is linked to how many students show up on Oct. 2.

bikesHit hard by declining enrollment, Detroit Public Schools offered prizes to students who showed up, including iPad Minis, gift cards and bicycles.

Schools served a special menu: barbecue chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, seasoned green beans, cornbread muffins and peach cobbler

Bunche Academy made Count Day a no-uniform day and scheduled a dance for middle-school students and an ice cream social.

One lucky DPS student won an Xbox. Nearly one in four students received a prize of some kind.

A majority of school-age children in Detroit choose charter schools or district-run schools in the suburbs.

21 Detroit schools are open 7 days a week

Twenty-one Detroit schools will stay open 12 hours a day, seven days a week to provide tutoring, recreation, health care, parenting classes and other social services.

State funds and donations from local businesses will help pay the cost.