Published Online: July 7, 2006
Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Detroit Schools Struggle to Stem Student Loss

Detroit Schools Struggle to Stem Student Loss

Facing budget, achievement woes, district tries to compete with charter schools.

A recent three-day run of bad—but not atypical—news for the Detroit public schools shows just how deep the problems run in the nation’s fastest-shrinking big-city school system.

On June 26, school officials announced that 800 positions must be cut before school starts this fall. The next day, they scrambled to explain how a now-fired district employee mishandled nearly $1 million that must be repaid to the federal government. And on June 28, school board members approved a $1.4 billion budget that counts on $105 million in labor concessions, to which the president of the teachers’ union said, “No way.”

Dolores Smith-Jackson, a community activist, addresses the 11-member Detroit school board during a meeting June 28 at Renaissance High School to discuss the $1.4 billion budget for 2006-07, which calls for $105 million in labor concessions.
—Brian Widdis for Education Week

Since the fall of 2004, close to 12,000 students have left the Detroit district. Some moved out of the city with their families, but many enrolled in one of roughly 40 charter schools that have opened in the city limits in the past decade. When school starts here again in September, district leaders expect enrollment to drop by another 9,000 children, to 119,000, down 40 percent from the late 1990s.

Some 35 schools have either been shut down or relocated to other campuses since the end of the 2004-05 school year. Superintendent William F. Coleman III said late last month that at least 60 more need to be closed to “right-size” the district.

The job falls to a brand-new school board, elected last November when city voters ended a five-year experiment, imposed by the state, with an appointed board. The 11-member panel’s first six months on the job have been marked by a spate of vexing problems.

“I would ask the new school board, ‘Are you ready to do the dramatic?’ ” said Charlie Anderson, the executive director of the Detroit chapter of Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit organization. “Right now, I don’t know if DPS will even be here in 10 years. That’s what they are up against, and they need to think and act unconventionally.”

‘Arms Around It’

Both skepticism and hope run deep among local education experts, community leaders, and Detroit parents when asked whether the district can stem the loss of students and improve academic achievement.

“It’s a huge challenge for us, especially as we’ve been left with such a big fiscal problem, and we’re all trying to get our arms around it,” said Jimmy Womack, a retired physician and minister who is the board president.

Teachers staged a one-day sickout that shuttered 54 schools this past spring after the board agreed to give principals pay increases. Amid a spike in crime in and around schools, the board created a district police department and hired former city officers to help squelch increasing violence. Members voted to close seven school buildings before reversing themselves and voting again to close just five.

Rather than search for a new superintendent, the board opted to keep Mr. Coleman, who came to the district as chief operating officer four years ago, as schools chief for at least another year. And it began working to whittle down a $200 million budget shortfall from last school year that triggered a state-imposed, five-year deficit-reduction plan.

The city of Detroit has been steadily shrinking for more than two decades as the American automobile industry declines. Where 2 million residents lived 50 years ago, fewer than 1 million now remain. Much of the middle and upper class has disappeared, leaving behind Detroit’s neediest residents and their children.

The decline has hit the public schools particularly hard since Michigan voters in 1994 passed Proposal A, which changed school finance to a per-pupil funding system, allowed charter schools to open, and gave parents the option to enroll their children in public schools outside their home district, said David N. Plank, a senior fellow at the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in Lansing. The money went where the children went.

“As they lose students, they lose revenue,” he said of the Detroit schools. “When you lose revenue, you have to cut the quality of education and programs, so more kids start to leave. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.”

Marketing Strategy

With budget issues so pressing, discussions about student achievement and how to address the large number of failing schools have not taken center stage. In 2004-05, 22 of Detroit’s 28 comprehensive high schools failed to meet their annual test-score targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

What district officials and some board members do talk about is the need for a better marketing strategy to counter what they say is a widely held, but largely inaccurate, perception that charter schools are doing better academically than the regular public schools. Last school year, nearly 27,000 children who live within Detroit’s city limits enrolled in charter schools, which are public but independent of the district, and district officials believe they must entice them back.

Joyce V. Hayes-Giles, the vice president of the Detroit school board, makes a comment during a June 28 meeting. The district projects a loss of 9,000 students for the new school year, which would put its enrollment at 119,00 students, down nearly 40 percent from the late 1990s.
—Brian Widdis for Education Week

“What we know is that achievement in the district outpaces the charters,” said Juanita Clay Chambers, the district’s chief academic officer. “A lot of it is perception, and the district must work hard to get the true picture out there. We have more unique programs and more resources than the charters, and the public needs to understand that.”

Detroit has academic bright spots that too few people know about, Ms. Chambers said. One is the steady improvement of elementary students’ scores on state reading tests since the district adopted Open Court, a commercial reading program, four years ago, she said.

Another is the “small learning communities” in 15 of the comprehensive high schools. The district last year developed a new program for students who had dropped out but wanted to come back to graduate. Roughly 700 dropouts participated, and 100 graduated with regular diplomas, Ms. Chambers said.

In May, a 5th grade teacher at one of the city’s highest-performing elementary schools was chosen as Michigan’s teacher of the year—the first Detroit teacher to win in 21 years. Twenty-two Detroit elementary and middle schools that demonstrated improved achievement on state tests and high student-attendance rates were awarded grants by the local Skillman Foundation this year, said Alison Harmon, the program director for the foundation’s Good Schools Initiative.

Graduation-Rate Debate

Still, academic achievement remains a weak spot and the reason that many parents and education experts believe enrollment will continue to decline.

Graduation rates are particularly troublesome for the district. District officials have disputed Education Week’s June report on high school graduation rates nationwide, which pegged Detroit’s graduation rate at 21.7 percent for the 2002-03 school year, the lowest of the 50 largest school districts. ("Diplomas Count," June 22, 2006.)

District administrators and school board members alike believe the figure in the Diplomas Count report is exaggerated because it fails to account for the high rate of students who leave the district and graduate from another system. Christopher B. Swanson, the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, said the data base he used does not include information on students who transfer to other districts.

The Detroit district says 67.9 percent of its high school students graduated last year, 60.8 percent graduated in 2004, and 44.5 percent graduated in 2003, as calculated by the Michigan Department of Education.

“It doesn’t mean that we are satisfied and are going to shirk our responsibility of improving the graduation rate,” Ms. Chambers said.

But Carolyn Miller, whose son will be a junior this coming fall at Henry Ford High School, said she doesn’t trust the district’s calculations.

“I think the graduation rate is much lower than the district says it is,” said Ms. Miller, who works in enrollment management at Redford High School in northwest Detroit. “At Redford, we get 500 to 600 freshmen. By the time they should be seniors, only 150 or so are graduating. Where did they all go?”

Mr. Coleman, the district chief, said in an interview that a top priority for his team is to bring children who left for charter schools back into Detroit schools.

One strategy, he said, is to open two new high schools this fall—one for boys, and another for girls—if the Michigan legislature approves, and the governor signs, a bill to allow single-sex public schools in Detroit.

Mr. Coleman’s team also crafted a new bus-transportation plan that will allow the district to shuttle 4,000 more students to school when the new school year starts than it did last year.

“We think this can make a big difference,” the superintendent said. “In a city where, ironically, many parents don’t have cars, parents often choose a charter school if it’s closer, and you can’t blame them.”

Also, Mr. Coleman said, he is personally interviewing every finalist for the school principal openings this summer, “with the goal of instilling in them the importance of the competitive environment we are in.”

But whether his initiatives will win the backing of the school board remains in question. At a special board meeting held June 28 to approve the $1.4 billion 2006-07 budget, members spent more than an hour bickering over Mr. Coleman’s proposal to change the titles for a handful of administrators whose contracts were up for renewal. In the end, they approved the renewals, but put off approving the title changes the superintendent sought.

And the financial woes are far from over.

Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union, which agreed to concessions last year, won’t do the same this year. The union is still furious that the district granted pay increases to principals earlier this year after teachers had agreed to provide a loan of five days of pay to help the district regain its financial footing.

“There’s a considerable lack of trust right now,” Ms. Garrison said.

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Pages 1,20

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