Published Online: August 23, 2007
Published in Print: August 29, 2007, as As School Year Looms, Detroit Predicts Enrollment Drop

As School Year Looms, Detroit Predicts Enrollment Drop

Detroit, home to the nation’s fastest-shrinking major urban school system, is bracing for another dive in enrollment as students return to classrooms next week for the first time since district officials closed 33 school buildings this summer.

Despite those closures—which sparked public outrage and a lawsuit—and the long trend of student exodus from the city’s public schools, officials are projecting a smaller decline in enrollment this fall than in recent years. School leaders are planning to serve 111,000 students—a drop of 5,000 from last year.

Last fall, more than 14,000 Detroit students left the public schools, either moving out of the city, enrolling in charter schools, or attending school in neighboring districts under a state law that allows parents to enroll children in public schools outside their home district.

The drop came amid a 16-day teachers’ strike that delayed the opening of schools and caused turmoil in the system for several weeks. ("Walkout Seen as Further Blow to Dwindling District," Sept. 13, 2006.)

The school system, which has struggled with years of poor academic performance and a dismal financial state, has lost more than 60,000 students since the late 1990s.

New Leadership

This year, though, teachers are not on strike. And a new superintendent, Connie Calloway, has inspired some confidence that the district can begin to slow the loss of students by focusing on providing good schools.

“I think hiring someone who is an educator like Dr. Calloway is key for this district right now,” said Jimmy Womack, the president of the 11-member Detroit school board. “She’s someone who knows what it will take to improve instruction and raise student achievement, and advise the board on the policies we need to set to ensure that that happens.”

Ms. Calloway, who was the superintendent in the 5,700-student Normandy, Mo., district near St. Louis before accepting the Detroit job, did not respond to an interview request by Education Week.

In recent accounts in The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, Ms. Calloway has expressed dismay at the lack of adherence to procedure and accountability in the district.

She also agreed to order a review of the school-closure plan that was approved by the board before she became superintendent.

Mr. Womack called her move “responsive to the community, but not something that will reverse the board’s vote on closures.”

So far, though, Ms. Calloway has divulged no details of her plans to improve instruction and raise academic achievement.

The superintendent has publicly declared her opposition to charter schools, a polarizing issue in Detroit, where many people have blamed the independent public schools for siphoning students and state aid from the regular school system.

Charter Schools at Issue

According to the Free Press, Ms. Calloway told the audience at her first school board meeting, in mid-July: “I want to be extremely clear. Connie Calloway does not support charter schools.”

It’s a position the local teachers’ union and many school board members also hold, but one that is not shared by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat. He announced a proposal last spring to open as many as 25 new charter schools in the city to provide more parents with an alternative to the district’s schools.

The plan caused a firestorm of controversy and prompted the mayor to back off at least temporarily.

But if Detroit’s enrollment continues to fall, Ms. Calloway’s opposition to charters may not mean much.

Michigan law sets restrictions on which entities can open and operate charter schools within the boundaries of school districts serving more than 100,000 children, but Detroit is the only district of that size in the state.

If Detroit’s enrollment drops below 100,000, the state law would allow for more charters to open in the city, where roughly 40 already operate, according to Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Lansing-based Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a statewide charter school organization.

“There seems to be a lot of discussion and worry in the district about more charters opening in Detroit,” he said, “when really the conversation ought to be about how do you create more high-quality schools in the city, and how do you replicate the quality programs you already have.”

Vol. 27, Issue 1, Page 17

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