Detroit District Tries ‘Growing Business,’ With Help From Target

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 21, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Detroit school district needs 5,000 students to return to its schools this year in order to remain solvent. And it plans to lure them back with a plan that involves door-to-door recruiting, a set of new community schools, more pre-K options, a stated commitment to music and arts, and a little help from...Target Corporation?

Like many school districts in urban centers, Detroit has faced a declining overall population, an aging building inventory, and new competition from charter schools and other entities. But the district is beginning the year with a new strategic plan that focuses on luring students back to the district rather than reacting to their departure.

The pace of change in school enrollment patterns in Motown has been rapid: 66,132 student attended regular public schools in the city in 2011-12, and just 49,854 did in 2012-13. The dramatic growth in the charter school sector, other nearby districts, and a new state-run district in the city have drawn students away from the regular school system. The district was serving just 42 percent of students in the city last school year.

Steve Wasko, the assistant superintendent for community relations, said that as the district was preparing for its annual consolidation and closing process last year, its leaders had an insight: “Aren’t we in effect just continuing to write a plan for failure?” Thus the new plan.

Target’s role—providing training sessions to employees on everything from the importance of maintaining their own voice mail boxes to “owning” problems rather than passing them along—is part of a plan to improve “customer service” in the district, said Mr. Wasko. The district’s previous emergency manager, Roy Roberts, said he believed that improving customer service in the district’s central office and at schools could improve the district’s market share by as much as 3 percent. New emergency manager Jack Martin embraced that focus.

The retail behemoth will be providing a set of training sessions for every district employee, from teachers to the leadership team. First up? Front desk staff. The executive cabinet is next.

The district is also planning to:

  • Recruit students school by school. Mr. Wasko said that each school has an individualized marketing plan;
  • Expand pre-K offerings, adding 36 new classes this year;
  • Create community schools that also provide medical care and social services;
  • Add parenting classes, and hopes to add more art and music; and
  • Focus on improving safety in schools.

The plan was developed with Western Demographics, a Boulder-based consulting firm. Mr. Wasko said that all of these initiatives would cost the district $1.8 million in start-up funds, and $4.6 million over the course of the year. He said Target’s customer service training was being donated to the district. The corporation funds other projects in the district.

“We’re viewing it as an investment,” he said. “We can’t solve long-term problems only on the spending side. It has to come on the revenue side—we have to change enrollment patterns.”

The district chose not to lay off large numbers of staff or close schools this year, but if it does not make its 5,000-student target, some cuts may lay ahead.

Just how well the plan works remains to be seen. But many of the issues Detroit’s plan sets out to address are topical elsewhere. Philadelphia and Chicago are both struggling to cope with declining enrollment and a growing charter sector. Other districts in Michigan and Indiana have also begun aggressive marketing campaigns in the face of increased school choice. But very few places have actually stemmed declines in public school enrollment.

This new plan plan comes as the city itself hits a dismal marker: It declared bankruptcy earlier this summer. The school system is a separate entity from the city, but may still face repercussions from the bankruptcy.

My colleague Lesli Maxwell wrote about the Disney Institute‘s professional development programs in districts around the country earlier this year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.