Flight from Failure

Urban students need more alternatives.

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Ronald A. Wolk

Late in September, the Detroit Public Schools moved closer to becoming the first American urban school district to go out of business. Students have been fleeing the district in droves for years, reducing enrollment from 183,000 students in 1997 to about 129,000 last school year. On this year’s official enrollment count day, DPS was reported to have lost an additional 25,000 students.

The district refused, at the time, to release official enrollment figures, but the total loss in federal, state, and local dollars—at $11,631 per student—could exceed more than $290 million this year, plunging it further into a death spiral: The more money the district loses, the more it has to cut quality and reduce services, which results in more students leaving and even less revenue.

Thirty-five schools have closed or merged in the past two years, and 60 more are likely to be shut down, according to district officials. “Diplomas Count,” a recent Education Week special report, calculated that nearly eight out of 10 students who enter 9th grade in Detroit drop out—a number the district has disputed—giving it the highest dropout rate of the 50 largest districts.

In their desperate search for alternatives to the city’s failing schools, Detroit parents are moving out of the city or sending their children to the 40-plus charter schools that have opened in the city over the past decades. Last year, more than 28,000 Detroit children were reportedly enrolled in charter schools.

Detroit is only an extreme example of the nation’s troubled urban school districts. Nearly all of them struggle with high dropout rates, too many poorly performing schools, money problems, and increasing parent and public dissatisfaction. With a few rare exceptions, all efforts to solve the urban school problem have failed or produced only slight improvements. Educators and policymakers have been reluctant (or unable) to make the drastic changes needed in the way schools are organized and operated. They’ve failed to transform the existing conventional schools into learning centers that would attract and serve the minority, immigrant, and poor students who populate our cities.

With a total overhaul of their schools nearly impossible, districts (and states) essentially have only two options. The first: They can stay the course with standards-based reform and pour in hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up failing systems. Because of the No Child Left Behind law and because redesigning conventional schools is such a controversial, challenging, and slow process, most districts have little choice but to continue trying to improve existing schools while dealing aggressively with the worst of them. But this is tantamount to bailing out a leaky boat.

The other option is to build a parallel system of alternative learning opportunities to match the diversity of their students—charter, contract, and theme-based schools. Some big-city district leaders are doing just that. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Washington, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Diego, and Denver are notable examples. Chester Finn, writing in the Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly, reports that “[m]ore than a dozen cities ... now have charter sectors that serve at least one in every six children.”

Estimates are that about one in four U.S. students attend urban schools. Between 40 percent and 50 percent drop out between the 9th and 12th grades. So the stakes are very high. And doing more intensively what we’ve always done won’t solve the problem.

Leaders of urban districts may be starting to realize that they are not in the school business, they’re in the education business; they need to value their students more than their schools and do whatever it takes to provide them the educational opportunities they need and deserve. Every year of futile tinkering consigns millions of youngsters to a bleak future.

Vol. 18, Issue 03, Page 50

Published in Print: December 1, 2006, as Flight from Failure
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