Oak Park Schools might want to rebrand itself as Grand Central Station. Each morning in the school year that just ended, 2,121 students from outside Oak Park traveled into the district for their education, filling 48 percent of the desks. Each morning, 1,004 young Oak Park residents -- about a third of the community’s home-grown potential students -- departed the city for schools in other communities.
School choice has allowed Michigan families to switch classrooms with the frequency and ease of changing cell phone providers. But it’s been a mixed blessing for the schools. From districts such as Detroit and Pontiac, where budgets have been gutted by fleeing students, to schools struggling to keep their identity amid a flood of student from different towns, school choice is changing the look and meaning of neighborhood schools.
Tens of thousands flow in, out of schools
If the sole purpose of schools of choice was to give Michigan students more latitude in where they attend school, it can be officially rated a roaring success.
More than 80 percent of Michigan districts have opted to open their doors to students from outside the district. More than 97,000 kids – one of every 16 students -- attended classes in traditional public school districts outside their communities in 2012-13. That’s an almost 150 percent increase in a decade.
Each of those students takes with them to their new schools a per-pupil grant. (The amount varies by district.) Based on the state minimum grant of $6,966 for the 2012-13 school year, that means at least $676 million was shuffled around state districts through school choice.
Some districts made out like bandits. West Bloomfield School District, for example, netted more than 1,500 students through school of choice, adding at least $11 million to its budget. Other districts are being decimated by an exodus of students. Pontiac School District had 1,993 home-grown students leave their schools last year, with only 3 students switching in to Pontiac. That’s a loss of almost $14 million in state funding, at the state minimum grant level.
It may be no coincidence that the Pontiac School District is on the verge of bankruptcy.
SE Michigan is hotbed for choice
Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs are Ground Zero for school choice.
In 1999, 80 percent of Detroit Public Schools-eligible students attended that district’s traditional schools, with 9 percent opting for suburban districts and 6 percent studying in charters, according to data collected by Data Driven Detroit for Excellent Schools Detroit. By 2011-12, only 46 percent were staying in DPS. Charters claimed 23 percent, the newly formed Educational Achievement Authority -- encompassing the district’s worst-performing schools – had 8 percent, and suburban enrollment had climbed to 20 percent.
Detroit is just the first point in a student migration that moves north and west from the Ambassador Bridge. Consider just one path: In the 2012-2013 school year, 1,796 Detroit students enrolled in Oak Park. Meanwhile, 1,004 Oak Park kids are enrolled in other area public school districts.
Ferndale received 321 of Oak Park’s students, along with 464 students directly from Detroit. Ferndale sent 121 students up Woodward Avenue to Royal Oak, which in turn sent 142 of its home-grown students farther north to Berkeley and another 135 to Clawson.
Detroiters flock to Ferndale
In Ferndale, which abuts Detroit along Eight Mile Road, two of the three high schools serve Detroit students and non-traditional learners, many from outside the district. Only Ferndale High School would be considered a traditional high school, said Jim O’Donnell, school board president.
How the district came to be a provider of education, at two of its three schools, to non-residents is a story of inner-ring suburban reality, the board president said.
The city’s older, smaller houses are more likely to hold smaller families. Enrollment has been falling for years.
“My dad grew up in Ferndale, with seven kids in a 1,200-square-foot house,” he said. “Among my peers, I don’t know of anyone pushing that limit.”
Consolidating schools and trying to open new funding sources led the district to open its doors, but as in other districts close to Detroit, district residents are concerned that their suburban schools are being somehow spoiled by the non-resident students.
O’Donnell was elected in January 2013 on a slate with three others, who campaigned on a platform of persuading district residents to keep their children in Ferndale schools. Sixty-eight percent currently choose to stay in Ferndale, which the new board majority would like to see rise.
O’Donnell said the district is seeing a funnel effect, with Royal Oak Township and Oak Park students opting, via school choice, to attend in Ferndale, while many Ferndale students opting for nearby Berkley or Royal Oak.
In March, the board voted to limit out-of-district transfers to 15 percent next school year in its traditional neighborhood schools, down from 16.8 percent this year, and limit those students to K-3 grades only, instead of K-8. At its meeting, the board noted the move could cost the district about $259,000 in per-pupil funding, but hoped the money could be made up in Ferndale residents who might have opted for another Oakland County school choosing to stay.
“The issues in school board race were retention of students going outside, improving academic performance and community engagement,” O’Donnell said. “That’s what we hope to do.”
Research, though, indicates Ferndale may have a tough time luring its prodigal students home.
“As the School of Choice kids go up, district representation goes down, and the whole idea of actual community schools becomes less and less true,” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit.
In many ways, Metzger said, it’s the “same kind of racial dynamic as blockbusting. People are fleeing.”
A 2011 analysis by The Detroit News found that as Metro Detroit suburbs became more racially mixed, a larger number of white students used school choice to attend whiter school districts.
“Sometimes (families) choose schools that mirror themselves, along racial and class lines,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. “Sometimes they choose one notch up” in class or academics.
Several years ago, Jacobsen conducted a study of Metro Detroit inner ring suburban schools that were experiencing a large influx of school choice students. She found that students native to those school districts often over-estimated the percentage of minority students in their schools, and viewed that change negatively. Even some teachers wildly overestimated the percentage of minority students in their schools.
It’s not always about the actual numbers, but the perception, Jacobsen explained.
“Students would say, ‘The school is not the same as when my brother went there,’” Jacobsen said. Schools with large school choice enrollment can struggle “with the idea of how to be engaged in the community.”
Closed, then open at Harper Woods
Harper Woods is a small district in Wayne County with roughly 100 students per grade that opted to remain closed to outside residents for years.
“There (was) tremendous community opposition (to opening),” said board President Brian Selburn. When the district finally did open (in 2009), the administration set limits -- younger students and, when possible, those who have a proven academic record.
The goal, Selburn said, is to use choice students to fill classrooms, but not so many that they require any new ones.
Those they do accept, he said, are nearly all from Detroit.
Selburn said the district’s experience has been successful.
“Maybe it’s because of how we’ve implemented it, but we have been told -- by administrators -- that’s it’s a success. Is it working? By forcing this limited selection process, do we feel we’re getting students who are a little more capable, and can integrate better? They’re saying yes. And there’s a more involved parent, too.”
But the community, which fought so hard against opening the doors? They don’t fight anymore, Selburn said. That may be partly because the residents themselves have changed. Harper Woods saw a sharp increase in African-American residents between 2000 and 2010, from 10 percent to 45 percent of its population.
“The people who reacted in the past, either their kids have graduated and moved on, or they’ve moved their kids out,” Selburn said. “Black residents didn’t object to the point the whites were. Now nobody says anything.”
Convenience vs. academics
Nicole de Beaufort, vice president of communications and community engagement for Excellent Schools Detroit, said that organization’s focus is to help residents find the best possible schools for city residents, whether public or private, traditional or charter. The group is preparing to publish a report on the choices available this summer, prior to fall enrollment.
“There are a lot of decent DPS schools, and they’re fighting hard to get better and better,” de Beaufort said. “There are 12 DPS schools in the top 20 list.”
But, “anecdotally, most parents are trying for convenience and proximity. Transportation is a big factor.”
With so many attending elsewhere, the suburbs will continue to be a factor for parents to consider, whether or not those districts are eager to welcome them. The money that comes with Schools of Choice is too good to pass up, said Metzger of Data Driven Detroit.
The ultimate problem, he said, is that Michigan simply has too many districts, which have failed to significantly remake themselves in a world of falling enrollment and rising costs across the board.
“With every district losing kids, it doesn’t make sense to have so many of them,” said Metzger.
Senior Writer Ron French contributed to this report.