To rebuild Detroit, restore the schools

Amber Elliott is moving against the tide.

As families with school-aged children continue to move out of Detroit, Elliott and her daughter, a kindergartener, moved to the city two months ago from the Oakland County suburb of Farmington.

Elliott, however, has not yet enrolled her daughter in a Detroit school. She has her eye on Bates Academy, a Detroit magnet school for gifted students, for next school year. If her daughter doesn’t get accepted, Elliott said she will continue to pay private school tuition.

It shouldn’t have to be that way – Detroit’s public schools need to improve to attract and retain families, Elliott said. The city’s future depends on it, she said.

“I moved (to Detroit) because I can’t talk about wanting to make Detroit better and not be willing to invest,” said Elliott, 31, who last year was a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, a leadership development program in Wayne State University’s Office of Economic Development.
“The ideal plan is for her to go to school in Detroit,” she said of her daughter. “But everything is up in the air because the school system is so different and constantly changing.”

Getting an education in Detroit is no longer as easy as going to the school down the street and enrolling. That’s a novelty of the past. More than 100 neighborhood schools have closed, dozens of others opened and staffs at many schools have been replaced over the past 20 years. The Detroit Public Schools district is rated the worst large urban district in the country in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Still searching for a plan

One year after Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, the missing link to the city’s post-bankruptcy revitalization is a widely shared plan to create stable, quality schools for the city’s children.

“There is no question that Detroit children need a solid education so they can compete in a global economy, but also for their city to accelerate its revitalization,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in October about efforts to address DPS’ debt and overall school governance in the city.

It’s not just the locals who argue that successful schools can play a role in economic growth. Research and experts support Snyder’s assertion that a viable public school system supports economic growth and workforce stability.

“Smart Money: Education and Economic Development,” a book published by the Education Policy Institute based in Washington, DC, examined nearly 180 studies on the role of schools in economic vitality and concluded that primary and secondary education investment and quality are directly linked to economic development.

Tim Bartik, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and author of the book, “Investing in Kids,” said when parents move into an area to get a stronger K-12 education for their children, the result is a boost in local economic development. Additional households boost the local labor supply, which will attract employers seeking workers; and additional households boost local demand for goods and services, which will also boost local employment, he said.

All of which would likely be just fine with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who was elected in 2013 on a promise of making city population growth a major priority.

The exodus of families with children from Detroit has slowed considerably, but continues. From 2006 to 2010, those aged 1 to 17 made up 30 percent of people moving out of Detroit to another county, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows. Today, children represent about 13 percent of all residents leaving Detroit for another county.

Detroit’s post-bankruptcy ambitions have added urgency to the state’s plans to fix the schools, according to Snyder’s office. In another time, that vow may have raised the spirits of Detroit families. But as many of these same families note, the state has run Detroit’s public schools for 13 of the past 16 years and failed to improve, much less fix, the struggling system. Instability and debt, rather than excellence, remain the norm for too many schools across the city.

Money and power

Detroit’s public education landscape is now three separate systems of schools: the traditional Detroit Public Schools district; the Education Achievement Authority (the state’s four-year-old emergency reform school district), and dozens of charter schools. DPS now needs $715 million from the state to survive, according to Snyder.

Another state plan is expected possibly as early as this week to try to correct DPS’ crippling debt and centralize some oversight of DPS, the EAA and charters. For months, conversations among legislators, community and business leaders have revolved around a handful of questions: When will the state return power to the city’s elected school board? How to pay for the $715 million in debt? And what roles will the city’s teachers’ unions, the state, and the mayor’s office play?

In short, the Detroit schools debate has revolved around questions of money and power.

Parents say if they don’t see better achievement and security in Detroit’s schools, don’t expect to see many families moving in to revitalize the neighborhoods. For too many, improvement in Detroit’s schools can’t come fast enough.

Amanda Gregory, 33, and her husband drove to Detroit from South Carolina three times during the winter of 2012-13 to look at houses. She fell in love with the stately, brick homes in neighborhoods such as Grandmont and Rosedale that were selling for a song.

In the end, they moved to the downriver suburb of Riverview with their two school-aged children.

Gregory, director of street markets for Eastern Market Corporation and another Detroit Revitalization Fellow, said the city’s schools are “98 percent of the reason we don’t live in the city.”

“We really wanted to stay in the city. Detroit is so unique in its abundance of single family residences, but families are just about the last ones who want to live in them because of the school system,” Gregory said.

She said she’d like to see the next plan for Detroit schools “level the playing field” and fund schools adequately so that all schools have the same quality of teachers and resources as the city’s top performing schools.

“It’s crazy to see some good, top 10 schools in Detroit and then so many underperforming schools where children face problems the schools are unable to address due to lack of resources,” she said.

“Accepting troubled schools is wrong. Accepting it as something urban areas have? I see no reason to accept that. Detroit has the potential to go back to what it was – an incredible city and a great place for families to live.”

Bridge Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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Tue, 12/01/2015 - 7:51am
Entrenched poverty and all of the social ills connected with that make turning around Detroit schools next to impossible. You can't restore the schools until you rebuild the city (that does not include fancy sports palaces that are a monument for some rich persons ego).
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 12/01/2015 - 10:10am
The legacy of debt and malfeasance left behind by State and Local politicians represents a huge barrier to the return of meaningful schools to the city. It's time that those two groups own their missteps and give the power to recreate Detroit's schools to the teachers and staffs in the viable school facilities that remain in the city. Separate the teachers, staff and students from the burdens of historical malfeasance and fund the school building at the level determined by the staff of the building based on their assessment of the actual learning needs of the children in the geographic area they serve. Also provide a fixed per pupil amount of bridge money to address the difficulties their students bear due to the failures of the aforementioned two groups. For guidance and support look to Big Picture Schools, KIPP schools, Teacher Powered Schools and local project and outcomes based mastery learning programs right here in Michigan. This will require those currently "running" Detroit's schools (lots of players - the state, MDE, philanthropists, businesses and unfortunately politicians) to let go and step back out of the way. It will also require time, probably twelve years for complete recovery and a huge paradigm shift from punishing teachers and students to trusting teachers and students to care about their own learning and their own futures. It will also require suspending the idiocy of standardized testing, seat time requirements, age grading and obsessive accountability programs focused solely on "academic" proficiency. Also to concurrently bridge the functionally unemployable labor problem in Detroit demand that those in charge of state and federally funded CTE programs end the practice of requiring applicants to job and skills training programs to take college oriented entrance tests and successfully complete college oriented remedial math and English courses (at their own expense $$$$) in order to qualify for CTE training. Given the "systems" current inability to think past the end of their noses, this will never happen.
Tue, 12/08/2015 - 10:35am
Tue, 12/01/2015 - 11:18am
After 16+ years of Gubernatorial/Mayoral/Dictatorial "emergency" control, oversight and management of the Detroit Public Schools it's long past time to try something otherwise not the least bit novel in the 500+ other school districts across the state - DEMOCRACY... i.e. local control of schools. The fact is if three governors and countless sitting state legislatures and numerous "emergency" managers haven't "fixed" whatever they thought needed fixing to resolve the "emergency" it's not the least bit unreasonable to conclude that a duly-elected board of education would most certainly be capable of hiring a highly-qualified Superintendent of Schools and in turn she/he would most certainly be capable of hiring a top-notch management team. There's an old critical-thinking adage often used when reflecting on such monumental decisions both in government and industry... after parts of three decades, it's well-worth asking it now: "What was the problem we thought we had that (in this case insert "taking over the DPS") was supposed to have solved?" It's been 16 years. Time to give democracy and local control a shot... at least maybe for the next 16 years let's say and see what happens. It couldn't possibly be any worse than the mess the State of Michigan's made.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 12/02/2015 - 12:35pm
Do not empower a duly elected school board to effect change. Empower the teachers in individual buildings to effect meaningful change with the support of a duly elected board of education. The myth of local control via elected boards and appointed superintendents has led us to the place we are in today, a dysfunctional system that serves mediocrity. Place the authority to organize and fund learning in the hands of those with all the responsibility - the teachers - with specialized guidance and coaching made available to those who request it. Budget development starts with the teacher, not the appropriations and education committees in Lansing nor the specialists at MDE or Treasury. Determining the educational needs of a student is a teacher's domain, not the accounting departments. Separate financial audit and legal compliance from the act of learning.
Fri, 12/04/2015 - 3:06pm
"dysfunctional system that serves mediocrity"?... always enjoy reading most all your posts Chuck... but I must say, that expression, "dysfunctional system that serves mediocrity" does not match my own experience nor overall perceptions.
Tue, 12/01/2015 - 1:29pm
Regardless of the glowing accolades touted by proponents, Gov. Snyder's DPS bailout is DOA in the Michigan Legislature. Michigan Taxpayers simply WILL NOT tolerate money being diverted from their local districts towards yet another bailout, especially with next year being an election year. DPS will collapse within the decade, just watch. And asking what I thought would think is a patently obviously question: Why would any parent move without knowing anything about the educational options where they intend to move? I would be curious if anyone cited above would care to comment on that?
Wed, 12/02/2015 - 11:31am
What is sad is Detroit had the financial resources to fix the schools but the Governor gave them away under the Grand Bargain. I was not in favor of the Grand Bargain where Detroit surrendered ownership of its art stored at the DIA, that appeared to have a value in excess of $10 billion, while receiving approximately only $500 million in present value dollars. This converts into getting 5 cents for every $1 dollar of art given away. This makes no sense for a city in deep financial trouble. I have expressed my desire the art be used to transform Detroit Public Schools (DPS) into the best public school system in the state. It would not only improve the performance of the children attending DPS presently, but also attract suburban middle class families to the city because one of the highest objectives of all parents is to give their children a better and more fulfilling life then they experienced. It is commonly recognized that education is a major ingredient to make this happen. As Darnell Macon posted the other day in the Detroit Free Press, "The streets can be glittered in gold but no families will move into a city with a failing school system." If Detroit is to prosper it must increase its middle class. If it is going to increase its middle class it must improve its schools. DPS is not part of city government. Nonetheless DPS must be a critical part of bringing back the vitality of the city. The city will not come back if the schools do not improve....
Tue, 02/02/2016 - 6:19am
Thanks For Sharing Nice Information.