Forum proposes 5 ways to fix Detroit's problems with frequent school changes

Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, were among the panelists Thursday at a forum sponsored by Bridge Magazine, Chalkbeat, WDET-FM and Detroit Public Television about frequent student movement in Detroit. (Photo by Koby Levin/Chalkbeat Detroit)

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum followed a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine  called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of "Detroit Today" on WDET-FM, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first-grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”


Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, which originally published this article. Bridge Magazine and Chalkbeat are partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

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Sat, 11/17/2018 - 10:37pm

The Michigan Data Hub project should help the student information flow between districts. This is bigger than just Detroit. This is a statewide issue.

Sun, 11/18/2018 - 10:19am

This situation of students with behavioral problems has always been a big reason that has held down charter school results. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that students aren't being moved school to school because of stellar performances. Those performing well and not causing problems stay put! In our misguided egalitarian quest we do a dis-service to all. We'd all do better if students had to meet qualification standards to be admitted into given schools, as is done in many European countries we compare ourselves with, allowing schools to advance given the abilities of their students. Yes some won't be able to stay and drop down to less rigorous schools and seek opportunities, but we solve nothing doing what we do now. In our world we we fool ourselves that every student has the same abilities and getting the same education, we get what we get.

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 10:21am

I totally agree!

Thomas E Graham
Tue, 11/20/2018 - 10:59am

I just hope Michigan doesn't try to enact a statewide program to handle this in a uniform way. The problems in Detroit have to do with the culture of Detroit families and attitudes toward education being necessary for income. Many people these days grow up in environments where neither parent works, neither has an education and yet there is enough money for food and shelter. I'd like to see statistics by;
Parental income
Number of parents in the home
Sex of parents in the home (does the child live with mom or dad?)
Race (are there any Asians?)
IQ of child moving
These statistics might shed light on the proper methods to fix the problem instead of just dealing with it as if it's the new reality. Ignoring the statistics is ignoring the problem.

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 7:46am

The sense of aspiration is very different in these communities. If there is one it is very unrealistic - politician, entertainer or athlete OR just plain bad! Once these alternatives are off he table there is little to nothing. No one there aspires to be a competent plumber!

Sun, 11/25/2018 - 6:39am

Yes, excellent questions Thomas. I will add that these panelists and when I listen to Detroit Black talk radio, rarely is it ever mentioned about the primary demographic in Detroit. For the past 5+ decades, ~80% of Black Babies born in Detroit are to Single Mothers with the vast majority already in poverty. In fact, former Michigan HHS Director Maura Corrigan, often said every time she visited Detroit Schools, she would ask students to raise their hands if they know anybody that is married.....very few hands if any were raised.

As for moving from school to school...with 95% of Black Detroit Students living with single mothers, there is no answer to change this issue. These mothers move from house to house, from rent to rent, to friend to friend, to section 8 housing to section 8 housing etc.

Ben W. Washburn
Wed, 11/28/2018 - 9:05pm

My comments are in particular to Matt and Mark, and anyone else who echoes their responses.

These issues are a lot more complex than you might at first think, and are likely to come back and bite you or your own children in the backside not too far down the road. It's not enough to just write them off off-hand.

Population-wise, these students comprise 20% or more of those few young adults who will follow you and upon whom you will somewhat depend for help when you grow old. If they lack the ability to help sustain you and our economy in that time, it will partly be because of your cavalier dismissal of them.

More than 86% of us in the country are the descendants of immigrants. About 12% are the descendants of slaves. For the first 200 years (1665 to 1865, slave labor was the foundation of the New World economy). If America became Great, it was significantly on the backs of slaves.

My ancestors on the male lineage side had a key role in this. They were Vikings who about 800 AD invaded Normandy. In 1066, they invaded and conquered England, and were awarded estates in mid-England. But, in the 1640s, they sided with King Charles against the Cromwell's Parliament in the English Civil War, and lost their lands. So, they came to the Americas. They settled in what is now Culpeper County, Virginia, and established a slave-trading station. 200 years later, they aligned in opposition to the English King. Ben the first, (I'm the fifth) joined Washington's Continental Army on his 15th birthday. He was with the army at Yorktown and was awarded land in Kentucky, on which I grew up.

Times change. I'll be 83 in two days. But, when I was a baby, and my mother had to find help before she could go to work in the fields, she called upon a neighbor, Elijah Smith to watch me and keep me from falling into the open well in our back yard. Lidge was born in 1854, the same year as my grandfather, but Lidge was born a family slave. He was freed at the end of the Civil War at age 11. But, he remained on for the next 60 years as a servant to my great uncles.

I say all of that because so many people I know have never had the slightest affiliation with anyone who endured that distraught era. In tracking my ancestry, I have been both lifted by the fact that I have had ancestors who openly and heroically opposed slavery, but also saddened by the many of those who fought to maintain it.

But, when I see folks denigrate the lifestyle of some black folks as compared to some European "standards" , I have to realize that a lot of that conduct is the continuing result of former deliberate efforts to disrupt slave family relationships in order to maintain a slavery economy.

Yes, we need to get beyond that. But, we also need to get real about what that takes. And it is not simple or easy.