Across the city of Detroit, student learning is being disrupted by what’s nearly become a combat sport – predatory enrollment campaigns.
When schools should be focusing on increasing student learning, instead much effort, money and time is spent hosting open houses, sending mailings and buying radio ads.
It’s a side effect of a bigger problem. Detroit has too many schools with too many seats – some sources suggest more than 20,000 seats are empty.
Because of that oversupply, schools across the city are far more accountable for ensuring they get kids through their doors than being accountable for actually helping them learn.
So quality suffers. Consider this: 85 percent of the 81,000 K-8 students in Detroit attend schools that scored F’s in academic status in the Excellent Schools Detroit scorecard, just under half of which also failed to show they’re improving. On another score, just 3 percent of 8th grade students in Detroit Public Schools DPS were proficient in math, the lowest performing of all cities.
But instead of focusing everything on fixing that, schools are adding to the chaos with misleading ad campaigns in a battle to pull kids from one failing classroom to another.
Marketing in spring or summer is understandable. Suburban districts do it, too. But when recruiting is happening mid-school year, you have to question its intent.
One district (DPS) sent all students from another, the state-created Emergency Achievement Authority schools, a letter in January stating that their assigned school had switched, effective second semester. It was not true, and DPS later issued an apology and said the letter was a mistake. Mistake or not, apology or not, confusion was created.
Is the intent behind these practices to boost enrollment in time to capture some state funding on Feb. 12, which is Count Day (a day when students are counted with the numbers determining how much state money the school will receive)? Is it about bragging rights? Political clout?
Whatever the intent, the fact is some students will indeed jump from one building to another now, in the middle of the school year. And that is an immense disservice to the city’s children.
Several studies have demonstrated that a mid-year change of schools damages student outcomes. The individual student must learn new rules and customs, develop new relationships, and try to cover the ground for items not taught in their previous classroom. And in the new classroom, students are disrupted as their teacher must take extra time get newcomers up to speed.
Now multiply that for each new arrival. One area charter school teacher reported having five new students in her classroom in January alone.
Parents in Detroit need to be more careful consumers. Be wary of ad campaigns, and use resources like the ESD scorecard, and others like the newly launched Detroit Great Schools page, to find the right school before the school year begins.
That said, changes need to be made across all levels of the system if we’re going to get serious about stemming the impact of predatory enrollment on the city’s youth. We propose:
- State legislators, state Board of Education and city leadership: Ask tough questions and look for evidence of whether your constituents are actually being served by Detroit’s education system. You have the authority and the responsibility to hold those operating on public funds accountable for real results.
- Michigan Department of Education and charter authorizers: Take a hard look at poor performers in the city and determine which schools need to be closed or transformed. Then work with parents and community members to determine a process that will both benefit students and build on neighborhood assets.
- District leaders and charter management organizations: Stop active recruitment mid-year. Instead of working against each other, develop a shared timeline, and create a common understanding of what will be “fair play” when it comes to enrollment and what practices you can collectively agree to terminate immediately. Then focus on improving.
- School leaders and school board members: Work with parents to stabilize the student population. Far too often, parents move their children from one school to another because they feel that the administration is ignoring their concerns. Fix this.
The Skillman Foundation will continue to support efforts that make the education marketplace work for the benefit of children. We as a community cannot turn a blind eye to the disastrous consequences of a largely unregulated marketplace of schools. We must show through our actions every day, and in every way, kids matter here.
Kristen McDonald is the vice president of program and policy at The Skillman Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation with a goal to improve meaningful high school graduation rates in Detroit so kids are prepared for college, career and life. The Foundation funds education, youth development, safety, social innovation, neighborhood and community leadership work in six Detroit neighborhoods.