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Opinion | Schools and researchers must collaborate to help Detroit students

In April, our research team released the first in a series of reports exploring promising approaches to improving the academic lives of Detroit students, specifically focused on issues of student enrollment and attendance.

Researching the challenges most cited by school leaders and community advocates, we found that roughly a quarter of students who lived in Detroit in the 2017-18 school year attended a school in the suburbs, taking their talents and state school funding out of the city’s schools.

We also found that nearly one-fifth of Detroit students switched schools between school years, which can negatively impact achievement and destabilize the schools they left. Additionally, over half of the students who attended school in Detroit missed 10 percent or more of the year, contributing to lower academic achievement and greatly increasing their risk of high school dropout.

Findings like these can play a pivotal role in educational policy decision-making, but the policymakers and advocates who could benefit from such information rarely have access to the journals where academics like us typically publish our research.

Too often, academic research is not responsive to the questions or experiences of community members. Yet, as one community partner told us, research is most powerful in policymaking when it “amplifies community experience.”

It’s our responsibility as researchers to ensure that the people who make and shape school policy have access to and understand our work. We aim to upend the traditional academic timeline by producing quick research that responds to real-time problems and informs real-time solutions to improve the lives of schoolchildren.

At the same time, policymakers would benefit from seeking out research on the policy problems they are trying to solve before designing solutions. Too often, researchers are engaged to study the impact of policies instead of brought into the policymaking process itself, to strengthen policy development and reduce the possibility of unintended consequences.

Our research details some of the enormous challenges we must overcome to build a world-class education system for Detroit youth. But it also begins to identify areas where policy and practice could make a difference. For instance, we found that schools are unevenly distributed throughout the city and that the neighborhoods with the most children have the fewest schools. Yet, students who had more schools to choose from in the city were less likely to leave Detroit for their education.

This finding reinforces research from education organizing group 482Forward, which found that students in particular Detroit neighborhoods have very limited access to a city high school. That may be why many families are making big changes in enrollment between 8th and 9th grades, including switching between suburban and city schools and leaving schools even when they could stay on for 9th grade. Policymakers can use this information to make more strategic decisions about high school programming and locations.

Our research also found that students who lived in Detroit neighborhoods with higher rates of asthma were more likely to miss school, suggesting that efforts to reduce air pollution and lower asthma rates could help combat absenteeism. Integrated healthcare services within schools could moderate the negative impact environmental factors have on student attendance, which in turn would improve student achievement and graduation rates.

Detroiters across the city are learning about and acting on the assets and challenges in our schools and communities. For example, with the support of the community group Every School Day Counts Detroit, our research team partnered with city schools to learn about effective ways to reduce chronic absenteeism.

More than 30 schools across the city have implemented attendance teams and are using data to identify students who need extra supports to get to school. Many are going the extra mile to build positive relationships with students so that youth feel valued and encouraged to attend, even if it’s hard. In one school we observed, the staff person in charge of attendance told us, “It’s so important for you to give the kid a high five or shake a kid’s hand, whatever the case may be, when a kid sees you, so they can know that you welcome them with open arms.”

Yet, as one partner told us, “Schools can’t do this on their own.”

Community and municipal partners can support efforts to reduce absenteeism inside schools by providing engaging enrichment activities after school or training staff on how to assess and address student needs. They can also be helpful in solving issues that impact school enrollment or attendance, but that are out of reach for most school systems to solve on their own, including coordinated and thoughtful school siting, transportation, environmental health, and housing instability.

Our research joins a growing body of scholarship that suggests that a collaborative approach to school improvement, with community, school, city, and university partners, could help overcome challenges facing Detroit schools. We are encouraged by the community-led efforts that started long before we began this project, and we hope to continue to produce research that is responsive to community needs as we work together to enhance learning opportunities for Detroit students.

You can learn more about our research and provide feedback at  

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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