Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

So here we go again.

On March 30, another high-powered coalition on reforming the Detroit Public Schools issued its long-awaited report.

Reduced to its essentials, the report called for an end to state oversight of the city’s schools, returning to an elected board, creating a mayoral-appointed oversight commission and getting the state to take over $350 million of the schools’ accumulated debt.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren would also abolish the EAA ‒ the Education Achievement Authority that Gov. Rick Snyder created to try and improve the district’s worst-performing schools.

Don’t hold your breath. DPS has now gone through four consecutive emergency managers, steadily increasing deficits, unchanging poor academic performance and continued erosion of student enrollment.

The schools are, to put it mildly, widely considered a failure.

Another high-level group reporting to Gov. Rick Snyder is said to be considering its own recipe for reform. There’s no due date for its report, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out before the big state policy conference on Mackinac Island at the end of May.

Running out of reforms

But regardless – up to now, most of the discussion about Detroit’s schools has had to do with models of how to run them, with things like what to do about poor teachers and deteriorating facilities, and all the charter schools that have sought to fill the educational vacuum created by DPS’ failure.

Sorry, but who is thinking about the kids themselves in all this?

That said, I cannot adequately express how much I admire the hundreds of thoughtful, well-motivated citizens who, over many, many years, have spent their time and passion on trying to figure out how to improve the futures of thousands of poor and vulnerable kids in Detroit and Michigan’s other impoverished urban areas.

But if you look even briefly at the record over the years, nothing seems to have worked. Maybe all the reports have not been radical enough, in that they have shied away from a vitally important part of the equation: Parents and the family.

The evidence is clear: Kids from poverty-stricken families face colossal difficulties in learning. And children from struggling families, sometimes dysfunctional, often headed by single young parents, are too often not growing up in environments that support learning in school.

One big, fraught idea

That’s a scary topic. It’s risky. And it’s very much open to misinterpretation. We certainly do not want government – no matter how well intentioned – to yank kids from their families just because they aren’t learning or their families are troubled.

Yet the idea of finding a way for poor, vulnerable children to experience what amounts to a public boarding school model for their schooling is enormously appealing. Boarding school has been a well-respected, successful model for educating kids. Wealthy families pay many thousands of dollars a year for their kids to go off to schools like Exeter or Andover; they don’t do that just because they are looking for easy ways to spend lots of money.

I had thought boarding schools for poor and vulnerable children did not exist until I learned of something called the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., which does just that. SEED (it stands for School for Educational Evolution and Development) runs schools in Washington and Baltimore and just opened one in Miami.

Taken together, these schools serve around 800 children in sixth through 12th grades. According to SEED, 90 percent of these students graduate from high school and more than 80 percent enroll in college. Importantly, of the first class to go through college, nearly 40 percent graduate – far higher than the national rate.

Children are chosen for admission by lottery, which means their participation is entirely by family choice, not imposed by some exterior authority. Kids stay on campus during the school week, returning home for the weekends.

Founded in 1998, the SEED public boarding school model is not cheap. The program gets around a $10,000 per pupil grant from the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland, plus an extra $20,000 per pupil boarding allowance. The foundation also gets funding from third party investors.

Big investment

So in addition to questions about whether such a model makes educational, social and moral sense, there’s an enormous issue of getting the money to get to scale.

Beyond the purported educational advantages, there are obvious and important social and moral questions about such a system. But for kids in enormous need of a stable, sustaining home environment that encourages good learning, a public boarding school model might make all the difference in the world. The compelling moral argument is that ALL kids deserve a quality education.

Now is a time when many people are thinking hard about what to do about fixing Detroit Public Schools.
Many of the reform ideas now under consideration so far sound OK … but look very incremental. Trouble is, today’s students need reform that is big and fast. Adding something truly radical to the mix just might help improve the entire effort to make a better living-and-learning environment for kids who desperately need it.

After all, just about everything else has been tried.

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Tue, 04/07/2015 - 2:13pm
It's an idea I've floated informally for a number of years, but one as old as Plato's Academy.
Mitchell Robinson
Tue, 04/07/2015 - 3:21pm
Really? Take kids away from their families as a way to "fix" the problems being created by the double-whammy of starving our schools of resources and income inequality? When are we going to screw up the moral courage to actually do something about the root causes of these problems by reinvesting in the social programs that our citizens need, instead of papering over the problems with expensive "solutions" that we can't afford and will only impact handfuls of students? Every child in Michigan deserves a high quality, rich and vibrant public education, including music, art, foreign language, library services, and the whole array of disciplines we recognize as valuable for the development of well-rounded persons. Not "public boarding schools" that just put off the hard work it will take to turn around our cities after years of neglect.
Tue, 04/07/2015 - 3:47pm
Free Breakfast, Free lunch, Free Dinner, all day education with after school daycare, Sure keeping the kids overnight just completes the circle. It will happen!
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 04/07/2015 - 4:26pm
First Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute. Ebenezer: Are there no prisons? First Collector: Plenty of prisons. Ebenezer: And the union workhouses - are they still in operation? First Collector: They are. I wish I could say they were not. Ebenezer: Oh, from what you said at first I was afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course. I'm very glad to hear it. First Collector: I don't think you quite understand us, sir. A few of us are endeavoring to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. Ebenezer: Why? First Collector: Because it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. Now what can I put you down for? Ebenezer: Huh! Nothing! Second Collector: You wish to be anonymous? Ebenezer: [firmly, but calmly] I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish sir, that is my answer. I help to support the establishments I have named; those who are badly off must go there. First Collector: Many can't go there. Second Collector: And some would rather die.
Wed, 04/08/2015 - 2:01am
Mr. Power seems so preoccupied with the good intentions and admiration of those who are involved in Detroit schools he fails to look to the most critical person in the schools. He fails to ask the student the important question, what does it take to learn?. He spends so much time talking about how everyone is trying to do good for Detroit and promote the next fix that he has no time to investigate the results and why they happen. I think the biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is people who are preoccupied with giving the ‘right’ answer that they haven’t learned that it is about asking the right question, listening, and selecting the effective answer. Mr. Power’s default view seems to be the ‘conventional wisdom’ of attributing to the “parents and family,” to ‘poverty,’ and to the system responsibility for student failures. He ignores that there are kids that come out of ‘poverty’ who have learned/succeeded. He would rather find blame for failure then try to learn what the root causes of success are. Why not think pass the popular fault finding which prevents listening and start listening to the successes to learn how and why they happen in spite of all the faults people focus on. There have been many who have succeeded academically in Detroit in spite of the problems in the schools and being in ‘poverty’, why ask them why and how they succeeded? Why not ask them what their barriers to learning were and how they overcame them? Why not start by asking readers? Mr. Power doesn’t appear to realize there readers who came out of ‘poverty’ to succeed, who came out of ‘wealth’ to succeed, and came from in between to succeed. I would be surprised that listening to their anecdotal experiences that a pattern will appear that shows a family’s financial situation masks the commonality of learning and barriers to learning. What the barriers have readers had to overcome to learn? Mine included not being told that you learn by doing and homework was the doing, not being told how to create a secure place to learn, not being told how what I was learned applied to my everyday life, being a very slow reader. I wonder what others had to overcome.
Wed, 04/08/2015 - 11:13am
Give it a shot. It would be optional. Some families are extremely dysfunctional; this option would provide stability and an opportunity to develop good habits in bedtime, eating, studying ect.
Laurel Raisanen
Thu, 04/09/2015 - 11:17am
What exactly does SEED have to offer? Do you believe the various corporations and businesses who financially supported the EAA would commit to this? I fully believe environment plays a huge roll in students' failure to succeed and this idea would definitely change that. Keep thinking!
Jeff Jenks
Sat, 04/11/2015 - 5:14pm
If this program can be run with well-paid quality teachers, small class sizes and quality tutors, in a safe setting it would be worth a try. Profit must be publicly controlled. We have a highly successful world-class model named Cranbrook. But the program must graduate students who receive similar scholarships to college and succeed in graduating, and hopefully return to Detroit to continue building our region
Sun, 04/12/2015 - 2:45pm
Jeff, How can you be so sure that it takes all of that? Why don't you mention the students role? Have you ever heard of the phrase, 'you can lead a horse to water but can make it drink."? Why don;t you think that applies to learning? Do you really think teacher only teach for the pay? If so you fail to understand what motivates the truly committed in any profession. If you think it is only class size then you fail to understand the student and what they need. If you think it is only quality tutors then you lack an understanding of what the role of a tutor is. If you think it is only think Cranbook that knows how to educate then you fail to recongize there are successful students from all the schools across America, even DPS. You fail to realize that it is more than any classroom that makes a student succeed. All you have mentioned is what the adults who the system is designed by and for have promoted. What you need to consider is it all centers around the student and all the influences they deal with, much can happen in the classroom but unless the student has the desire to learn nothing you or Cranbrook or the system provides will cause that student to learn. Businesses thrives or fails on what the customer wants. Why don't we recognize that the customer of learning is the student and try to deliever what they want and not what the adults who tout the system want?