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.
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.