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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan's 'Faltering 40' on college prep

If you want your son or daughter to succeed in college, there are 40 public school districts you may want to avoid.

In an analysis by Bridge Magazine and Public Sector Consultants, these 40 districts, spread across the state and ranging from urban to rural, scored in the bottom rungs of four different college-readiness measures.

To gauge college readiness, Bridge analyzed district-level data on the percent of students considered “college ready” by ACT scores; the percent considered proficient or higher on the Michigan Merit Exam; graduation rates; and the percent of graduates enrolling in public colleges taking remedial (high school-level) courses on campus.

Among 515 public districts that had complete information, 40 had scores in the bottom quarter in all four categories. Among those schools were troubled urban districts such as Detroit, Flint and Lansing, suburban districts, including Ferndale and Oak Park, and rural districts such as Atlanta and Wolverine.

In nine districts, fewer than one in 10 students were proficient on the Michigan Merit Exam (the state average is 39 percent). More than half of the students in 39 of the 40 districts enrolling in college took at least one remedial course.

Seven of the 40 schools had zero students considered “college ready” by standards set by scores on the ACT. That doesn’t mean no student from River Rouge, Benton Harbor or Buena Vista gets a college degree -- but it does mean the odds are stacked against them.

Madison Public Schools, in Madison Heights in the suburban Detroit area, is among the districts struggling with college readiness. There, 63 percent get a diploma, and 15 percent are considered MME proficient.

“The numbers reflect the demographic, not the ability of the kids,” said new Madison superintendent Randy Speck, the district’s 11th superintendent in eight years. In Madison schools, 44 percent of the students who start the year in September have left the district by June. “What does success look like for a kid we only have for eight months?” asked Speck.

He hopes to focus reform in the elementary schools. “It’s ridiculous to start thinking about college readiness in ninth grade,” Speck said.

Godwin Heights was named an Academic State Champion by Bridge Magazine last fall for outstanding scores in fourth grade reading, writing and math. But the district is on the opposite end of the scale in college readiness. In the district, located in Grand Rapids, 47 percent of students graduated in 2011; 8 percent of juniors taking the ACT were deemed college-ready; and 24 percent were MME proficient. Of those who went on to a state university or community college, 53 percent took remedial courses.

“We need to do better -- we’ve known that for some time,” said Godwin Heights Superintendent Tim Fetterhoff. “It doesn’t help that we probably have one of the lowest socioeconomic statuses and levels of education of parents in the (Kent County). When individuals are challenged with keeping a roof over their heads and putting food in their mouths,” college readiness isn’t the highest priority, Fetterhoff said.

Economic issues are a clear theme in the results.

Thirty-nine of the 40 districts have more students receiving free lunch than the state average of 42 percent. In 19 districts, more than 75 percent qualify for free lunch.

“I sit at my window and look at the empty storefronts around our little school district,” Fetterhoff said. “Down from us, we had a large GM stamping plant that they just finished leveling. There was a time when you could go in there and make a good living with or without a diploma. But we’ve moved from a manufacturing economy to a med-tech economy.”

Like many struggling districts, Godwin Heights is chafing at new standards that seem aimed at increasing readiness for attending the University of Michigan, while hobbling the schools’ ability to provide vocational education.

“Not every student is going to fit in that cookie-cutter mold,” Fetterhoff said. “Not every student is going to go to a four-year institution. When you mandate algebra II for all students, there’s a component of career training we’ve had to bypass. We’ve had to eliminate electives to meet the rigors of the curriculum.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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