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By Hank Pellissier
Let's not tiptoe around the truth: Detroit is one of the most troubled big city school districts in the U.S., with a GreatSchools Rating of 2. Hit hard by job cuts and population decline, the entire town is struggling. In July, 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy — making it the largest U.S. city ever to do so, with debt estimated between $18 and 20 billion.
The school district, Detroit Public Schools (DPS), has had its own trials. In 1999, it was in such poor shape that the state of Michigan took over until 2005. Detroit regained control of the district that year, but the downward slide continued. Michigan intervened again in 2009, installing an “emergency manager” with full authority over fiscal and academic matters.
Detroit’s schools are plagued with problems: test scores are falling, resources are dwindling, statistics are disturbing. Since 2005, there have been 130 school closures in Detroit. Sixty-one high school students are currently crammed into rooms built for 35. DPS now operates with a deficit of $72 million; budget problems will continue until at least 2016. By then, student enrollment will be a mere 40,000; it’s currently 50,000, down from 164,000 just 10 years ago. In many blighted neighborhoods, the occupancy rate is a dismal 10 to 15 percent.
American parents often need to navigate a hazardous obstacle course to get their children a decent education. In Detroit — the Motor City — the preK-12 track often looks like a multi-car pileup. To survive the route, parents make extraordinary decisions — some are even forced to make a modern day Solomon’s choice.
Take Detroit mother Cheryl Lynn Pope. She pulled her own daughter from an underperforming school — and worked hard to get her into a more challenging environment. She also watched her cousin make the ultimate sacrifice: surrounded by failing schools, she transferred guardianship of her two children to her sister so they could attend better schools where their aunt lives.
The Motor City’s bumpy road to a good education makes many parents look for a way out of town. Literally. You can apply for an “inter-district transfer” to enroll your child at a school in a nearby community with more successful schools — but obtaining one isn’t easy. Most districts limit the number of such transfers they allow; some don’t permit them at all.
Another way to gain access to better schooling is to buy or rent a home in a nearby high-performing suburb, and many families have made this choice in recent years. Bloomfield Hills (GS 10), for example, has a low crime rate, and one of its high schools — International Academy — is ranked #5 in the nation by US News & World Report. Of course, home prices there are 18 times the cost of dirt-cheap Detroit ($545,300 vs. $30,000), Birmingham (GS 10) has housing that is half of Bloomfield's cost (average home costs $277,900) but the crime is worse; Northville (GS 10) is cheaper than BIrmingham at an average of $177,700 per house, plus it has less crime.
But the news about Detroit schools isn't all bad. Last year, 65 percent of Detroit high school students graduated. This statistic may sound unimpressive to outsiders, but it's a five percent uptick from the year before, and the highest number of graduates since 2005. And many in Detroit are determined to continue the upward trend. The nonprofit Detroit Parent Network (DPN) in partnership with AmeriCorps and Michigan's Education Achievement Authority, created a program called “Project Graduation” which connects high-caliber tutors with Detroit public school students who are at risk of not completing their senior year. In 2012, 93 percent of Project Graduation participants were successfully admitted to college, according to Detroit Parent Network and school district officials.
There are other hopeful signs. In 2010, DPS opened several popular parent resource centers offering community gathering space with computers, libraries, play areas for children, and GED and job training workshops for adults. According to DPS, the centers “are designed to involve, connect and empower parents to help children reach academic success and serve as a hub for training and resources.”
DPS also designated 21 schools “12/7 Community Schools.” These schools, which are open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, offer support services to students and their families, including after-school and summer enrichment programs, health and social services, and adult education classes. DPS is also making more preK seats available to four-year-olds in response to demands from parents.
Detroit's public school enrollment process is simple — applying to schools consists of listing your three top choices on a questionnaire -- but that doesn't mean it's always easy. Detroit parents say that glitches in the process are common. Just because you include a school on your list, for example, doesn’t mean you’ll get a spot — even if that school has openings. It can also be tricky to get through to anyone at the district by telephone if you have a simple question.
On the positive side, a visit to the school districts' offices provide an architectural treat. DPS is headquartered on five floors of the Fisher Building — an ornate 1928 Art Deco skyscraper and national historic landmark constructed with 40 varieties of gleaming marble. You can savor the elegance of the building known as "Detroit's largest art object," while picking up the forms you need for school enrollment — and, with luck, you'll also find someone who can answer your questions.
Or you can register on line on the enrollment information page, where you’ll find application instructions, contact phone numbers, a parent's guide, scholarship applications, letters from the Emergency Manager, a school orientation kit, and a list of the district's schools. An adjacent web page has additional information for new students, transfer students, and special needs students.
In general, students are assigned to their neighborhood schools unless they apply to an “application school” (schools with special programs that you must apply for), or “examination” school" (schools that you must pass a test to qualify for).
Scholastically-striving families generally avoid neighborhood schools, because Detroit’s 21 application schools and three examination high schools are consistently higher-performing. These schools achieve superiority, of course, precisely because they are more selective. All require special applications that can be downloaded from DPS's main enrollment webpage.
Detroit application schools offer a rich variety of programs. Davis Aerospace Technical High School, for example, has an approved Federal Aviation Administration curriculum, and its own fleet of airplanes. At Dr. Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, students can specialize in different fields of medicine, and participate in internships at partner hospitals. Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School, located at Northwestern University, offers students what it calls, “a college-focused learning experience.” At Detroit School of Arts, students can study vocal music, dance, radio technology, and other art programs.
DPS offers an expansive variety of schools, but choices are meager when it comes to schools that offer top-notch academics. Dozens of Detroit schools earn a GreatSchools’ rating of only 1 or 2 out of 10. Only a dozen schools garner above-average ratings; top among them are Bates Academy, Renaissance High School, Thirkell Elementary , Chrysler Elementary, Cass Technical High School, and Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center.
In its annual Scorecard, Excellent Schools Detroit evaluated Detroit public, private, and charter schools and found that just 1 in 4 met its criteria in terms of preparing students for "success in college, career, and community.”
Detroit has exploded with new charter schools in recent years — there are now 80 to choose from — more than 30 percent of the city's total schools. The majority, however, are severely underperforming, with three commendable exceptions: Edison Public School Academy, Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center, and University Preparatory Science and Math Middle School — all rated 6 by GreatSchools. Numerous charters are rated 5 or 4; numbers twice the Detroit district’s average. In 2013, more charters opened their doors, including Detroit Achievement Academy, which has its own organic garden, provides three meals a day, and follows a project-based curriculum; and the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, named after two local writers and activists who have devoted their lives to helping Detroit youth.
If you decide you want your child to attend a charter school, check each school’s website to find out about its application process. All of the charter schools in Detroit are considered open enrollment schools, and lotteries aren’t generally held unless the school’s enrollment is overcapacity.
What if your child can’t get into any of the best public and charter schools? If you can afford it, you might want to explore nearby private schools. The offerings vary widely — from Catholic institutions like Holy Redeemer and Most Holy Trinity to Detroit Waldorf School (German and Spanish immersion), Open Door Montessori, and cozy Friends School in Detroit, which enrolls only 148 students in a PK-8. For any of these institutions, it’s wise to do some research to make sure they’re a good fit for your family. Like the charter schools, religious and other private schools have their own application processes, with different due dates and entrance requirements, so check their websites for details.
In the end, Cheryl Lynn Pope found that transferring her child to another Detroit school was easy, and her daughter now attends Chrysler Elementary School (GS rating 7), a school with a student-run newspaper, and multimedia publishing options for aspiring writers.
Pope is delighted with her daughter's new school. "The kids actually write and publish books. My daughter is a two-time author. She’s contributed to two books!"
Cheryl's cousin, who gave up guardianship to provide a better education for her kids, also gambled well -- although it meant sending her children out of the city. Both of her children graduated from Southfield High School, located in Southfield, a nearby suburb.
Detroit's growing, and energized, community of education advocates—many of them parents of school-aged children— hope that one day soon most Detroit families will see their children graduate from good schools — within the city's boundaries. This community's ambitious goal, as articulated by Excellent schools Detroit, is for 90 percent of the city's students to graduate from high school, and 90 percent to go to college or post-secondary programs.
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