Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Hank Pellissier
How far must parents go to get their children a decent education? In some cities, it can require navigating a bureaucratic obstacle course or calculating daunting admissions odds. In Motor City, where school system trouble has long resembled a multicar pileup, it can take much more — even a modern day judgment of Solomon.
Detroit mother Cheryl Lynn Pope can attest to the massive effort parents must make. She pulled her own daughter from an underperforming school — and worked 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 in their aunt’s neighboring town.
In the Detroit Public School system (DPS), only 62 percent of high school students graduate. How can parents prevent their children from ending up in an educational dead-end? As Pope’s experience suggests, it’s difficult. And recent news isn’t making it any easier.
Facing a massive $327 million budget deficit, DPS has recently gone into red alert mode. In February 2011, Michigan officials ordered DPS to reduce its expenses by closing half its schools — from 142 to 72 — by 2012-2013. The restructuring is expected to cause severe overcrowding: Class sizes will jump from 35 to 62 in high schools, from 35 to 45 in middle schools, and from 17 to 31 in K-3.
DPS has tried numerous strategies to improve its services: A uniform dress code with mandatory identification badges was instituted in 2007, and the popular new parent resource centers offer comfortable community gathering spaces with computers, libraries, play areas for children, and workshops for adults. Nonetheless, the quality of education in Detroit is in a quagmire — GreatSchools rates the city a 2 out of 10.
The good news? The enrollment process is simple and the journey to the district office offers an architectural treat. DPS is located on five floors of the Fisher Building — an ornate 1928 Art Deco skyscraper and national historic landmark constructed with 40 varieties of gleaming marble. DPS has all the forms and information there that you'll need. Applying to schools consists of listing your three top choices on an open enrollment questionnaire.
If you want info online instead, you'll find the user-friendly DPS website has easy-to-follow enrollment instructions as well as contact phone numbers, a map, a list of the district's schools, required documents for enrollment, scholarship applications, a parent's guide, and a school orientation kit. An adjacent web page has additional information for new students, transfer students, and special needs students.
Beware: Some of the website's enrollment information is misleading or outdated. For one, it implies that student enrollment only occurs at the schools. In reality, many parents enroll their children over the summer at one of the eight parent resource centers. Also, the website touts Detroit's “open enrollment," suggesting that there are no geographic requirements for enrollment. In fact, most of the schools are neighborhood-zoned. When you carefully read the details, you find that: "Enrollment preference will be given to students who live within the boundary of a school."
Some families avoid the neighborhood schools because the non-zoned schools with open enrollment tend to be superior, especially in the upper grades. Neighborhood high schools send only a small number of graduates to universities, whereas the open enrollment alternatives are much more successful. For example, in 2009 the neighborhood Ford High School (GS rating 1) only had four students even apply to the University of Michigan system, whereas college preps Renaissance High (GS rating 7) and Cass Technical (GS rating 6) had 73 and 130 applicants, respectively. Another neighborhood high school, Southeastern (GS rating 2) — with a student body of 2,147 — didn't have a single student apply to the public university.
Non-neighborhood schools are listed here, but be warned, they achieve superiority partly because they’re more selective. Four "examination" schools require students to qualify for enrollment by doing well on a placement exam, and 11 "application" schools ask parents to complete an application prior to their selection process. Many of these institutions offer specialty disciplines, such as communication, performing arts, music, cultural studies, visual art, and foreign language immersion. Additionally, DPS also has a "schools of choice" list that provides registration info and scholastic themes for 40 schools that it claims "generate improvement on all levels." We recommend that you use this resource, but make sure the schools you want will still be open in 2012.
While DPS offers a wide variety of schools to choose from, excellent choices are somewhat limited. Dozens of Detroit schools earn a GreatSchools’ rating of only 1 or 2 out of 10. There are, however, some schools which garner high ratings, such as Bates Academy (GS rating 9), Renaissance High School ( GS rating 7), Chrysler Elementary (GS rating 7), Cass Technical High School (GS rating 6), Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center (GS rating 6), or Thirkell Elementary (GS rating 7). Several additional schools have ratings of 7 or 6.
Detroit has charter schools, but the majority of charter schools are severely underperforming. Sixteen out of the 23 that GreatSchools rates have a score of merely 1 or 2, and only one is rated higher than 4. The lone exception is Edison Public School Academy (GS rating 6). The charters boast that they comprise "one-third of the best schools in Detroit". However, this means very little. There are 54,000 children enrolled in charters - more than one third of the student population in Detroit. Proportionally, this suggests that charters aren’t outperforming traditional schools, but merely keeping pace with DPS overall. If you decide that you do want your child to attend a charter, inquire at each one about its respective application process. Some accept students via examinations, others are lottery based.
What if your child can’t get into any of the best public and charter schools? If you can afford the expense, 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, Open Door Montessori, and Friends School in Detroit. For any of these institutions, it’s wise to research their philosophies before you approach them to make sure your belief systems are compatible. Like the charters, religious and other private schools have their own individualized application processes, with different due dates and entrance requirements.
In the end, Cheryl Lynn Pope found a happy ending for her daughter, as did her cousin who gave up guardianship to provide a better education for her kids. Pope says transferring her daughter to another institution was relatively easy. Her daughter now attends Chrysler Elementary School (GS rating 7), a school with a student-run newspaper, yearbook, and multimedia publishing options for aspiring writers.
"Chrysler's focus is journalism," explains Cheryl. "The kids actually write and publish books. My daughter is a two-time author. She’s contributed to two books."
No doubt Motor City’s bumpy road to a good education will make some parents look for a way out of town. Literally. You can apply for an out-of-district transfer for your child — to enroll them in an adjacent community with more successful schools — but obtaining one isn’t easy. Desperate parents may go to great lengths to give their child a chance to escape a DPS education, but there are no simple solutions.
One route to superior schooling is to buy or rent your home in a nearby suburb. Bloomfield Hills (GS rating 10) is tops in this category. It has a low crime rate, and one of its high schools - International Academy — was ranked #2 in the nation by US News & World Report. Of course, home prices there are more than 10 times the cost of dirt-cheap Detroit ($705,600 instead of $66,100) but you’d definitely leave your parental guilt behind. Birmingham (GS rating 10) has housing that's much more affordable (average home costs $195,900) but slightly more crime; Northville (GS rating 10) has similar crime rates, but housing is pricier at an average of $245,600. An affordable option might be Royal Oak (GS rating 8) with excellent middle schools and a more affordable average house tag of $115,600.