Can Detroit Attract Middle-Class Families to One of the Worst School Systems in the Country?

DETROIT — Dara Hill, a college professor and mother of a four-year-old, diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. Why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

Nichols sits on the edge of Indian Village — one of Detroit’s few neighborhoods that look untouched by the mortgage crisis. It typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. It’s also a five-minute walk from Hill’s home and would be a convenient option if it had the small class sizes and diverse student body she’s looking for.

Hill’s daughter can stay at her current school through kindergarten, so the family has two years to pick an elementary school. But Hill is starting her search now because she feels overwhelmed by the number of options in Detroit, and underwhelmed by the quality of many of them. (Children in Detroit can attend any school in the district and also have dozens of charters to pick from; they can also apply to attend suburban schools through Michigan’s statewide school choice program.)

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

To help with the decision, Hill joined a group of mostly-middle class Detroit parents attempting to navigate the city’s school choices. The Best Classroom Project, a Facebook group started by Detroit parents, was formed as a way for families to share information and coordinate school visits. It is now made up of more than 250 Detroit parents, some of them life-long residents and others recent transplants. Some members have joined just for tips on finding the best school for their children: traditional public, charter or private, in Detroit proper or the suburbs. But others feel a sense of loyalty to the public school system. Hill hopes that if she and more of her middle-class peers choose schools like Nichols, their presence could help improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and ultimately the city.

“I would love it if we could have a positive influence on DPS,” Hill said.

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She and the other parents are going to need convincing, though, and the district is eager to appeal to them. For five years, Detroit school officials have been trying to woo families to the district, with marginal success. But the creation of the Best Classroom Project has given them a unique chance to reach the city’s small middle class as a means of ultimately growing a larger one.

Only about 38 percent of Detroit households earn more than $35,000 compared to 56 percent of households across America, according to 2012 American Community Survey figures published by the Census Bureau. And that household income number was well below the U.S. median income of $53,000 a year. For the city to claw its way back from bankruptcy it needs good schools to attract a better tax base. And for the school system to significantly improve, the cash-strapped district needs to boost its enrollment numbers.

Thirteen years ago, the school system had 200,000 students. Now as the city’s population has plummeted, it has less than a quarter of that. The district has a $127 million deficit and student performance, although getting better in some grades and subjects, is still well below the rest of the state. Eighth-grade passing rates on the state’s reading exam have climbed from 34.2 percent in 2009-10 to 47 percent in 2013-14, for instance. But statewide nearly three-quarters of students passed that test.

In 2013-14, just 14.6 percent of third-graders passed the state math test and 7 percent of 11th-graders did so, according to state data. The city’s four-year graduation rate was 65 percent in 2012-13, 12 percentage points below the state average.

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“We recognize we’re a central anchor to the city,” said Roderick Brown, the district’s chief strategy officer, whose job is to develop ways to convince more families to pick the public school system. “Our success is tied to the success of the city.”

On a tour with the Best Classroom Project, Dara Hill talks to a teacher at Nichols Elementary school. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

On a tour with the Best Classroom Project, Dara Hill talks to a teacher at Nichols Elementary school. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Steve Wasko, assistant superintendent for community relations for the district, says he’s well aware of the need to stop the pattern of more affluent families leaving town when their children turn five. He’s begun posting information on the Best Classroom Project’s Facebook wall, has arranged for a Detroit public school to host one of their meetings and set up tours.

Although any parent, in the group or not, is welcome to visit schools, it’s still a rarity to see parents traipsing the halls. At Nichols, Hill and her neighbors ducked into an empty middle school science classroom to fire off questions to the principal about the building and class sizes. At the moment, Nichols only has enough students for one class per grade, the principal told them, but she added, “We can always make room.”

‘Cosby Show Detroit’

Hill, the daughter of German and Jamaican immigrants, graduated from Detroit Public Schools in the 1980s. She speaks fondly of her schools and the “Cosby Show Detroit” she remembers, where black and white students would walk to the Detroit Public Library after middle school and, in high school, where she would sneak out of her house at night to see her then boyfriend, now husband. She stayed in the city after graduating, teaching first in Detroit and then in a nearby suburb.

“It’s good to have choices, it really is. I just wish more of them were in the public school domain.” Dara Hill, Detroit parent

Hill remembers the ’90s as a period when her city took a sharp turn for the worse, but Detroit’s deterioration began decades earlier. Detroit has been losing population since the 1950s when 1.8 million people called the Motor City home. Its modern history has been marked by racial tension, white flight and political scandals. Now, fewer than 700,000 people live in Detroit; 83 percent are black and nearly 40 percent live in poverty.

The city’s decades of struggles have been intertwined with those of the school system. Detroit Public Schools was first placed under state control in 1999 and then again in 2009 as test scores continued to falter. The district’s enrollment has fallen to 49,800 students as families moved or opted for charters that promised — but didn’t always deliver — better results. Nearly 40,000 students in the city now attend charters. Detroit Public Schools has shuttered more than 80 schools and the state has taken over 15 of the lowest performers.

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In the spring, the district missed the deadline for applying for about $4 million in federal Head Start money because of technical problems. Officials said they would find money elsewhere to offer preschool to all students this school year, not just low-income ones, but to Hill, the incident is indicative of larger administrative problems. “There are things going on that are really good at many of the school levels, but as a district, it’s like, ‘Oh get it together,’” she said. “It just makes you wonder.”

Hill, now an education professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has toured three Detroit public schools, three private and one suburban school as part of the Best Classroom Project. At each, she compares what she’s observed to a checklist of things that she cares about and that she thinks other parents might, too. Do teachers nurture young children’s inquiry? Does the school have a zero tolerance policy for bullying?

Everyone will have different priorities, Hill says, but she is most concerned with finding a school with a diverse student body and small class sizes, where teachers don’t have to follow rigid pacing guidelines or feel pressure to teach to the test. A start time after 8 a.m. wouldn’t hurt either.

Those things are proving harder to find than she anticipated. Since the group connected with Wasko in the spring, Hill has given a copy of her checklist to district officials, hoping it might spur them to take some of her concerns into account.

But it will take some work. Until she had her daughter, Hill said she never doubted she’d eventually send her child to public school. But now, after years of school closures and increased focus on standardized test scores, which she believes has eroded teacher creativity, she’s not sure. “I was always a steadfast supporter of public schools,” she said. “I lost a little fidelity to DPS … The public schools are not what they used to be.”

The war room

Detroit school officials are trying desperately to win back the trust of parents like Hill. They’ve turned a conference room in their downtown office building into a “war room,” which they’ve plastered with posters covered in summaries from community meetings, strategies to improve and signs of progress. It’s where Roderick Brown’s strategy team has most of its meetings.

On one wall, a Sun Tzu quote a translation of “The Art of War” hangs next to a poster someone has titled, “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer, posted next to it, is “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

Detroit Public Schools’ “war room” serves as the headquarters for the strategy team. It’s their job to convince families to come back to the school system and get those who are enrolled to stay. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools’ “war room” serves as the headquarters for the strategy team. It’s their job to convince families to come back to the school system and get those who are enrolled to stay. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

The business jargon is evidence of Brown’s previous experience as a General Motors executive. He talks in terms of markets and supply chains, and argues that along with improving academics, Detroit Public Schools also must improve the overall customer experience for students and parents. (To that end, last year Target provided a pro bono training for school office workers to teach them customer service tricks, such as smiling while answering the phone.)

In the past, “we didn’t do the best job of serving our existing customer base,” Brown says.

In 2009, under then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb, the district launched an “I’m in” campaign, which encouraged families to enroll in Detroit Public Schools and spread the word about improvements in the schools. Changes in the system have been advertised with flyers, open houses and door-knocking.

“You can’t win this on the defensive,” Wasko said. “The only way to survive and thrive is to be on the offensive.”

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Officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced first. They’ve picked 20 schools to serve as community hubs. They’re open 12 hours a day and filled with resources and classes for parents. Music or art is now taught at every elementary school — although many schools can’t afford to to offer both.

They’ve also launched new academic programs, like the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. They praised the school and its academics, but in the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9 percent of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1 percent did in science. About 40 percent were proficient in reading and writing.

Still, in the fall of 2013, the district scored its first major victory — enrollment nearly held steady after dropping by about 10 percent every year for more than a decade. Daily attendance is up to 86 percent across the entire district, a particularly noteworthy shift considering that in 2011, the school system had to return more than $4 million in state funding for having an average daily attendance rate below 75 percent. And some schools have begun to make gains on state tests that outpace the rate of improvement in the rest of the state.

The district has also touted how many of its schools have been rated highly by Excellent Schools Detroit, a non-profit that aims to improve all of the city’s schools. The group’s rankings — based on test scores and unannounced visits by community volunteers, who do classroom observations and examine the physical state of the school — have become an important resource for many Detroit-area parents. The Best Classroom Project, for instance, used the rankings when picking the public schools they wanted to visit.

This year, Excellent Schools Detroit picked 31 K-8 schools — charter and traditional — across the city to recommend, 16 of which are in the public school system. The highest ranked school in the city was a Detroit district school.

Camille Wilson, an associate professor at Wayne State University, is wary of overstating just how good all of those 27 schools are, though. She said that “maybe three” of the system’s schools would be “excellent in any other setting.” That means that despite the city’s emphasis on giving parents choices, the majority of residents lack the resources to guarantee their children a good education.

“Most parents don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s bad A and bad B.”

Failing neighborhood schools

Three weeks before Hill and her peers observed classes at Nichols, a group of community members — four mothers and grandmothers volunteering for Excellent Schools Detroit — wandered around two pre-kindergarten classrooms at Bow Elementary School. In one room, a handful of children gathered around an iPad, while another group paraded through the classroom playing tambourines and wooden blocks. The volunteers made careful notes as the lights flickered. The day before, the power had gone down entirely. (Some schools in Detroit lost as many as 13 days of school last year because of power outages caused by the city’s outdated electrical grid.)

After the K-12 school ratings proved popular, Excellent Schools Detroit called on its army of volunteers to help visit all the city’s preschools. At Bow, a low-performing pre-K through 8th-grade school surrounded by many boarded-up and deteriorating homes, the visit was unscheduled.

A community volunteer checks out the playground at Bow Elementary school. Excellent Schools Detroit, a Detroit-based nonprofit, rates all schools and preschool programs in the city based on test scores and unscheduled volunteer visits. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

A community volunteer checks out the playground at Bow Elementary school. Excellent Schools Detroit, a Detroit-based nonprofit, rates all schools and preschool programs in the city based on test scores and unscheduled volunteer visits. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Sitting in the school’s library for a debriefing, after two hours examining the grounds and classrooms, the volunteers had generally positive things to say to their team leader from Excellent Schools Detroit. But as they praised the preschool teachers for being nurturing, they could hear a teacher yelling at older students in the hallway. The women exchanged glances, and one commented that she was glad she was only there to report on pre-K.

Bow, where 86 percent of students receive free or discounted lunch, is emblematic of the obstacles Detroit faces as it attempts to shed its poor reputation. The school received a D this year from Excellent Schools Detroit, like 28 other district schools. Just five schools in the city limits, including only one Detroit public school, got As.

For parents in the neighborhood, with few resources to get their children to schools miles away or little knowledge of how to navigate the school-choice process, the only other option is a similarly low-performing K-8 charter school across the street, which Bow’s former principal, Ernestine Woodward says has been drawing away students for years. Last summer staff from Bow knocked on every door in the neighborhood trying to get families back.

The school is doing the best it can with the resources it has, said Woodward, who retired at the end of last year. There’s not nearly enough money for the technology she would have liked, nor for social workers and other services to meet the needs of her students. But they do have afterschool and arts programs and make an effort to get parents into the school whenever possible. At a May open house, where staff and parent volunteers served free burgers and held a free auction for parents with items like wine glasses, board games and school supplies, many parents said they were happy with Bow.

“In spite of the fact that our test scores are low, it’s a really good school,” Woodward said.

“We recognize we’re a central anchor to the city. Our success is tied to the success of the city.” Roderick Brown, Detroit Public Schools chief strategy officer

Yet it’s a school that Hill would never consider. Two days after the Nichols visit, Hill and her neighbor Callie Sullivan sat near the water at Detroit’s river walk recapping their impressions. A short drive from Indian Village, the recently revitalized public space has playgrounds and a carousel that have made it a favorite spot for both families.

Both say that outsiders who disparage the city don’t realize how much Detroit already has to offer, and how much more is coming. Plans for a city bike path and light rail are underway. The city has become a hub for urban farming and a Whole Foods opened in 2013 — the first new grocery store in years.

Hill and Sullivan are committed to staying, even though they also know the downsides to living in the city; both have been burglarized in the last two years.

“If that did not get us going, I don’t foresee us leaving,” Sullivan said. She grew up in Detroit’s suburbs and returned to the area a few years ago after teaching in New York City, joining a slow stream of families moving to Indian Village. When driving in the neighborhood one day, she spotted Hill outside with her daughter and she was so excited to see a fellow mom she pulled over the car to introduce herself.

Sullivan said she was wary of what to expect when starting to shop around for schools. “My attitude going into this was, ‘Oh my, this is going to be so hard,” she said.

Now, she’s got a list potential schools — one traditional public, one charter and one private — and has others left to visit. As for Hill, Nichols failed to convince her. The class sizes were too large, and she didn’t like that the English curriculum required teachers to follow a script. She still hopes to find a public school for her daughter, but for now, her leading contender is a private school.

“It’s good to have choices, it really is,” she said. “I just wish more of them were in the public school domain.”

There are signs of hope for the city’s schools. A handful of parents from the Best Classroom Project opted to send their children to high-performing DPS schools this fall, but Hill’s leading contender is a private school. Although she still hopes to stay in the public system, her reluctance demonstrates how difficult it will be for Brown and DPS to convince parents like her.

“Can the public schools really appeal to us?” she said. “I don’t know that they have the resources or the ability to do that right now.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.