Detroit’s far-reaching strategy to fill its schools


May 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the report outlining the Detroit school district’s enrollment plan incorrectly states that the Berkley School District enrolled 1,000 Detroit students during the 2016-17 school year. The Berkley district does not enroll any Detroit students.

After enrollment declines that saw the student population shrink by 71% in almost 15 years, officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District are embarking on a far-reaching strategy to fill their schools.

They will fan out into the city, canvasing neighborhoods. They will provide more before-and after-school care in some areas. They will train principals to more effectively market their schools. They will look to create new programs, such as a virtual school, to attract students. They will make it easier for students to get to some of the district’s premier specialty schools. And they will make it easier for parents to enroll their children.

The district’s new enrollment plan is a broad effort with a lot riding on it given how closely tied the district’s financial health is to its enrollment. In 2002, the district enrolled 156,182 students. By 2016, that number had dropped to 45,179. Today, each student lost costs the district $7,670.

It’s also a tall order given the extreme challenges the district is facing, outlined in the plan unveiled to school board members last week: a weak academic reputation, inconsistent customer service, teacher shortages and poor conditions of school buildings.

Increasing the student population “is something we have to start doing explicitly — not just hoping we increase enrollment, but becoming more strategic … as we do,”  said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is a year into a turnaround effort in the district. His evaluation will be based, in part, on increasing enrollment in the district — though specific targets haven’t been set.

The plan is an evolving document. It has some concrete proposals, including some initiatives that have already launched, some that will launch next school year and others that won’t launch for another year or two. And some ideas presented are still being explored.

The district already saw a bump in enrollment this school year, up to nearly 51,000 students. That was thanks, in large part, to the return of students who for the previous five years were part of the Education Achievement Authority, a state reform district for poor-performing schools in the city. But district officials say they also attracted some students who previously attended charter schools. Vitti hopes to build on that effort.

These are some highlights of the enrollment plan:

1. A laser focus on recruiting students

In an effort to recruit students, district officials — including administrators and teachers — will be scouring neighborhoods and reaching out through blocks clubs, churches, festivals and picnics.

“We have to do more face-to-face engagement … and engaging parents where they’re at. That’s out in the community,” Vitti said.

There will be a particular focus on ZIP codes in the city where existing schools are seeing the biggest student losses. Some of those areas are bordering suburban districts that have aggressively recruited Detroit students. According to the report, the Oak Park School District enrolled 2,598 Detroit students during the 2016-17 school year. The River Rouge district enrolled 840, the report said.

In the targeted areas, there will be greater marketing through billboards, bus advertisements as well as through radio and print ads, and through social media. Mailings also will be sent. .

Some schools will expand before- and after-school care. That’s key given that many non-DPSCD schools offer such programming.

Meanwhile, officials will be be working to improve curb appeal and make small facility improvements at schools districtwide, with more focus on schools “in neighborhoods that are seeing an influx of young families as well as those in close proximity to suburban districts,” the report says.

What might this include: Better signage, landscaping, fence and window repairs and updates inside such as painting and new carpeting.

“Many parents, regardless of the school’s academic standing, will choose not to enroll their child in a school they view as neglected and visually not up to par,” the report says.

2. New academies focused on professional work

The district would create career academies at each of its high schools. The academies would allow students to take coursework in areas in which they have a particular interest, such as technology, nursing or engineering.

“What we’re trying to do is … have strong programming that’s linked to the world of work beyond the career technical centers,” Vitti said.

The district will also work to address a disparity: There are far fewer specialty programs on the east side of the city than on the west side. There’s also only one alternative school for grades 9-12, and it’s on the east side too.

“Students who are interested in those types of programming are forced to travel long distances to take advantage of them,” the report says.

The district also is considering creating a virtual school that would appeal to students, particularly students who are homeschooled.

3. Providing better access to specialty arts schools

Part of the plan includes providing more direct access for students to travel to attend some of the district’s specialty schools that are struggling with enrollment, including the Detroit School of Arts.

“It could be school buses that we contract, or it could be linking school buses to mass transportation, if there’s a gap based on current routes,” Vitti said. “The idea is that whatever corner of the city you’re in, there’s a way to get to DSA because of the outstanding arts programming that it offers.”

That would also be a boon for students now attending the Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music & Art at Beckham Academy on the east side and John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy on the west side. Both are natural feeder schools to DSA, but traveling to get from those neighborhoods to the high school is difficult.

Resolving that problem could be the difference between retaining kids or losing them to charter schools or surrounding districts. Less than half the school-age children who live in the city attend district schools.

DSA is of particular interest to Vitti because it has a modern building and strong programs. But the school only enrolls 400 students in a building that can hold 1,200. And just a small percentage of the students who graduate from Duke Ellington end up attending DSA.

“You’ve got so much talent hidden in the community and they will not have the opportunity to take advantage of that premier high school that was built just for them,” said Rita Davis, the principal at Duke Ellington — and former principal at DSA.

High school students use public transportation to get to school, with the district picking up the cost of bus cards for many students. But trying to get to DSA from the Ellington neighborhood can take more than an hour, with a chunk of that time spent walking to bus stops. A car ride takes about 16 minutes. But not all kids have someone who can drive them to and from school.

“DSA is a great school. People just don’t know about it. If we had a bus that would pick us up here, it would have students thinking about DSA,” said Gregory Dalton, 14, an eighth-grader at Duke Ellington.

4. Rebuilding feeder patterns

The district’s transportation plan is part of an overall focus on retaining students. The district loses 31% of its students who are transitioning from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school.

One way the district plans to address this is by rebuilding feeder patterns, which determine which elementary and middle schools feed into which high schools. Those patterns were disrupted over the last decade or so as dozens and dozens of schools closed — and as some high schools were moved to the EAA reform district.

The enrollment plan includes a list showing what the updated links between schools will be. In most cases, the goal is to link schools serving eighth-graders with high schools within the same geographic area.

5. Pop-up enrollment centers for parents

The plan notes that in order for the district to increase enrollment, “DPSCD must become more accessible” to parents for enrollment. The district will do that by expanding pop-up enrollment centers to ensure that parents can get their kids signed up “at times and in locations that are convenient to them.”

Each school will also have its own registrar, instead of those jobs being centrally located.

By 2020, the district plans to develop a system that will allow parents the ability to enroll their children online.

The district will also be working to address the factors that might discourage parents from enrolling their children in schools.

“These can include the appearance of the entryway to the school, the outdated message on the marquee, trash in the bushes, a rude security guard, a chaotic office, or a person in the office who is not able to answer questions or answers questions with a negative attitude,” the report says.

6. Marketing lessons for all principals

Vitti expects principals to become more engaged in the process of increasing enrollment at their schools. He has previously announced that principals will work a 12-month schedule, rather than 10 months, so they can spend more time recruiting.

The plan also calls for them to undergo training on how to market and promote their schools, as well as on the district’s enrollment procedures and policies. Vitti said principals will be held accountable for their enrollment numbers.

7. Targeting kids who are chronically absent

Nearly 57 percent of DPSCD students are considered chronically absent, defined as missing 10 or more days in a school year.

These are some of the reasons the report identifies for that high number: Lack of access to health or dental care, transportation issues — particularly for homeless students, child care issues, insufficient safe routes to school, lack of uniforms, parents’ past negative school experiences, and the poor condition of many district school buildings.

The district would expand efforts to connect students with the resources they need to address some of the issues. For instance, it would expand partnerships with the Detroit health department and community groups to help students who don’t have access to medical care. The efforts also will expand partnerships that supply washers and dryers in DPSCD schools so students can do laundry at school. It’s not uncommon for students to miss school because they don’t have clean clothes at home, and no easy access to a laundry facility. 

Vitti thinks the district is already headed in the right direction.

“Overall, I do see a new spirit, a new energy, a better sense of ownership around recruiting and marketing,” he said.


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