March 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bobb's goal for DPS: 98% will graduate

Boosting attendance also part of his academic plan

Robert Bobb )

The $540 million academic plan Robert Bobb will unveil tonight for Detroit Public Schools calls for rigorous achievement standards, offering college-level courses within all high schools and boosting graduation and attendance rates beyond the state average.

Bobb's blueprint sets standards so high that the district would climb from the bottom of the list to among the best in the country for student achievement measures. According to Bobb's plan, Detroit schools' graduation rate would increase from 58 percent to 98 percent graduation rate and all students would pass standardized tests and be accepted into college by 2015.

The targets are more ambitious than those unveiled last week under a citywide academic plan for public, charter and independent schools in Detroit.

Details of the 50-page academic plan come at a critical time for Bobb, in his second year as emergency financial manager. The school board's lawsuit against him earned a powerful new supporter Thursday when the teachers union joined the suit to prevent Bobb from making academic decisions for the district's 86,000 students. Teachers are "ticked off" that Bobb accepted a pay raise when he's asking for concessions from workers, the union president said.

Despite legal and political hurdles, Bobb pledged to execute his academic initiatives until someone stops him and vowed not to renew contracts of principals who don't embrace reforms.

"For every goal that we set, we will need rocket boosters to get us to those targets," Bobb said. "There's just not a lot of opportunity for us to spend time quibbling, quarreling and negotiating. Everyone is going to have to come behind it."

Bobb has identified sources for most of the objectives in his plan, ranging from $310 million in federal stimulus money to $80 million in Race to the Top grants that have not yet been awarded. Bobb is counting on private donations for initiatives such as arts programs.

"I am very cautiously optimistic," said fine arts director Benjamin Pruitt, whose teachers -- including some whose layoff notices were recently rescinded following public outcry -- will lead the entertainment tonight when Bobb presents his goals at Renaissance High School.

Setting high standards for performance isn't new, said teacher Aurelia Turner. The difference is that with layoffs, there are fewer employees to execute them, she said.

"We've had plans before, now we have less staff to do some of the jobs," Turner said.

Chronic absenteeism

Among the goals of the plan is stemming chronic absenteeism. The average daily attendance rate in Detroit is 84 percent compared to the statewide average of 94 percent. The problem is pronounced in high school, where the average student misses 46 days of school -- or a quarter of the school year. And nearly 10 percent of high school students missed more than 100 days of school.

"The more kids are absent, the more likely they are to drop out," said Jan Ellis, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Education.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, has been frustrated by the lack of a district-wide attendance policy.

"You can't effectively teach children that you don't regularly see," Johnson said. "A teacher may have 25 kids in her class and it's often not the same 25 students every day."

How Bobb intends to reach his goal of 98 percent attendance rate by 2015 wasn't detailed. But Bobb said a new $2 million student information system will help educators more quickly identify missing kids and provide accurate information to attendance officers who are looking for them.

Mumford High School student Brandee Jones, 17, said she's aware that 16 absences mean failure of a course in her high school. She's not sure revised policies would make a difference whether more students will regularly show up.

"They come when they want to," Jones said.

'Incredibly ambitious'

Cornerstone to the plan is a K-14 model of education where colleges will offer classes to juniors and seniors within high schools. Advanced Placement courses also would be widely available.

"There are some kids who have the ability to do more things," said Mary Jones, a retired teacher and guardian of a DPS student, who likes the idea of more advanced courses.

Each high school would be equipped with a "college suite" room as soon as this fall, where students could get help from advisers for applying to school, filling out financial aid forms and crafting essays.

Bobb aims to boost the college application rate from 44 percent to 100 percent in five years. This would include universities, community colleges, and career and technical institutes.

The plan "is incredibly ambitious, but we recognize that we have to run this race faster," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Bobb's chief academic and accountability auditor.

Bobb also wants to continue quarterly benchmark tests that assess how well students are learning. The new tests were a source of controversy this month when Bobb ordered teachers to administer them, then Teresa Gueyser, acting superintendent under the school board, told them not to give the tests.

Bobb ordered principals to ignore Gueyser.

The squabbles are likely to continue until the Legislature or the court clears up what authority emergency financial managers have under the state law.

Bobb also is proposing that DPS offer a "marketplace" of niche schools, such as a science and medicine high school for which the district has netted a $50,000 planning grant. He's also interested in a choir academy, a virtual school and others.

Other elements of the plan include a "Parent University" offering courses to teach literacy, GED preparation and parenting skills; bringing 50 Teach for America teachers to DPS by fall; and providing teachers with enough supplies, a chronic problem.

"If books and supplies are not all there (by start of school), then all hell is going to break loose," Johnson said.

mschultz@detnews.com">mschultz@detnews.com