October 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Detroit parents embrace school choice, poll says

More than half choose options other than DPS; have high hopes for kids' futures

Aridrinanna Turner, right, of Detroit walks with daughter Deashawna Jackson, center, and niece Shantell Pattway, 9. Turner placed her daughter in a charter school after leaving Detroit Public Schools. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Aridrinanna Turner gave Detroit Public Schools a chance.

Last year, the Detroit mother sent her 6-year-old daughter to the neighborhood DPS elementary school. There, the first-grader shared books with other students, spent every morning waiting for a school bus on a dangerous block and sat in a classroom where the teacher had to buy nearly all of her own class supplies.

Turner didn't wait another year to see if conditions in the state's largest school district would improve. She enrolled her daughter in a Detroit charter school this fall. So far, she's happy with the results, including the added security in and around the school.

"Every test came home has an A. She gets individual attention. I like the hands-on element," Turner said. "I think charter schools are the best option. My sister also put her kids in charter school. They are better hands-on; they don't have to share. The kids come home and are saying they love school."

Turner is not alone in her displeasure with DPS. Confidence in the city's public school district has dropped so low that only one in five Detroiters believes DPS is the best educational option for their children, according to a comprehensive poll of residents' attitudes about the city's educational landscape and its leadership.

The poll was commissioned by The Detroit News and funded by the Thompson Foundation, which has provided funds to charter schools in Detroit but was not involved in collecting data or asking questions in the survey.

Eight hundred residents were surveyed by land line and cellphone Sept. 22-25 by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group Inc. The survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, asked residents' feelings about leadership, schools, transit, quality of life and overall optimism.

Of the residents polled, 79 percent said they would choose an option other than DPS for their child's education, such as a charter school, a private school or a school outside Detroit.

Support for DPS has been strained as the district tries to redefine itself in the face of falling enrollment, low test scores and leadership turnover. School closures, teacher layoffs and academic changes also have frustrated parents.

DPS Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts said he's moving forward with reforms to achieve stability in DPS and to regain confidence of parents.

"This is exactly why we are not dragging our feet with reform and have discarded the 'one size fits all' approach to educating the nearly 50,000 students of Detroit Public Schools by moving quickly to change our educational platform at its core," Roberts said.

Diverse marketplace

One major reform under way at DPS is a move toward self-governing schools where principals and teachers can make decisions at the local level and college is the focus for all students, starting in ninth grade.

In the survey, support for the various educational options was nearly evenly split: 20.8 percent favored DPS; 23.8 percent for charter schools; 23.5 percent for private schools, and 17.6 percent preferred schools outside Detroit.

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonpartisan research outfit, said the results show how diverse the city's education marketplace has become in recent years. As DPS lost children, the charter school business expanded and some suburban school districts opened their doors to Detroiters.

"So I think it's fairly reflective of what Detroit parents are actually doing as shoppers," Glazer said. "There are good numbers of kids in all these schools."

The poll found about 43 percent of city residents disapprove of Roberts' performance, yet 36 percent believe he is better than the elected Detroit Board of Education at resolving the system's financial problems.

Detroiter Nadir Ali said the board has impeded efforts by Roberts and his predecessor, Robert Bobb, to fix the district's finances.

"They remind me of the Detroit City Council — whenever there are changes, they oppose everything and drag everything out and make it a big ordeal. I feel like Roy Roberts … is trying to clean up the mess," he said.

Ali, 29, was among 64 percent of respondents who said they were unsatisfied with the quality of education options available to children in Detroit. In fact, there is an education experiment going on at the Ali household: His two school-age nephews, who live with Ali and his sister, attend two different school systems.

One boy, a sixth-grader, attends Chrysler Elementary, a DPS school. The other, an eighth-grader, attends Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies, a Detroit charter school.

Four weeks into the school year, it's not clear yet which system is better, Ali said, but some differences have been noticed.

"I think they are little disappointed about the charter school," he said. "They thought it would be a better experience. The school has good intentions, but I hate to say it — anybody can get in. (Some students) are causing problems."

'Power of education'

Detroiters are optimistic about their children's educational outcomes, the poll shows.

In the survey, 100 percent of respondents who have children in DPS said they expect their children to graduate from high school; 93 percent believe their children will attend college.

DPS has a 59 percent graduation rate. Only 7.2 percent of Detroit's high school students are prepared for college-level math and 13.5 percent are ready for college-level reading, according to the state Department of Education.

Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit advocacy group, said there's a wide gap between what parents think public schools deliver, and what students learn. Varner also said that issue isn't unique to Detroit.

"There is a pretty remarkable disconnect in grading systems and college and career readiness in Michigan," he said. "We have two different measuring systems — card marking and state assessments — and they don't intersect. They don't reflect each other. Folks are getting report cards with good grades, and they don't graduate or attend college."

Thomas C. Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University's School of Education, said parents' expectation that their children will finish high school shows the hope and faith Detroiters put in education.

"There is an incredible belief in the power of education among all families," Pedroni said. "In Detroit, there are a lot things that interfere with progress."

In the poll, about 53 percent of respondents with children younger than 17 said their child attends DPS. Of those, nearly 80 percent said they are satisfied with the DPS school their child attends.

Eric Foster, a political consultant who keeps an eye on education issues in Detroit, said the high satisfaction rate is a sign that DPS is moving toward becoming a significant player again — after losing more than 100,000 students since 2000.

"We are moving into a more business competitive environment where DPS and Roy Roberts are able to get DPS on the track where the education product is attractive to parents for their children," Foster said. "The real key is getting out and marketing yourself. I think that number is a good number for DPS."

Carol Goss, president of the Skillman Foundation, an independent foundation focused on improving the lives of Metro Detroit children by strengthening schools and neighborhoods, said the poll results show the need to keep an intense focus on improving education in the city.

"I do think that we have to, as a community, lift up education and the quality of education no matter where kids go to school. Everybody has to understand what quality means," Skillman said.


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About this poll

This report is based on an 800-sample survey of Detroit residents and conducted by Chicago-based Glengariff Group Inc. The live operator telephone survey was conducted on Sept. 22-25, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Among the respondents, 35 percent were contacted by cellphone and 65 percent were contacted by land line.
This survey was commissioned by The Detroit News and funded by the Thompson Foundation.
The Thompson Foundation
Bob and Ellen Thompson founded the Thompson Foundation in 1999 with $100 million from the sale of the Thompson-McCully Co. The foundation’s mission is to help low-income people rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient.
According to its website, the foundation has:
Established 1,000 Detroit private school scholarships for Detroit inner city kids, and for students at Schoolcraft Junior College in Livonia, Michigan Tech University and Michigan State University;
Granted funds to food banks, guidance centers and job placement and training facilities.
The vast majority of its funds are used to serve those who live in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.