Ninth-graders Carolina Huertas, left, and Viviana Gutierrez work in the algebra lab at Western International High School in Detroit. The number of students at DPS's 19 high schools increased 14 percent from last year. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Detroit— It’s a problem officials at Detroit Public Schools have wanted for the last five decades: schools bulging with students.
After decades of staggering enrollment declines that have ravaged the district financially, DPS has found itself this fall with an influx of high school students — 1,844 more than last fall, a boost of 14 percent in grades 9-12.
It’s a small number in a district that once held 300,000 students but a feat in a city where more than 60 percent of children attend charter schools or suburban high schools across the city border.
The uptick is happening at only nine of the district’s 19 high schools. Much of the influx has occurred at two of the three general admission or neighborhood schools, East English Village and Western International.
Enrollment trends are mixed at the other 16 high schools, which require students to pass an exam or be chosen by application for studies in medicine, music, art or technology.
At East English on the east side, 1,549 students are enrolled in a school built last year for 1,200 students. After being asked about the enrollment jump, a DPS spokesman said last week the school’s capacity is now 1,725 students.
Fall enrollment in grades 9-12 totaled 15,208 in DPS, and 48,923 across all grades.
The student surge has created challenges for teachers and administrators who are managing oversize classes in a district where state test scores are historically low and proficiency rates in math and reading have dipped into the bottom 10 percent.
Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he saw class sizes in the upper 40s and 50s at East English last week, with some teachers using media centers or the school auditorium for lessons.
“When you have 45-50 students in the class, it doesn’t create an optimum atmosphere for teaching. You can’t have it bursting at the seams and expect learning,” he said. “Many of our students rely on public transportation. The whole concept of neighborhood high school has been diminished.”
DPS officials deny overcrowding is a problem. They credit transfers from other schools, including charters and the Education Achievement Authority and their aggressive enrollment campaign launched this summer that promoted each high school and its offerings to parents in surrounding neighborhoods.
“The good news is, parents of high school students are selecting DPS in greater numbers than in recent years,” district spokesman Steve Wasko said. “In our mind, it’s a very good thing if we manage it correctly.”
Enrollment feelings mixed
DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin walked through East English Village with Johnson early in the school year and saw that the school was overenrolled. Martin said he was glad to see the district’s grass-roots recruitment campaign had been successful in drawing students into DPS.
“At the same time I was very concerned by the situation, because we had seen the same issue in Highland Park Schools when I was there, and I know the potential impact it can have on students’ academic achievement,” Martin said.
“Immediately after my visit, I spoke with Superintendent Karen Ridgeway, who put a plan in place to correct the situation. I am satisfied that the issue is being addressed, but I am sensitive to the situation and keeping a watchful eye to ensure that the plan is implemented with fidelity,” Martin said in a statement.
The plan, according to Wasko, is to level classes and reassign teachers to schools that need them.
Johnson acknowledged the district is trying to level classes and disperse teachers but said he expects the problem to worsen as the weather gets colder and typically truant students come to school earlier and more often.
The district created its own problem, Johnson said, by closing five high schools — Southwestern, Chadsey, Cooley, Northern and Kettering — in recent years and then giving six high schools last year to the Education Achievement Authority, the state-run district for Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.
Talks on returning schools
DPS officials said the enrollment growth is good news for the district, which has lost 250,000 children since the 1960s.
They dismiss the idea that some of their specialty schools should be opened up to accommodate general admission students.
Johnson said one remedy would be for the EAA to return some of its high schools to DPS. Johnson said he has been in talks with Martin and Ridgeway about reclaiming those high schools.
EAA officials said there are no plans to release any of the high schools back to DPS.
“No such move is planned,” EAA spokesman Terry Abbott said. “EAA was established to take over and turn around failing schools. These schools have been with us for a year, and while much academic progress has been made, much work remains to be done.”
Most of the DPS high schools were built decades ago to hold double or triple the number of students that attend now.
At Western International High School, for instance, enrollment is up from 1,457 to 1,542 this year, and the school has no empty seats, Principal Rodolfo Diaz said. Yet that’s still far below the building’s capacity of about 1,900.
Diaz said the school’s average class size is 28 to 32 students, with capacity at 38. When it reaches that point, Diaz said he asks the district for an additional teacher or has to move students or teachers around.
DPS student Kendall Smith said he is among 43 students in one of his classes as a freshman at East English Village.
“It get noisy in the classrooms and it’s really hard to learn stuff,” the 15-year-old ROTC student said. “I try to move up to the front and hear the teacher better.”
Twelfth-grader Alisha Harper said some of her classes are crowded and loud.
“There is only suppose to be only 35 in a class. There is probably 40, 45 or 50,” she said. “If you want to learn you have to take everything up and keep up with your teacher.”