Detroit, G.P. schools’ economic divide listed as worst

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Correction: Swartz Creek Community Schools does not share a border with Flint Community Schools, leading a New Jersey nonprofit to eliminate the pairing from a report issued this week about the nation’s most segregated school district boundaries. The group EdBuild said it was in error when it included the Swartz Creek/Flint boundary in its list as reported in a previous version of this story. The two districts are separated by the Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools district. 

The nation’s most economically disparate school district boundary is the one separating Grosse Pointe and Detroit, says a report released Tuesday by a New Jersey nonprofit that advocates for education funding reform.

Hope Ellison-Scipione, right, and her son Enrico, 14, prepare dinner, Monday Aug. 22, 2016, at their home in Grosse Pointe Park.

EdBuild’s report,“Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” says nearly half of the households in Detroit Public Schools — 49.2 percent — live in poverty, compared with 6.5 percent in Grosse Pointe Public Schools.

The neighboring Wayne County districts are one of three pairings in Michigan to make the study’s ranking of the 50 neighboring school systems with the biggest economic gaps. EdBuild analyzed all 33,500 school district borders in the country, compiling poverty rates for each.

According to EdBuild, Benton Harbor Area Schools, with a poverty rate of 42.8 percent, and the next-door St. Joseph Public Schools, with a poverty rate of 7.5 percent, ranked 36th.

“Fault Lines shows how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities,” EdBuild’s founder and CEO, Rebecca Sibilia, told The Detroit News in an email.

The report traces the economic gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe schools to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Milliken v. Bradley, that blocked busing between districts to achieve racial integration.

“Income segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area parallels the racial segregation that inspired the Milliken case and has worsened since the case was first argued,” the report says.

According to 2010 census data, Detroit’s population is 82.7 percent African-American. The proportion of black residents in the communities that make up the Grosse Pointe district: Grosse Pointe Farms, 1.8 percent; Grosse Pointe, 3.3 percent; Grosse Pointe Woods, 4.5 percent; Grosse Pointe Park, 10.5 percent; and Harper Woods, 45.6 percent.

The findings didn’t surprise Kurt Metzger, founder of Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge.

“While socioeconomic ‘fault lines’ between Detroit and its neighboring communities (and school districts) have existed for decades, none has been greater, or more resistant to change, than the border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe,” he said.

While the recession of the last decade triggered a migration out of Detroit into suddenly cheaper homes and apartments in many suburbs, the communities that make up the Grosse Pointe district were largely shielded from change, Metzger said.

“While this increased the low-income population in many bordering districts, the Grosse Pointe School District was immune to these changes, due to a highly educated population (able to weather the downturn) and a stable owner-occupied housing stock that maintained its high value,” Metzger said.

“In addition, the district’s reputation for strong residency enforcement and pushback on school choice sent a message to Detroiters that was not one of welcome.”

Grosse Pointe Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the district is working to promote diversity.

The district’s African-American enrollment has been steady at between 16 percent and 17 percent over the past four years, he said.

He acknowledges the difficulties the district has had recently with racial incidents that went viral. In June, a video surfaced that included racist statements regarding African-Americans and circulated on social media.

“Our student body asked for town hall meetings after the second incident and from those conversations, we engaged the University of Michigan and we sent five students from both Grosse Pointe North and South to a summer leadership camp on diversity,” Niehaus said. “It’s a year-long program.”

He said they also engaged Wayne RESA, the countywide intermediate school district.

“We had a day-long seminar with administrative training, which will be ongoing throughout the school year,” he said.

Household income figures and per-pupil funding illustrate the economic gap between the Detroit school district and its neighbor to the east. According to the study, the median household income in DPS is $26,087 a year, compared with $90,542 in the Grosse Pointe district.

EdBuild, based in Jersey City, N.J., calls for more equitable school funding, saying its vision includes funding schools “based on children, not the systems as they existed in the past.”

Greg Bowens of Grosse Pointe, whose youngest daughter graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School two months ago, criticized the report and EdBuild.

“This effort by EdBuild seems like a thinly veiled attempt to advance the charter school movement by using racial stereotypes couched in poverty rates as a foil to free up more money to fund privately managed charter schools at the expense of traditional public school systems,” Bowens said.

Bowens, who founded the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch, said Sibilia developed charter schools and schools of choice before founding EdBuild.

Mike Phillips, who described himself as an adviser for Sibilia, responded in an email: “Talked to Rebecca, and we don’t want to get into a back and forth here. The report is about traditional school districts and is clearly focused on identifying funding inequities between public school districts.”

State per-pupil funding shows a big gap between the Grosse Pointe schools and Detroit: $9,864 in Grosse Pointe, $7,434 in DPS, according to 2015-16 figures.

Hope Ellison-Scipione, who lives in Grosse Pointe Park with her 14-year-old son, Enrico Scipione, an incoming freshman at Grosse Pointe South High School, said she was “a little surprised” by the report’s findings.

“Although I know that this is a unique border and the economic differences of the median households indicated in this study is not so surprising, but I was under the impression that DPS allocates more money per student than the surrounding areas,” she said.

“I think that the real issue cannot be all about economic differences but about community.”