Detroit hopes to hit student target on Count Day

The Detroit News

Detroit — The new Detroit Public Schools Community District is struggling to reach its targeted enrollment numbers on the eve of the fall Count Day as it tries to stretch its state bailout dollars.

The district’s enrollment goal is 45,500, and it has 44,710 students, spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said. Falling short of the projected enrollment could cost the district $7,552 per pupil in state aid at a time when the district is starting with a new budgetary slate, having left behind hundreds of millions in debt.

As Detroit and other districts around the state approach the crucial student count day Wednesday, it is working with a $617 million rescue package approved by legislators earlier in the year, some revamped buildings and a new $8.3 million teacher’s union contract.

But problems for the new district remain, including unfilled teacher positions and too many students in some classrooms. For example, in the first week of instruction at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School students had to sit on milk crates because there weren’t enough chairs.

Wilson said the situation was resolved the same day, when additional classrooms were created and a nearby school recruited some of Mackenzie’s students.

Count day is the day all public schools in Michigan tally the number of students attending their schools.

Each student counted in the fall and spring count days translates into state funding that schools use as a major part of their annual budgets. Come in short, and administrators have to make changes or cuts to avoid a deficit.

Districts across the state will launch efforts to get kids into class Wednesday, a key day for a number of districts that are facing budget pressures, such as East Detroit, Highland Park and Utica.

The Detroit district has several incentives to encourage students to show up on count day, as in previous years. Parents are invited to free breakfast and lunch with their students in all grades, a pizza party will be held later for classes with 100 percent attendance in grades K-8, and there will be a $50 gift card drawing for high school students who attend all classes.

Wilson said enrollment numbers are “trending in the right direction due to aggressively sharing with parents the unique options available at DPSCD such as tuition-free Montessori classrooms, flying classrooms, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focused curriculum and much more as well as developing a stronger parent engagement program.”

“We have made facility improvements to all buildings leading to the city issuing certificates of compliance to all buildings except for eight that are getting new roofs,” she said.

The district is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

“We are consistently receiving new and returning students to the district and expect to meet our proposed enrollment target,” Wilson said.

Still, district officials warned that the rescue legislation didn’t include enough money to ensure the new district’s solvency.

“As (emergency manager) Judge Rhodes has indicated, the total sum of transition costs needed to transition the new district was not provided in the reform package, but the judge has indicated that the governor’s office will continue to work with the new district to provide critical funds needed to address building maintenance issues,” Wilson said.

The new district was formed when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a state aid package in June that relieves it of its nearly half-billion-dollar debt.

State Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit, is one of the Democrats who voted against the rescue package, which narrowly passed 55-53 in the House and 19-18 in the Senate.

“Legislation was not the silver bullet, so things won’t change overnight,” Durhal said. “DPS’ problems are far more deep rooted than that. I’m hearing how some students still don’t have books, but the resources the district needs will not be in every school overnight.”

Scores of teacher vacancies

Along with a clean financial sheet for the Detroit district, many in the community are pinning hopes on the November election when voters will elect a new school board that will have some powers restored that were truncated under successive emergency managers appointed by the state to run the district.

There will be 63 names on the ballot for seven open positions.

The group that emerges from the election will take office in January, choose a superintendent for the new district and be in charge of academic and budget decisions.

Teacher vacancies in the Detroit district still must be addressed.

Last month, Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Marios Demetriou said there were 240 open positions, but the most recent figure Wilson provided on Monday is 165 vacancies with 2,450 teachers in classes.

Demetriou said the district has hired some certified teachers, substitute teachers, “and we’re using about 80 instructional specialists who assist teachers in the classroom.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers interim president Ivy Bailey paints a less than rosy picture of the new district.

“There are schools that are overcrowded, and schools that saw a sharp decrease in enrollment,” she said. “There are schools where repairs were completed and others where repairs are just beginning (Dossin and Edison), schools that are seeing improvements in rodent and insect control and schools that are seeing no change.”

Bailey said teachers are trying to remain hopeful that improvements are coming, despite recent shortcomings.

“I have to say that the DPSCD cannot continue to operate like they did in the past,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a new district, therefore the way the district operates has to change. It took the district years to get where we are today and change is not going to occur overnight, but change has to occur sooner than later.”

Among the schools with major renovations for this year is Spain Elementary Middle School. It was rife with building issues last year and now sports LED lighting throughout and new paint, hardwood floors and roofs.

Room to improve beyond renovations

But it will take more than $1.2 million the district spent in renovations at Spain — not including $500,000 for the gymnasium from Ellen DeGeneres and contributions from Lowe’s — to impress parent Yolanda Peoples, whose son attends the school.

“Ellen DeGeneres and Lowe’s did a great job repairing the gym ... but I don’t care about how a building looks, as long as it is functioning and working properly, there are enough teachers and classrooms are not overcrowded,” said Peoples, whose son Joshua is 13 and in the eighth grade. “The focus should not be on looking beautiful, but filling the school with what it needs.”

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, who also voted against the legislative rescue package, said the district also needs help from the philanthropic and corporate communities.

“It doesn’t matter if they relieve the debt if the philanthropic and corporate entities are not investing in the lives of children walking in the doors with issues well outside of education,” he said. “If they’re coming in hungry and some may have a history of juvenile delinquency, it affects the teachers’ ability to do their jobs.”

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