Group: Detroit must focus on literacy, growing schools

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Boosting enrollment and attendance and reforming early literacy and funding for special education are among the priorities identified in a new report from a coalition working to improve education for the city’s schoolchildren.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren on Wednesday unveiled “Our Schools, Our Moment,” during a news conference at Fellowship Chapel on the city’s northwest side.

The 12-page list of recommendations is the product of a year of work that organizers said centers on five sets of priorities where Detroit can make significant progress on its own. A sixth proposal — calling for adequate funding for special education — will require action from Lansing and Washington, D.C., the report notes.

The group plans to begin implementing some of the strategies in January.

“This is our time. This is our responsibility, and these are our children,” said Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman Foundation, the Detroit-based organization leading the coalition. “We’re committed and willing to do the hard work to get this done.”

The coalition formed three years ago with a focus of boosting schools in the city, including those in Detroit’s public schools and the former state-run Education Achievement Authority as well as charters.

Detroit’s school district, which was run by state-installed emergency managers from 2009-16, has struggled with declining student enrollment, budget deficits, school closures, low state assessment scores and teacher shortages.

In 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder approved a $617 million bailout for Detroit Public Schools to help pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide $150 million in start-up funding for Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new, debt-free public district.

Among the focus areas, the Wednesday report notes that 30,000 — more than two-thirds of the Detroit Public Schools Community District students — were “chronically absent,” by missing 10 or more days of school in the 2015-16 school year.

To curb the problem, the coalition recommends a single method of measuring chronic absence statewide and Detroit-specific research to improve school culture and staff training on discipline policies.

Other concerns are school enrollment and teachers retention. In the past 25 years, Detroit’s school district enrollment has dropped 73 percent. The district last reported it was near 49,500. And earlier this fall, the district was down about 200 teachers, officials said.

The coalition said it wants to attract the 25,000 Detroit children who now attend schools in the suburbs and enroll them in high-quality Detroit schools.

To do it, the report says, the city needs to enhance its offerings, ramp up enrollment fairs and services, and stabilize schools in Detroit neighborhoods.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the priorities align with the district’s.

“It’s good to know we are doing this work with people, not against people. Not in isolation,” he said.

A tactic to draw in more educators, the report says, would be to launch Teach Detroit, a citywide portal, recruitment and outreach campaign, similar to strategies employed in other parts of the country.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, helped worked on the recruitment strategies. Before now, these issues had “been lost,” she said.

“Under the emergency managers, I don’t think anybody talked about the great things happening in our school system and why anyone would want to come,” Bailey said. “When you put kids first, these are the things that can happen.”

A focus on third-grade reading is also a priority. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan was one of only five states with declining fourth-grade reading achievement between 2003 and 2015, the report says.

Detroit, it notes, is last in the nation in early literacy for low-income students. In 2016 and 2017, only 9.9 percent of the Detroit district’s third-graders were proficient in reading.

Additional college and career pathways are critical factors in the success of city schools, the report adds.

Also, the coalition contends that Michigan’s system for funding special education services “is so inadequate” that most districts must take revenues from their general education budget to provide the services.

DPSCD is diverting more than $40 million annually from its general fund for special education. Statewide, school districts and charter schools are diverting $692 million a year, the report says.

The group recommends a coalition made up of the Lt. Governor’s Special Education Funding Subcommittee, statewide School Finance Research Collaborative and others to advocate for a better funding structure.

The coalition is advocating as well for improved cooperation between the city’s public school district and Detroit charters.

Allen said the coalition is asking Mayor Mike Duggan to bring leaders public school and charter leaders together to agree on common standards for school openings as well as closures for under performers.

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said Wednesday the mayor looks forward to working with the coalition, school district, charters and others “committed to improving our city’s primary education system.”

The Wednesday report is the second for the group since it formed in 2014. The coalition in March 2015 released a report recommending returning control of Detroit Public Schools to an elected school board and having the state assume $350 million in district debt.

The coalition also lobbied for the establishment of a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the opening of traditional public and charter schools in the city, but the Republican-led House rejected the idea.

The new process recommended is similar to what an education commission would have done but it would be voluntary, not mandated, Allen said.