Detroit, charters fight to keep kids in local schools

Nicquel Terry, and Jennifer Chambers

Detroit — After years of watching suburban schools use marketing tools to recruit children from its neighborhoods, Detroit declared this week that it’s ready to fight back.

The city’s public schools and charter schools are joining forces with Mayor Mike Duggan and the Skillman Foundation to launch a new busing system they hope will change the tide of children leaving Detroit to attend school.

Duggan said during his state of the city address Tuesday that an estimated 32,000 children go to schools in the suburbs while 51,000 attend the city’s public schools. The Skillman Foundation estimates 27,000 Detroit kids attend suburban schools.

The mayor said Detroit is responding this fall with a five-year pilot program in northwest Detroit that includes a bus route where students can be transported to charter schools, public schools, day care and after-school programs in Detroit.

“Yes, we are fighting for our kids,” said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. “We want our kids to go to good schools, and we believe there are good options in Detroit.”

During his speech, Duggan singled out the River Rouge School District, presenting a map of the district’s 200 miles of school bus routes across the entire city of Detroit to pick up schoolchildren.

Derrick R. Coleman, River Rouge’s superintendent, said he doesn’t feel threatened by Duggan’s transportation plan. He said parents who send their children to River Rouge will continue to do so, not just for the transportation, but for the entire academic and personal experience.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Coleman said. “At the end of the day, we have operated with a charter mindset. With an open marketplace, you must provide services people want. Transportation alone will not solve any issues for urban school districts with other problems.”

The River Rouge district has been sending buses into and across the city for the last six years, Coleman said, and plans to continue doing so. River Rouge enrolls about 1,000 students from Detroit, and a majority of them use the district’s bus system to get to school, he said. The influx of students from Detroit adds an estimated $7.9 million to the district’s coffers.

Detroit’s proposed transportation plan is expected to cost around $7 million, Allen said. The Skillman Foundation will provide a $1 million grant with the rest of the funding split between the city, charter schools and Detroit Public Schools Community District, she said.

Allen, who co-chaired the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said it was critical for charter and public schools in Detroit to partner instead of “fighting over a shrinking pool of students.”

“We are basically giving families an incentive that they can have free transportation for their kids to get to school,” Allen said.

Allen said officials still need to work out details with the schools, parents and community members before the program is launched.

Duggan’s proposed route has 12 schools, including seven Detroit public schools — Vernor, Pasteur, Bagley, Schulze, John R. King, Coleman A. Young and Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies — and five charter schools — David Ellis Academy, Detroit Achievement, University YES, MacDowell Preparatory and Cornerstone Lincoln-King.

According to the city, the bus routes will run 6:30 a.m.-9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. during school days.

The Northwest Activities Center would also be a partner on the route, providing licensed day care for children of parents who work later and recreational activities, Duggan said. Designated schools would offer tutoring, robotics, art and music.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Iris Taylor, Detroit school board president, in a joint statement Wednesday said: “We look forward to collaborating with the mayor and his team to collectively work together to strengthen the quality of education in Detroit and return Detroiters to city schools. A shared accountability system developed by Detroiters is a step in that direction as is a new bus loop.”

Duggan said during his speech he supports families having the ability to choose what school their child attends. He just wants to keep them in Detroit.

Transportation is one of the biggest barriers facing Detroit families, he said.

“If we could get DPS and charter to work together and collaborating, we could provide good choices right here in the city of Detroit,” Duggan said. “If this works, we are going to replicate these routes in one area after another in the city, so you never again have a kid riding an hour on a bus to go to another location.”

Students leaving the city for their K-12 education is not a new problem. State data from the 2013-14 school year showed an estimated 25,000 school-age children left the city go to suburban districts, including traditional public schools in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties and suburban charter schools across those counties.

Some suburban districts rely on Detroit’s children to keep annual budgets balanced and state aid flowing. For each child who leaves Detroit, the district loses $7,906 in state aid, a trend that has sent DPS into a financial free-fall.

Parents have pulled their children from Detroit schools for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns, low-performing school programs and reduced services.

One major complaint is the district’s lack of consistent transportation across all grades for all schools.

General education students in grades K-8 who reside more than three-quarters of a mile from their neighborhood schools and attend their neighborhood schools receive bus transportation. Those closer must walk. Students in K-8 who attend a school other than their neighborhood school must find their own transportation.

Students in grades 9-12 are provided Detroit Department of Transportation bus passes only if they attend their neighborhood school and live more than 1.5 miles away. Outside those guidelines, students must walk or find their own rides. Five district schools have exceptions and allow students in some areas to use bus service.

Providing a safe route to school from Detroit is a major focus and concern for the district because children experience trauma trying to get to school when they have to walk or use other modes of transit, officials say.

Randy Liepa, superintendent for Wayne RESA, the county intermediate school district, said transportation has been a competitive issue between traditional public schools and charters in and outside the city for several years. The competition increased after the state of Michigan offered schools of choice in 1996.

The issue of transportation is important to parents, education officials say.

Duggan’s proposal addresses only one area of the city for now, but Liepa noted that a majority of Metro Detroit school districts do not send buses into Detroit to pick up school children.

River Rouge and Oak Park are the largest traditional public school districts that provide transportation in and out of Detroit that Liepa said he was aware of. Most charter schools do not provide transportation. Officials in Oak Park did not return calls seeking comment.

“It’s a pretty unique proposal. I haven’t seen anything like it. It is addressing the issue of a specific need of parents of not being met,” Liepa said. “It’s hard to assess impact right now. Time will tell how that will play out.”

Detroit has had a lot of campaigns to get resident schoolchildren to stay in the city, Liepa said.

“It’s another effort to get kids back into the city and people who live in the city to stay in the city. That is what they are looking to accomplish,” Liepa said.