Our Editorial: Road map for better Detroit schools

The Detroit News

A new extensive report about the state of Detroit school facilities and the access families have (or don’t have, in too many cases) should help cut through a divisive political climate over education in the city and lead to some much needed change.

If improving Detroit’s schools is the goal, then the information in this 108-page study from IFF (formerly Illinois Facilities Fund) should bring together everyone who has a stake in education. That list ought to include charter school authorizers, the Detroit Public Schools Community District and Mayor Mike Duggan, among others in the business and philanthropic communities.

IFF, which has a Detroit office, is a nonprofit community development financial institution and has provided similar reports on school facilities in others cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. The Skillman Foundation funded the Detroit report. IFF had previously done a report on early education in the Metro region. Chris Uhl, executive director of the IFF eastern region, is hopeful the study will have an impact. He says the mayor’s team is on board, and Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and charter authorizers have been helpful as well.

“How we do we strengthen an entire system by making better decisions?” asks Uhl, a Detroiter. “Take the data and move it to action.”

The new study breaks the city down by neighborhoods, taking a close look at what areas offer families access to quality schools, and which ones are struggling. IFF staff delved into the academic performance of district schools, as well as the high number of charter schools in Detroit. It’s worth noting that charters as a whole came out ahead when compared to public school counterparts.

But what this report really shows is a dearth of coordination regarding where new schools should locate and what schools, if any, should close. Charter authorizers and district officials, along with input from the mayor’s office, must take the blueprint to heart.

Among the report’s findings:

■“During the 2015-2016 school year, only 19 percent of Detroit’s K-12 students attending traditional district or charter schools within the city limits could access a performing school. The study estimates that 70,000 of Detroit’s 85,000 public school students — or 4 out of 5 — did not have access to a performing school.”

■“38 percent of the need for performing schools was concentrated in 10 of Detroit’s 54 neighborhood areas. More than 30,000 students live in these communities, yet only eight performing district or charter schools were located in them. These 10 highest-need neighborhoods were clustered away from downtown on the city’s East, West, and Southwest sides.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, is very aware of the need for better school planning. He welcomes the report and says the two main authorizers in Detroit — Central Michigan and Grand Valley universities — are planning to use the study in deciding where to place schools. “Good information has power,” Quisenberry says.

The study comes just two weeks after the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, led in part by Skillman, came out with a second set of recommendations that included more coordination among school leaders and Duggan.

The IFF report gives officials the perfect road map for these vital conversations.