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Detroit’s crumbling public schools may be a sign of things to come

Detroit’s public schools have been gutted by a conflation of social, political, economic, and racial issues and the city’s public school system appears to be at a breaking point.

Schools are threatened with closure if they can’t raise students’ test scores, which are among the worst in the country. Detroit educators are now racing against the clock to get their students up to par, or face forced shuttering. 38 Michigan schools, including 24 in Detroit, are in danger of being closed.

A report by Chalkbeat documented one Detroit principal, Alisanda Woods of Bethune Elementary-Middle School, who is taking a hands on approach to get her students up to the necessary standards.

Woods told Chalkbeat, she and her staff face an uphill battle, “We’ve got sixth graders at a third-grade level. We need to take it up a notch.”

Chalkbeat documented the struggles that educators and students face alike as their schools are threatened:

“Most observers suspect that schools like Bethune face shuttering if things don’t improve. Woods and her staff could be fired. And her students could face yet another disruption to lives that, in many cases, have already been rocked by violence, homelessness and other trials of poverty. All of Woods’ students — 100 percent — are from families whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level, she said.”

There’s many different factors contributing to the educational crisis in Detroit. For one, school choice has seen students opt for charter schools or schools in surrounding Detroit suburbs over local public schools.

A December 2016 report from Vice News analyzed how school choice has hurt public education in Detroit, stating:

“In Detroit, choice has come largely at the expense of the traditional public school district and schools… As students joined new charters, public school enrollment and funding fell. Unregulated competition pushed these schools into near-unrecoverable insolvency and allowed dubious for-profit charter operators to prosper without establishing a track record of better outcomes for students.”

The school choice and “free market” approach in Michigan was designed by now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, so luckily the entire nation gets to look forward to an outcome similar to Detroit’s.

But Detroit’s citizens and educators are not willing to stand back and let their schools crumble. Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group focused on rebuilding Detroit’s public school system, released a report with a proposal to fix the Detroit school system.

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

The coalition’s report focused on 6 points of emphasis.

First was to get kids to school. With the report noting that over two-thirds of Detroit students missed 10 or more days of school in 2015-2016, attendance issues are pervasive.

Second, the coalition outlined a plan to keep students in Detroit. In the past 25 years, enrollment in Detroit public schools has fallen 73 percent and currently 25 percent of Detroit students are getting educated in the surrounding suburbs, according to the report.

With schools getting funding according to numbers of enrolled students, the issue of retaining students is paramount. The coalition’s report states:

“Schools receive funding based on enrollment. When so many Detroit students attend schools outside the city, funding declines, which undermines every program. Increasing the number of highly qualified teachers and improving school leadership are the two most impactful steps schools can take to improve student learning. But Detroit schools have a hard time competing with neighboring districts to recruit and retain the best teachers and principals.”

Getting top educators to Detroit schools is also part of the initiative:

“Create a compelling narrative about Detroit and launch ‘TEACH DETROIT,’ a citywide portal and recruitment and outreach campaign for current and new teachers and leaders, similar to other cities’ efforts across the country.”

Third, the coalition aims to improve literacy rates, which is a particularly stark issue for students in low-income areas:

“The challenges start early. Low-income students tend to start school far behind; by age 4 they have heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. It is very difficult for them to catch up.”

Detroit is dead last in the nation for early literacy rates for low-income students, currently reading proficiency rates are at 9.9 percent for third-graders in Detroit. This simply has to change.

Fourth, the report wants to set up students for a future in employment or further education. Not only does this improve prospects for low-income students, educated citizens have a direct impact on the economy:

“Detroit needs more jobs and more graduates who are prepared for those jobs. Detroit has only one job for every three residents, far lower than comparable cities. Three-fourths of our jobs are held by nonresidents.”

Fifth on the report is a plan to invest heavily in special education. A lack of funding for special needs children currently forces Detroit districts to allocate funds from their general budget in order to provide for special education, hurting special needs and standard education in Detroit.

Finally, the coalition calls for collaboration and accountability from their community leaders.

The current state of the Detroit school system is a tragedy. It also may be a worrisome harbinger of things to come, with Betsy DeVos now in charge of the entire public school education system of the United States.

Public schools across the country, in cities and rural areas alike, are in serious trouble. As charter schools and school choice have segregated student populations at rates reminiscent of the mid-20th century.

A September Los Angeles Times article reported the rates of segregation:

“Nationwide, nearly 75% of black students attend so-called majority-minority schools, and 38% attend schools with a white population of 10% or less. Similar statistics apply to Latino students: 80% and 40%, respectively.”

These are all very worrisome trends for America’s public schools. It’s incredibly important for kids to be educated in diverse settings. We know ol’ Betsy isn’t going to help us out with this, but answers are needed.