School Choice

Six hours, eight buses: The extreme sacrifice Detroit parents make to access better schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Dawn Wilson stands outside one of the many neighborhood schools in Detroit that has been shut down.

For thousands of Detroit families, the daily trek begins in darkness, before dawn.

Myesha Williams, a mother of eight on Detroit’s west side, sets out at 7 a.m. to deliver her three school-aged sons to three different schools on opposite ends of the city – and she considers herself lucky. She has a car and a large family that can help share the driving.

Total daily journey: Up to 93.5 miles, 3 hours.

Monique Johnson starts her trek even earlier, just after 6 a.m. when she and son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader, catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. There are closer stops, Johnson said, but they’re pitch black at that hour — and dangerous.

They wait for the bus in the glow of a nearby gas station, huddling together under blankets on frigid winter mornings. The No. 43 bus comes around 6:20 a.m., Johnson said.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

“It’s pretty dark on that side of the street,” Johnson said. Shownn knows to stay alert. “I teach him to pay attention to his surroundings so he’ll be able to react if he feels something is not right.”

"If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike"

Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50. She then makes her way back home — another No. 53, another No. 43 – until reaching Brightmoor around 9:30 a.m. That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.

Total daily journey: 52 miles, 5-6 hours.

Like many big cities, Detroit has shuttered scores of traditional neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools and public school magnet programs. Detroit kids can also attend schools in suburban districts.

But many of the city’s new options do not provide transportation, and new schools are often far from where kids live – a serious challenge in a city where a quarter of families have no access to a car and where the public transit system is woefully insufficient.

That means some families, like Williams’ and Johnson’s, make extreme sacrifices to access quality schools. Work gets neglected; personal obligations go unmet; children miss sleep and lose ground in class by too often showing up late.

Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

Other families, those without cars or the time and resources to make long commutes to school, are stuck with the few schools left in their neighborhoods. And the nearby option is often a school with a long track record of poor performance: Just 10 Detroit schools posted test scores high enough to rank above average on the state’s last top-to bottom ranking in 2014 — six selective public schools and four charter schools.

And with the families who can leave choosing to do so, many local schools have lost the engaged parents who once led the PTA. They’ve lost connections to community leaders who are less likely to advocate for a school their children do not attend. And their neighborhoods have lost the community anchors that once brought them together.

“One of the outcomes of schools closing and kids having to go farther and farther away from home is it’s much more difficult for the school to create bonds with families that would serve to support school improvements,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an education professor at Wayne State University. “The neighborhood around the school may not feel as strong a connection to it if none of their children are going to that school.”

School choice

The schools that once gathered the families of Johnson’s neighborhood, Brightmoor, are largely gone now – Vetal, Burt, Harding, Hubert, Houghten, Redford High.

It’s the same in Williams’ neighborhood on the city’s near west side. Robeson burned down. Hancock was shuttered. Longfellow became Detroit City High School, then closed its doors.

They were among 195 Detroit public schools that closed between 2000 and 2015 as the district’s enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959. More than 100 new public and charter schools opened during the same time period, but the new schools weren’t placed around the city based on neighborhood need.

Any college or university in Michigan can authorize a charter school and charter schools can open anywhere they find an appropriate building. So schools open where real estate is available, there is a perception of safety, and teachers want to work.

The result is a mismatch between where students live and where schools are located.

The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

A calculation by Data Driven Detroit and the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit shows that Detroit’s affluent downtown and midtown neighborhoods have 17,039 more school seats than children who need them.

The struggling neighborhoods in northeast Detroit, in contrast, have 2,130 more children than seats.

Williams’ neighborhood, around the center of the city, has 1,694 more children than seats.

The prominent city leaders behind the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren last year flagged this imbalance in a report that issued a series of recommendations for turning around the city’s schools.

"It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel."

The coalition called for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would have oversight authority over public and charter schools to better distribute school options around the city. The idea is now the subject of heated debate in Lansing where the Senate version of a $715 million rescue and reform plan for Detroit Public Schools would create the education commission. The idea is opposed by charter school leaders who fear the commission would favor public schools over charters and are lobbying to keep the DEC out of the final legislation.

Even if the DEC is created, however, it would primarily have control over future schools — not current ones — so it would likely take years for it to have an impact on neighborhoods that need quality schools.

In Johnson’s Brightmoor neighborhood, there are technically enough school seats, but none of the nearby options meet Johnson’s standards for Shownn, she said.

Of the five public and charter schools in Brightmoor that were listed on the state’s most recent top-to-bottom rankings in 2014, four had test scores that placed them in the bottom 6 percent of Michigan schools. The only Brightmoor school not at the very bottom was a charter high school that Shownn is still too young to attend.

So when Shownn came home from a field trip to the Science Center and told Johnson there was a school he wanted to go to inside the center, she agreed to bring him there on the bus every day. His charter school was ranked in the 59th percentile on the state ranking.

The schedule has taken a toll on Johnson and her family, she said. With so much of her day devoted to transporting Shownn to and from school, it took her years longer than it should have to graduate with a journalism degree last year from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Now, as she looks for work that will pay enough to buy her a car, the schedule interferes with her job search, too.

Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

But this was the best way to help Shownn achieve his goal of going to college, Johnson said. “I have to do this to make his dreams happen. If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike. I’m going to make it happen.”

Williams said she initially sent her son Elijah, now a 17-year-old sophomore, to the nearby high school, Central Collegiate Academy. It’s close enough that Elijah could walk home. But he struggled there.

“I was getting in trouble,” Elijah said. “The environment at Central is not good.”

So when his basketball coach at Central got a job at the Cornerstone Health and Technology charter school in northwest Detroit, Elijah followed him.

Williams initially enrolled 14-year-old Edmond at the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit because she worked there and could bring him with her when she went to work. She enrolled another son in Southwest Detroit’s WAY Academy because it was close to Phoenix and would let 15-year-old Emmanuel, who has fallen behind academically, quickly make up his lost credits by taking online classes.

Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

But when she lost her job at Phoenix, which has been struggling and might close this year, the drive to Southwest Detroit became much more of a challenge. Now, if her husband can’t take Elijah to Cornerstone in northwest Detroit, she makes a half-hour trip to drop Elijah at that school and then comes back for Edmond. It takes 50 minutes to make the round-trip drive to drop Edmond at Phoenix, then another 50 minutes a few hours later to take Emmanuel to his school, which starts at noon.

Williams’ daughter-in-law and other family members often help with the driving, but someone in the family has to drive back to Southwest Detroit in the afternoon to pick up Emmanuel at 3 p.m., then sit in the car for over an hour, waiting for Edmond to get out of school at 4:15 p.m.

“It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel,” Williams said. “But I’ve been blessed with my car … I just really thank God for me and my husband because we just had to go above and beyond for the kids.”

“A sin and a shame”

Dawn Wilson, Johnson’s neighbor in Brightmoor, knows what it’s like to go to a nearby school. Her daughters attended a small pay-what-you-can religious school around the corner from her home when they were younger.

“I loved it. It was like family,” said Wilson, a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s schools. “We would walk there and the teachers lived in the neighborhood. There were a lot of community events and everyone would come.”

Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

The closure of that school kicked off a decade of bouncing her five children around to a motley mix of public, charter, and parochial schools that, one by one, disappointed Wilson and her kids. One school was too violent, Wilson said. Another had five principals in four years. One charter school changed management companies in the middle of the school year.

Every year, she drives a different route, taking kids to different schools, while watching as schools in her own neighborhood have emptied out and become vacant and derelict.

“Look at this! This is a sin and shame,” Wilson said as she gave a reporter a tour of her neighborhood’s abandoned schools.

Hubert has been open to trespassers and scrappers. At Houghten, which the city began to demolish this week, a roof collapse makes the building look like it has been bombed.

“If you ever want to break a community, just start by breaking down the school system and eventually you’re just going to have deserts and graveyards,” said Arlyssa Heard, the policy director 482Forward, a parent advocacy organization.

“If you have a good school in a community, people will start moving into that community and goods and services flow to where the people are,” Heard said. “When you have kids in a neighborhood, people are more apt to have a neighborhood watch. Police respond better. People can fight for playgrounds and safe spaces … But when you eliminate schools, tear them down, rip them out of neighborhoods and shut them down without even consulting the neighborhood, then you end up with these [school] deserts and you have parents who can’t afford to move or uproot their families. You have them driving all over town trying to take five kids to five different places. It’s completely insane.”

That has left the institutions that serve the neighborhood’s children scrambling to hunt them down.

Cherie Bandrowski has operated a tutoring and mentoring program for kids in Brightmoor since 1986.

The Wellspring youth development center she runs with her husband Dan is across the street from the broken and vandalized building that used to be Houghten school.

“Kids would come across the street to our program,” Bandrowski said. “The elementary school kids came from there, the high school kids came from Redford High … Now they’re all over the place — charter schools, open districts, DPS.”

Instead of serving kids from the neighborhood, Wellspring now sends a bus to pick up students from Cody High School, six miles away. Other students get a ride from their parents — at least on days when the family car is in working order.

“It’s not community,” Bandrowski said. “Back in the day, we would know the whole family and we knew that so-and-so’s parents were crack users … Today, we still know the families but there isn’t quite that intimacy anymore.”

A new path

Detroit schools have intensive needs. The city’s students have some of the lowest test scores in the nation and the district has a long-term debt that, by some estimates, tops $3.5 billion. Both the House and Senate in Lansing seem poised to pass some kind of rescue plan to at least address DPS debt.

Whether the Detroit Education Commission is included in the legislation will be determined over the next few weeks as lawmakers return from spring recess and resume negotiations. The DPS legislation passed by the Senate last month would give the city’s mayor the power to appoint the seven members of the DEC. They would be charged with creating an annual school needs assessment based on community input and data. The DEC would then have the power to steer new schools to neighborhoods that need them most.

“It’s not going to fix everything,” said Heard, who was a member of the coalition that recommended the DEC. “But the DEC will be able to at least bring some level of sanity to what we have now. What we have now is completely unacceptable.”

Charter school supporters don’t dispute that the current situation is difficult for many families, but they say giving the mayor power over charter schools would stifle school choice. They have instead advocated for a system of incentives to lure charter schools to the neighborhoods that most need new schools.

“There are things that can be done to make parent access to choice easier, and those things should be done,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the pro-charter Great Lakes Education Project. “We just want them all to be opt-in and voluntary” for schools.

It’s true that many charter schools have clustered in neighborhoods like downtown and midtown, he said, but he asserted that those schools are popular with parents who work in the city center and drop off their children on the way to their jobs.

“It is also commonly believed that that area of the city is a safer area in which to locate a school than some other areas of the city,” Naeyaert said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to put a school where it can’t get enrollment.”

School choice options are so popular with parents that less than 40 percent of the city’s 119,000 school-aged children are enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to school but for some parents, the journey is much longer.

“Everything I do is to make things better for him,” Johnson said of her son. “I told him ‘We’re going through these extra steps and it’s a lot to get you to school, but if this is going to help better prepare you, not only for high school and for college, but for life, then it’s what we’re going to do.’”

Next year, for high school, Johnson has a highly ranked charter school in Dearborn in mind for Shownn. It’s a 15-minute car ride but about an hour away on the bus.

“My plan is that I’ll have a car before he gets to high school,” Johnson said. “But even if I don’t, we’ll catch the bus if we have to. He did it for three years in middle school. He’s a trooper.”

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”

new chapter

Frosty relationship thaws between parents group Memphis Lift and Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leaders of Memphis Lift take literally Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's call to "lock arms and work together" following Hopson's presentation to the parent advocacy group on Monday evening.

When Memphis Lift launched two years ago, leaders of Shelby County Schools questioned the motives and methods behind the group’s parent advocacy, including its early paid work to canvass neighborhoods about the district’s low-performing schools.

But this week, the two entities appeared to turn a page in their often contentious relationship. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson paid a visit on Monday night as part of the group’s monthly speaker series, and the organization welcomed him warmly.

“When you have the challenges we have here in Memphis, we have to lock arms and work together,” Hopson told about 100 people in attendance. “At the end of day, there’s an undeniable correlation between parental involvement and achievement.” 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hopson talks about the need for equitable funding and parental involvement.

Hopson’s decision to engage Memphis Lifters stands in stark contrast to late 2015 when he questioned whether the parent group was truly independent — or just a mouthpiece for the state-run Achievement School District, a turnaround program that takes control of struggling schools and usually converts them to charter schools. Those suspicions prompted Shelby County Schools to deny the ASD’s request for student information out of concern that the material would be given to Memphis Lift, whose orange-shirted members were going door-to-door to talk with families about local schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

But things have changed a lot. Tennessee’s Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings this year while adding new tools for turnaround work. Memphis Lift, which launched in mid-2015 amid questions about its legitimacy, has demonstrated staying power by developing its grassroots base and leadership. And the need to increase parental involvement was cited as a priority at community meetings held last fall across the district.

“When we first started, (SCS leaders) were saying we worked for the ASD, then charters,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director for Memphis Lift. “Now, I think they get we’re here for all children. … Dorsey coming to speak is a very exciting moment for us.”

Carpenter said a turning point came this spring when Hopson visited their offices in north Memphis, where the group hosts programs to educate parents about policy and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

“I think Dorsey was surprised by what we were doing here,” Carpenter said. “He asked what he needed to do to reach more parents, and I told him he needed to be more accessible. We only saw him at school board meetings.” 

Hopson made himself available Monday night by speaking about Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan to raise reading levels and graduation rates and develop career readiness for students. During the two-hour exchange, he also took questions from the crowd.

The superintendent emphasized the need for more pre-K seats and for third-graders to read on grade level. He said the district can’t do its job without parental involvement and encouraged Memphis Lift to advocate for more dollars for Memphis schools and for high-needs students.

“All parents and advocacy groups should be aligned on a few things — number one being equitable funding for kids,” Hopson said. “This is a powerful group, if you show up and say here’s what we want, (elected leaders are) not going to ignore it.”