Detroit district looks to add more schools to mayor’s bus program

An innovative bus route that serves both district and charter schools in Detroit is expected to grow in its second year.

The Detroit school district wants to add Palmer Park Preparatory Academy and Pasteur Elementary School to the GOAL Line, which is being piloted this school year. Currently, six district schools and four charter schools participate.

The bus route, which Mayor Mike Duggan first proposed during his State of the City address in 2018, started last September with 10 schools in northwest Detroit. As part of the GOAL Line, school buses transport students to and from schools in an 11-mile loop in northwest Detroit. The buses also carry students to and from an after school program, located at the Northwest Activities Center that is part of the GOAL Line.

Duggan hoped the loop would help increase enrollment in city schools, given that more than 30,000 children who live in Detroit attend school in the suburbs. It’s an important goal, considering district and charter schools struggle to compete for students.

Enrollment did increase by 532 students in the six district schools that were part of the pilot. But just 33 of the students were new to the district, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a recent school board committee meeting. The rest were students transferring from other schools or enrolling from charter schools in the city.

“I really don’t believe that the bus loop in and of itself has increased enrollment,” Vitti said. “It’s the after school programming,” that has been a draw.

Still, the addition of 33 new students at those six schools boosted revenue by $260,000. With an estimated cost of about $89,589 this school year, the district will have netted $171,309.

“There’s more positive than negative to the initiative,” Vitti said.

When the program was first announced, the  it sparked controversy from those who said the district would end up subsidizing charter schools. Vitti addressed that by successfully pushing to allow the district to pay on a per-student basis, instead of a flat rate fee. The city had initially only offered a flat rate fee.

“We made the right decision when we modified the proposal to only pay per student,” Vitti said.

Board member Sonya Mays, who chairs the finance committee, said during that recent meeting that she supports expanding the program.

“I don’t know that I can say it’s been successful. It looks promising,” Mays said.

The GOAL Line is a key project of the Community Education Commission, an 11-member group appointed by Duggan. The commission is expected to provide more updates on the second year of the program  in the coming weeks.

One lesson from the program, Vitti said, is that “we need to do a better job of offering after school programming.” He said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget includes more money for at-risk students, which could be used to boost after school funding. But that funding proposal must be adopted by the Legislature.

Vitti presented data at the meeting that showed that the percentage of students riding the GOAL Line who also participated in the after school program increased from 49% in October to 65% in January. And in a survey conducted by the commission, the after school program was by far the top reason parents are using the GOAL Line services.

Meanwhile, Crain’s Detroit reported last week that some political and community leaders are advocating for a Wayne County millage to support after school programs.