As the new school year quickly approaches, schools in Detroit make final push to enroll students

With a new school year quickly approaching, it’s crunch time for recruiting students in Detroit as district and charter schools vie for the same decreasing population of students during a summer in which multiple new schools are set to open.

In the Detroit school district, pop-up enrollment centers have opened for parents to get their children signed up, while at the same time district staff are canvassing neighborhoods. The district is also offering a new curriculum for high school students, a back-to-school expo Saturday, and free immunization shots.

Charter schools, too, are reaching out to parents and advertising on social media, radio, and cable television to encourage enrollment, although at least one network says it has a waiting list.

With more than 100 district schools and just as many charter schools, there are more seats available in Detroit than students. Last year, overall enrollment in the city was down. In all, about 30,000 children attend school in the suburbs. That means competition is high as districts work to bring in every student they can — after all, every one who enrolls brings about $8,000 in state funding. 

Michigan’s per-pupil funding system is one reason the exodus from Detroit public schools has drained district coffers in years past, leaving them with fewer resources for a high-need student population.

“It’s really a zero-sum game the way it works now, and frankly a pretty cutthroat system,” said Randy Liepa, superintendent for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency.

Schools become “financial winners and losers” as parents move their children from school to school looking for better education options, said Michael Addonizio, an education professor at Wayne State University. With dwindling resources, Detroit schools have struggled to achieve large academic gains in a state where families can pick almost any school they choose, for any reason. 

Buddy Moorehouse, spokesman for Michigan’s association of charter schools, said two things could improve the enrollment situation in the city for charter and district schools: transportation for students to the school of their choice, and an A-F school ranking system for parents. 

A statewide ranking system is in the works, but state education officials said last week they would not meet a Sept. 1 legislative deadline to produce them. A local ranking system for Detroit schools is also in the works and is expected to be released in early 2020.

There is already a limited bus system that transports students from district and charter schools to an after school program in northwest Detroit. Known as the GOAL Line, the program will add four new schools this fall. 

At Escuela Avancemos, a K-5 charter school that caters to the children of Hispanic immigrants, enrollment is proceeding “fantastically well,” said Sean Townsin, the school’s principal. His school moved to a new location after the district — which owned his previous building — opted not to renew the lease.

The school hosts a family-oriented carnival, weekly family check-ins and offers door-to-door transportation to students.

“We like to think that the special things that we do for our families do serve to attract them to our charter school,” Townsin said.

The Detroit school district is opening four new schools, including a wall-to-wall Montessori school and a new high school on the Marygrove College campus focused on social justice and engineering, where at least half of the students who have been accepted so far were not previously students of Detroit public schools.

One new charter school is opening just outside the city, which means it could enroll some Detroit students: Westfield Charter Academy in Redford Township.

Rian Barnhill, executive director of marketing and development at University Prep Schools, said enrollment has been up at the network of charter schools. It has a waiting list of 1,500 students and is one of the largest networks in the city.

But Barnhill said she believes their emphasis on training for careers in science, technology, engineering and math has helped attract more students, along with more satisfied parents.

“Parents seem to be happy with our schools and sharing that experience with other parents,” she said.

While both charters and public schools overall score consistently lower than the state average on standardized tests, a school’s emphasis, relationships between parents and teachers, after-school programs and extracurricular activities can tip the scales in a decision, said Joshua Cowen, a professor in the department of educational administration at Michigan State University.

It remains to be seen whether more choice and changes will materialize into better education for Detroit students.

“The environment in Detroit is obviously parents … have a lot of options. The question is whether just access to more schools means access to better schools,” Cowen said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect new information that the Sigma Academy for Leadership and Early College in Highland Park is no longer expected to open for the 2019-20 school year.