Detroit’s back-to-school enrollment efforts take on new urgency

A man working for Detroit Public Schools Community District stands at a table distributing papers to a mother and her two daughters.
Representatives from Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Government and Community Affairs department talk to families at Summer on the Block how to contact their local legislator and advocate for equitable education policy. (Courtesy of Chrystal Wilson)

The quiet southwest Detroit block around Roberto Clemente Learning Academy pulsed with summer heat and back-to-school excitement on an August afternoon.

Community members mingled among the food trucks, arts and crafts activities, and information tables lined up across the school’s front lawn, where the Detroit Public Schools Community District was hosting the latest in its Summer on the Block event series. 

The block parties have been part of the district’s back-to-school enrollment push since 2017. They’ve taken on increased significance in the wake of a pandemic that has seen the district lose 3,000 students since 2020, when it enrolled nearly 51,000.

Similar enrollment drops have struck school districts across the nation during the pandemic. But in Detroit, which has experienced decades of enrollment declines as families fled to charter and suburban schools, they’re particularly worrisome. The pandemic reversed what had been a period of stability — and some small gains — in enrollment after 2017, when an elected board regained power and Nikolai Vitti became superintendent. And since school funding in Michigan is directly tied to enrollment, drops in enrollment affect the district’s budget.

So the district is stepping up its enrollment drive with help from federal COVID relief money. DPSCD plans to invest $15 million of the nearly $1.3 billion in COVID relief funds it will receive into outreach with families and new community programming. 

“That was the benefit of having equitable federal funding for the first time…We could make sure we had the tools and resources to help families,” district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said. 

In addition to more Summer on the Block events, the district used its COVID relief funding to support a door-to-door canvassing initiative first launched in 2017, and to boost summer school programming.

Wilson said over 9,000 families enrolled in the district’s Summer Learning Experiences 2022 program, so “our families are telling us they want to get back to the business of learning, the fun of learning … finding that normalcy even though we’re still addressing wellness and mental health exiting from the height of the pandemic.”

Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, said that checking in on families through door-to-door canvassing or hosting outreach events is all about “making deposits in the community.”

Buckman said this year’s Summer on the Block series is particularly important, providing families with the resources to help their students recover from pandemic learning loss. 

By distributing summer learning materials such as free books, Buckman said, the district “helps parents close gaps in their home space.”

The Summer on the Block events also feature tables with representatives from a number of local agencies and organizations, as part of the district’s commitment to attract families to its schools through wraparound services. At the Roberto Clemente event, for example, families visited tables for the City of Detroit’s health and family services departments educating parents on the importance of vaccines and distributing home cleaning products.

According to state data, Roberto Clemente began the 2019-20 school year with 604 students; the most recent numbers show an enrollment of 530 students.

Principal Maria Hernandez-Martinez said her team is executing a number of initiatives this summer to bring students back. 

In addition to going door to door to promote Roberto Clemente, Hernandez-Martinez’s team has organized parent meetings for each grade at the school to review the curriculum and schoolwide expectations before classes begin.

Because the school is located in a neighborhood with many Spanish speakers, she said, it is essential that her team include several bilingual people and that they provide all materials and send messages to parents in English and Spanish.

Roberto Clemente Learning Academy’s principal, Maria Hernandez-Martinez (center), talks a parent through the informational material distributed at Summer on the Block. (Courtesy of Chrystal Wilson)

Hernandez-Martinez hopes to have more Summer on the Block events at Roberto Clemente in the future as she and principals across the district work to bring enrollment to where it was before the pandemic. 

Looking around at the flurry of activity on the block that afternoon, Hernandez-Martinez said, “The main purpose of all this is to bring back my families.” 

Grace Tucker is a reporting intern at Chalkbeat Detroit. Reach her at

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