enrollment wars

It’s official: Detroit’s enrollment grew for the first time in over a decade, even after adding the state-run district

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students at Detroit's Durfee Elementary-Middle School on the first day of school in September, 2017

What Detroit district leaders have been saying for months is true: After many years of losing students, enrollment in the Detroit district grew this year while charter enrollment fell.

State data released last month show that district enrollment is up about 2 percent over the last five years while Wayne County charter enrollment is down about 2 percent. It’s the first time in over a decade that the district has gained students.

The data are final audited enrollment numbers that the state uses to determine how much money it pays out to schools.

Detroit district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti boasted at a press conference last fall that the district’s enrollment had exceeded the gains from the newly absorbed students in the dissolved state-run Education Achievement Authority schools. He said the district had added more than a thousand former charter students.

Months later, the final audited enrollment numbers show the gains were modest. The district picked up about 450 more students beyond the schools that were in the EAA, bringing total enrollment to 50,875.

The numbers Vitti referenced weren’t wrong, exactly. Enrollment is a snapshot in time, and Detroit students tend to move from school to school with some frequency.

The district gained 5,155 students from last year, with about 4,700 students coming from the state-run schools. Meanwhile, six charters across the county, with about 2,800 students in total, closed.

The Detroit district absorbed the EAA schools over the summer. It accounts for the majority of the increase in enrollment.

Charters are still leading in overall enrollment. Detroit already has one of the largest charter school enrollments in the nation, with more than half of its roughly 100,000 students attending charters in the city and surrounding suburbs.

But charters have taken a public relations beating in Detroit in recent years, notably during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing when critics linked the poor quality of schools in Detroit to pro-charter laws that were pushed in Michigan by DeVos and her political advocacy organization.

But the public criticism of the charters hasn’t significantly their hurt enrollment in Detroit.

Some of the city’s biggest charter districts — Cesar Chavez Academy, University Preparatory Academy, and the Detroit Service Learning Academy — have all seen a rise in enrollment over the past five years, and they are largely stable this year.  

Four out of five charters in the city have grown over the past five years. Three out of five grew from last year

The Detroit district’s main competitors are those in the same neighborhoods, which means the increase in city charter enrollment could be a problem, especially since new charters like Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy are popping up in the city.

Over the past five years, charters in Oakland and Macomb counties have grown 7 and 3 percent respectively. Many Detroit students — more than 30,000 — leave the city every day to attend schools in surrounding cities.

Grabbing the students leaving for charters in Detroit and surrounding cities is an important fight for Vitti. Per-pupil state funding is how schools pay for the majority of their programs and staff, and the $7,631 minimum for every student adds up quickly. Vitti announced last month that in part because of increased enrollment, the district can now pay for gym teachers, guidance counselors, and many other positions its schools have been missing for years.

Search through this table to find an individual school district and its change in enrollment over the last five years.

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”