Which Detroit school is best for your child? A new guide offers direction, but no test scores

A snapshot from the cover of a new school guide published by Mayor Mike Duggan's Community Education Commission.

A glossy new Detroit school guide will give city parents lots of information about nearly 200 city schools — just not about their test scores.

The new guide will be formally released to the public next week by a new citywide education commission. At nearly 300 pages, the guide will let parents quickly see which district and charter schools offer bus transportation, which ones are accessible by which city bus lines, which ones provide before- and  after-school programs, and which ones have security guards on site.

What parents won’t learn — at least not in this first edition of the guide — is whether or not a school has a track record of academic success.

Unlike the school scorecard that had been published for years by a now-defunct nonprofit called Excellent Schools Detroit, the new guide from Mayor Mike Duggan’s Citywide Education Commission has none of the letter grades that Excellent Schools Detroit calculated primarily using state test score data. It doesn’t include information from the state of Michigan’s “parent dashboard,” which rates schools in different categories such as how well students improve academically from one year to the next, and assigns them an overall quality rating on a 100-point scale.

Still, the guide is a step forward in a city where parents have dozens of school options including district schools, charter schools and suburban schools that accept city kids, but few resources to figure out which school is the best fit for their child. The city’s fractured school system, without a centralized enrollment apparatus, makes it hard for parents to know which schools to consider, let alone who is running them or how to apply.

guide graph
A chart at the back of the guide breaks down the number of charter and traditional schools in Detroit.

The new mayoral commission, which is composed of 11 members representing charter schools, non-profits, teachers unions, Michigan’s education department, and the Detroit Public Schools Community District, is pushing efforts to bring cooperation between historically combative district and charter school leaders.

Its first project is a joint bus line that will serve 10 charter and traditional schools in one neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It is Detroit’s first major effort to unite the transportation services that have traditionally only served students at one kind of school or the other. Information about that bus line is included in the guide.

When Duggan announced the new commission in his state of the city address this year, he said that one of its missions would be developing a rating system for schools. Monique Marks, who heads the commission, said that rating system will eventually be incorporated into future versions of the school guide.

The commission just held its first meeting last month and was focused on producing a resource that would be useful to parents for the coming school year.

“One of our first steps was to release this up-to-date guide in time for the school year,” she said. “While the guide does not currently have school ratings,  we intend to add detailed information about schools’ academic success records in the coming year.”

The commission, she said, is “currently working through the process of determining what that looks like and what information is important to the guide’s use.”

The new guide will be interactive when it launches next week, allowing parents to search online by neighborhood or keyword. Print versions will be distributed around the city but Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, an education think tank at the University of Washington Bothell, said simply releasing a guide won’t be enough. The greatest challenge is making sure the information reaches parents.

“Most families aren’t getting their information from the guide, but rather from family members, peer groups, and neighbors,” she said.

Heyward helped run a survey of 4,000 parents in more than a dozen “high-choice” cities similar to (but not including) Detroit, which found that obtaining basic information is a bigger barrier for parents than the process of enrolling in school or applying to selective schools.

Community organizations have played a crucial role in distributing school guides in other cities, Heyward said. She recommended training sessions that teach social workers how to use the guide so they can pass the information along to families.

Indeed, the commission is planning several events next week to get the word out about the guide. Two training sessions on Tuesday will break down the information provided in the guide, and a citywide enrollment fair for parents and students is planned for later in the week.

The school guide is organized by color-coded neighborhoods.

The guide, which is free to download online, splits the city into 10 color-coded neighborhoods. Southwest Detroit, for instance, is shown in pink, so parents there would scroll to the pink section of the report for basic information about schools in their neighborhood. The guide is currently only available in English but a source familiar with the effort said a Spanish version is coming next month. 

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.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.