The big sort

No more back-door admissions to Detroit’s most selective high schools after all students take screening exam

The Detroit school district changed its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Dramatic changes to the way Detroit’s main district decides who can get into its most selective schools meant more students were accepted from district middle schools — and no student got in without taking the entrance exam.

Those were only some of the effects of the controversial changes the district made to the exam and application process for students who want to attend Cass Technical, Renaissance, Martin Luther King Jr., and Southeastern high schools.

In Detroit, attending these schools is prestigious, giving students bragging rights to be among the ranks of celebrity alumni such as rapper Big Sean, singer Diana Ross, reality television star Kenya Moore, and former NFL player Lawrence Thomas. Admission, which requires both an exam and an application, is competitive: Among the top high schools in the state, they are sought after by eighth-graders from around the region, not just from the city.

Last year, amid patchy test-taking and an opaque selection process, just 1,607 students were offered seats at the schools through the regular application process. Only 46 percent came from district middle schools, and almost 500 additional students who had not taken the test were later offered a seat by appealing directly to the schools. (Another 179 students who took the exam also got in on appeal.)

“Often, relationships were a determining factor in admissions, not the attributes of the applicants and what they could add to the student body,” said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

This year, in a bid to increase equity and give an edge to students in district middle schools, every eighth-grader in Detroit’s main district took the test and applications were scored consistently.

As a result, the schools admitted 2,858 students after the exam, filling every spot and sharply curtailing the number of students who can get in by appeal. Nearly two-thirds of the admitted students attended district middle schools.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was pleased by the fact that all eighth-graders took the screening exam.

“One commitment we made this year was to ensure the testing of eighth-graders would happen across our district,” he said at a meeting last week. “This was about equity and access throughout our district.”

He also said efforts to improve the system would continue.

“I don’t think we’re at a point of perfection,” Vitti said. “At least we’re beginning to create structure and consistency, and we have data to track over time where the random process made it difficult to analyze.“

A consistent method for screening applications was a centerpiece of the changes. In previous years, there were no clear-cut rules for scoring applications and each school evaluated students independently.

This year, starting in March, a single team of teachers, staff, alumni, and administrators evaluated each application according to a points system.

Students could earn up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school admissions exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay, and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district also received 10 bonus points that gave them an edge over students applying from charter, parochial, and suburban schools.

The district enacted a minimum score, known as a cut score, that students had to reach to be admitted into all examination schools. In addition, because of high student demand, each school had its own cut score that exceeded the district score. About 44 percent of applicants did not meet the cut score for any school.

“By determining a cut score, the caliber of students entering the examination high schools increases,” Wilson said. “There were reports of previous years where students were admitted who were struggling with their grades, and had very low proficiency levels in the academic core.”

Not everyone was happy with how the students were selected.

Terri Berry is a Cass graduate and supporter whose daughter will be a freshman there this year. She said she’s still concerned about equity in the process.

“My concern is to make it fair for all the students who want to attend those schools,” said Berry, an officer in the Triangle Society, a Cass booster group that has objected to the changes.

Detroiter Seydi Sarr said her daughter, Hawlaane Sarr-Robins, very much hoped to attend Renaissance and anxiously took the exam last spring.

Sarr didn’t know the district was only giving bonus points to district students. Her eighth-grader at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School — a charter school — was disappointed when she heard she was put on a waitlist, her mother said.

Vitti said about 85 percent of students applying for the district’s exam schools are from Detroit.

“It’s important to note that despite students gaining entrance from outside the district, the vast majority of those students are from Detroit,” Vitti said. “We should be excited about the fact that non-[district] students are applying for our exam schools.”

The fact that the new process penalizes non-district students is a problem, said Rob Kimball, who heads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, Detroit’s largest charter authorizer.

“All public schools in Detroit should welcome all Detroit students,” he said, adding, “We would be happy to work with [the district] on policies that embrace all Detroit kids regardless of which school they previously attended.”

But the new process has its supporters, too.

Julius Randall, 14, an incoming 10th-grader at King High School, said the new process has inspired more students to apply for the selective schools — no matter where they attend middle school.

The process also has weeded out students who were applying for the exam schools to attend with their friends, not because they were focused on academics, he said.

“If they don’t let as many kids in who are not going to do anything, or aren’t focused, they are going to have a better school.”

Another of Vitti’s objectives was to increase the number of students with special needs at the exam schools, but the district said it was so far unclear whether that goal had been reached.

“This is the first year of implementing the changes to exam schools,” Wilson said. “We will need more time to collect and analyze data.”

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”