State of the City

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan looks to grade schools, help district and charter schools work together on transportation

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan delivers State of the City Address, March 6, 2018.

Add Mayor Mike Duggan to the list of people interested in grading schools in Detroit.

Even as state education officials are starting to measure schools using a 100-point scale, and as GOP lawmakers are pushing legislation that would assign A-F letter grades to every school in the state, Duggan announced in his State of the City Address Tuesday night that he, too, is looking for a way to measure city schools.

“Parents need to have information to choose their schools,” Duggan told a packed auditorium at Western International High School in southwest Detroit. “What if we got representation from Detroit Public Schools and charters, from the parent community, and academics, and we put out report cards that parents could rely on every year? And we did it together so parents had a basis for comparing?”

The report cards were one of several education initiatives that Duggan announced in his fifth state of the city address.

After largely steering clear of education in his first term, Duggan led off his nearly hour-long speech — the first state of the city of his second term — with several proposals related to schools.

In addition to report cards, Duggan proposed testing out a new busing system that would serve students attending both district and charter schools.

The leaders of district and charter schools are notoriously combative in Detroit, fiercely competing against each other for students and teachers.

Previous efforts to get the two sides to collaborate have fizzled, including a $700,000, multi-year effort to get district and charter schools to use a single enrollment system.

But Duggan pitched an idea for a bus route — based on one that operates in Denver — that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, doing pick-ups on designated street corners and dropping students off at both district and charter schools.

Liberal school policies in Michigan make it possible for Detroit students to attend potentially hundreds of schools in the city and surrounding communities, but many schools don’t provide bus transportation, putting school choice out of reach for many families.

In a city where a quarter of residents don’t have cars and where public transportation is woefully insufficient, some families make extreme sacrifices to access quality schools for their children.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded one-third by philanthropy, one-third by the schools and one-third by the city — could even facilitate after-school programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create, Duggan said.

“This is the concept we’re talking about,” Duggan said. “We’re shooting to get it done this fall. I don’t know if it’ll be six schools or 12 schools, but I can tell you from the enthusiasm [from schools] that if we could get DPSCD and the charters working together and collaborating, we could provide good choices right here in the city of Detroit and my role is going to be to support them, not to choose sides between them.”

Duggan said he brought district and charter school leaders together last week and they seemed game to work together.

“It was the most fascinating meeting,” he said. “It was almost historic. They’re getting along and I’ll show you why.”

Duggan then flashed a slide on the screen showing where Detroit children go to school: 51,000 students attend schools in the main district, 35,000 attend charter schools in the city and, Duggan said, “32,500 children got up this morning and went to school in the suburbs. That says that what we’re doing is not working …. It’s not working because we’re not working together. We’ve got lots of schools who are nearby who could share resources.”

The city plans to first roll out the bus system in northwest Detroit, Duggan said, and if it works, add additional routes across the city.

After many years of seeing Detroit schools controlled by state-appointed emergency managers, some Detroiters might be wary of mayoral involvement in the schools. It’s too early to say how well Duggan’s ideas will go over with educators and residents.

But he said his goal is to get people to work together, not to make anyone do anything.

“I’m not imposing myself on anybody,” he said.

Grading schools might be a controversial idea, especially considering that the city has many half-empty, low-performing schools. Some schools advocates might be worried that bad grades could be used as a basis to shutter some schools and allow others to stay open.

It’s also not clear that Detroit parents want a school grading system. A now-defunct nonprofit called Excellent Schools Detroit published school report cards for years using both test scores and other measures to grade schools. But few parents have used it.

Duggan, however, said when he pitched the report card idea to school leaders, they were on board.

“They said if the state gets behind it, we’d like to have you play that role,” Duggan said. “It was very interesting.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti introduced Duggan before the speech and returned to the stage afterward to hand the mayor a brick — a reference to people working together to build communities, each bringing their own brick.

“It’s about breaking down territorialism to do what’s right for children,” Vitti said.

Mayor Mike Duggan shows proposed school bus route that could bring students to district and charter schools in northwest Detroit.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.


Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”