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Transforming Detroit

The poster district for urban woes unveils a bold plan to close schools while improving student performance. If it succeeds, Detroit will have the new blueprint for urban turnarounds.

In many ways, Detroit Public Schools is the ultimate example of a district in crisis. The school district has been slowly deteriorating for several decades, thanks to the triple whammy of shrinking enrollments, dwindling budgets, and low student performance. As Detroit's population declined, so did the tax base that supports the school district. Eventually, the lack of funding led many people who remained in the city to pull their children out of city schools in favor of private schools, charter schools, or public schools in nearby suburbs.

With the metro area still experiencing massive job losses stemming from the decline of the auto industry, the crisis came to a head in March 2009, when Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency financial manager to take control of the school district and develop a strategy for eliminating a budget deficit that was approaching $300 million. The governor appointed Robert Bobb, a veteran public administrator who served as city manager of Santa Ana, California, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a one-year term that has since been extended through March 2011.

With Bobb's controversial plan of massive school closings and restructurings finally taking shape, the big question that hangs over each and every decision is simple: Will this work? Can closing 27 schools while building or renovating others dramatically impact student performance? Will it become the new standard for urban turnarounds, or be just the latest attempt in a string of failures?

Reimagining School
The name of the plan created by Bobb and his team of national turnaround experts sounds like the type of report in every school office across the country: Detroit Public Schools Master Facilities Plan 2010-15. But the name isn't really even accurate. While the report does deal with closing schools, building some new ones, and renovating others, it really talks about reimagining the entire Detroit school system, from creating preK-14 schools to building a new STEM-based high school and creating new performance spaces within existing schools.

The plan has generated a fair amount of controversy, primarily because it called for closing more than 45 schools. (In early June, 18 schools were spared the wrecking ball.) But Bobb and his supporters say reducing the number of schools within the district is where the opportunity in this particular crisis lies, because it also allows for reinvention.

The plan details specific goals for student performance, including raising the district's high school graduation rate to 98 percent by the end of the five-year period. That would represent a 40 percent improvement over the district's current graduation rate, and put Detroit well above the national average.

Based on sheer numbers, the closing of schools seems unavoidable. As recently as 2002, the district served nearly 165,000 students. Enrollment for the current school year is 87,754 and the district projects that number to slide to 56,500 by 2015. "We have 50,000 excess seats across the district," says Steve Wasko, chief communications officer for DPS.

"When you have lost enrollment and only have 250 students in a building that once held 1,200, that is not efficient use of that school and school funds," Bobb told the Detroit Examiner. (The district will save money in back-office operations, too, he says. Just switching to private auditors can save up to $500,000.)

Expanding Successes
Wasko says the approach is a "true consolidation plan, not just a closure plan." And although this plan is getting a lot of publicity, the emergency financial manager has already proven his changes can work, according to Wasko.

"This actually is Bobb's second round of school closures," Wasko says, noting that a handful of schools were shuttered in the first year of Bobb's appointment.

"Our goal is to take successful programs that are operating in facilities that are either beyond repair or experiencing declining enrollment and move them into better facilities a few miles down the road, while keeping the components that made the programs successful in place. That would include the school's principal and staff."

As an example of how this can work, Wasko cited the merger of the high-performing John R. King elementary with a poor-performing middle school on the city's northwest side.

"We moved John R. King into the building of a school that probably had the worst reputation of any middle school in the history of Detroit," the communication officer says. "But instead of just moving new kids in there and saying, ‘We're changing the name,' we changed the makeup of the school. It now has grades preK through 8, all with the same emphasis on performance as the original John R. King elementary. Now people want to send their children to this school. It's become so successful that we're probably going to have to cap enrollment. Those are things we want to recreate whenever possible."

The All-Inclusive Campus
The 2010-15 master facilities plan calls for changing the makeup of numerous schools. A central element of the plan is eliminating middle schools in favor of the preK through 8 model to limit the number of times students have to experience the trauma of transitioning to a new school. The plan also calls for creating new preK through 12 schools, as well as some preK through 14 campuses that will bring college students into the mix.
Wasko says representatives of colleges and universities across the state of Michigan have expressed enthusiasm about the potential for offering classes in the Detroit school system, but some parents have voiced concerns about placing younger students in such an environment.

"The all-inclusive campus approach can be very innovative to the extent of having a mixture of kids," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "The biggest challenge to this model would be parental concerns, but it offers several advantages, such as the potential for older students to mentor younger ones."

Domenech is one of several national educational experts who have praised the Detroit school consolidation effort while acknowledging the inherent difficulties the administration will face in executing the plan. "Their goals are very optimistic," Domenech says. "Raising the graduation rate by 40 percent would be a challenge for any district, let alone one that is going through the turmoil Detroit is experiencing." Yet, he says, Detroit administrators are taking a sound approach. "They're taking advantage of a dire situation by making the necessary moves to save dollars. But at the same time, they're using this as an opportunity to look at educational programs and bring about some transformations to improve performance. That's a smart thing to do."

Domenech also applauds Detroit administrators for including facilities such as swimming pools and recreation centers in planned new schools. "Creating schools that can serve education, recreation, and other purposes will make the school the center of the community. That encourages people to support schools with their tax dollars."

Despite the opposition, Detroit residents have supported Bobb's plans so far. In November, they voted by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent to devote $500 million the city expects to receive in federal stimulus funds to building and renovating schools in accordance with this plan. Wasko says this support is a direct result of Bobb's efforts meeting with—and listening to—community members.

Straining for Acceptance
"We have held town hall meetings in the areas surrounding all the schools impacted by the consolidation plan," Wasko says. "Bobb also offered to go back and have meetings with smaller groups to discuss additional concerns, and he's done about 30 of those so far."

"The community vetting process is extremely important," Wasko continues. "By meeting with individual parents and small community groups, you learn so much more about what the community needs than by just reviewing census data or community development data." It was through these meetings that 18 schools were spared in early June from closing.

Despite these outreach efforts, not everyone in Detroit is happy with the consolidation plan.

Donna Stern, co-founder of a group called the Detroit Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, says Bobb's proposal is "not a consolidation plan, it's a privatization plan." She contends the public schools to be closed under Bobb's plan will be replaced by 75 charter schools that can "cherry-pick the best students while neglecting those that are the most costly to serve." Among other things, BAMN has staged sit-ins at the Michigan State Capitol building to protest the consolidation plan.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says such opposition should be expected. "Closing schools is a tough sell, even when the budgetary bottom line demands it. People are very attached to their schools. If it's a low-performing school, they want someone to come in and turn it around. Closing a school is the last thing a community wants."

Political Obstacles
Politics have proven to be an obstacle for Bobb, and not just at the community level. Members of the Detroit Board of Education, whose authority over the district effectively was stripped with Bobb's appointment, went to court seeking an injunction to halt the consolidation plan. They argued Bobb's strategy for eliminating the district's deficit overstepped his authority by including academic reforms.

In late April 2010, Wayne County Circuit Judge Wendy Baxter granted the board's request for an injunction, saying she wanted to hear from experts about whether Bobb's plan—which includes laying off teachers and cutting some classes, in addition to consolidating schools—will harm students. In early May, the state Appeals Court vacated the injunction.

Stern, the BAMN co-founder who also is an attorney representing the school board in this case, said a settlement conference was scheduled, but she doubted the issue would be resolved then. "I fully expect this case to go to trial," she says.

Bobb says he is "very sensitive to the fact that decisions surrounding the opening, closing, or consolidation of schools in neighborhoods have tremendous impact on ... entire communities. Changes of this magnitude—the kind of transformative change that must be undertaken to move Detroit Public Schools to top echelons of scholastic achievement—will not always be easy, but they are necessary for the success of our children."

Ultimately, although the results of the Detroit plan won't be clear for years, Loveless says it will be graded on three criteria: whether it actually saves money; whether parents and children are happy with their new schools and school assignments; and whether test scores show learning gains.

"The impact on the budget is easy to measure," Loveless says. "The other two are more difficult to quantify. But ultimately, district administrators always will be judged on how well kids are learning."

Wasko lists a quicker way the district plan can be judged. "If you can stem the decline in enrollment, give parents reasons not to exodus so quickly, or to even return to the district, that would be a measure of success," he says.

Of course, that's not likely to happen unless the other criteria for success that Loveless cited—particularly happy parents and children, and improved learning—are in place.


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