The ritual in which Detroit Public Schools officials engage in an all-out student roundup at the beginning of the school year, and then check back periodically to see if students continue to show up the entire semester, isn’t working very well. The momentum and attendance generated in September apparently aren’t sustained, and persistent absenteeism is not only costly, it raises a slew of troubling questions about the beleaguered district’s direction and viability.
DPS typically canvasses neighborhoods and sweeps shopping centers in an effort to attract students and scare truants into the classrooms. Some school administrators have offered cash and merchandise as lures.
A strong student count, of course, is essential to avoid a deepening of the district’s financial crisis. DPS gets close to $7,400 for each of its 66,000-plus students. The interventionist strategy, however, seriously skews the picture of attendance in Detroit schools.
The Michigan Department of Education has discovered that many students who initially enroll seem to disappear over time. In the past school year, DPS attendance dropped significantly below the state minimum in 46 days. This violates a state mandate that requires all districts to have at least 75 percent of students in school to receive their full per-pupil allocation for the day.
If these numbers hold up, they reveal a disturbing trend that could cost the financially troubled district up to $25.9 million. It wouldn’t be the first time the district has been docked for submitting hyped enrollment figures.
The forfeited amount could have other devastating consequences. State-appointed Emergency Manager Roy Roberts continues to wrest money from the state by singing the old “save our schools” song that a gloom-doom fiscal Armageddon is just around the corner. The district just completed a $244.9 million bond sale in an effort to shrink a $327 million budget deficit. But this infusion of bailout dollars only proves there is little relationship between student achievement and spending.
The disappearing mirage of students suggests that Detroit’s K-12 enrollment remains in free fall and underscores the fact that money isn’t the problem. Because Detroit schools are in such a mess after years of federal largesse and state bailouts is evidence that something is badly amiss that mere dollars won’t fix.
The problem is that too many kids simply don’t want to be in school — at least not in Detroit schools. Many have opted for charter, private or parochial schools. Those who aren’t in class anywhere aren’t learning — or at least aren’t learning the right things.
The DPS record continues to be one of widespread failure. The shrinking headcount is also confirmation that educators aren’t doing enough to create environments that entice students to commit to the Detroit system until they earn a diploma. More than half of all who stay long enough to graduate have neither the required courses nor the proficiencies in the basics to pass college entrance exams.
With few exceptions, spending flows into status quo programs. The school environment remains an unfriendly place to teach or learn. High absenteeism characterizes uninterested, uneducated students and a high dropout rate. Continuing enrollment declines will reduce facility needs even more.
The biggest obstacle to parental involvement is apathy, a problem faced by school officials in most urban school districts. All-out efforts also have been directed to parents with the intent to increase parental enthusiasm. Getting their attention is one thing — getting them to become active partners in learning is quite another.
Without a convincing plan for reforming Detroit’s schools, the reforms currently in place should be viewed with great skepticism. Successful schools are the result of a combination of supportive parents, high expectations, diversified curriculums and good teachers. These are school “choice” components that complement parents’ primary responsibility for helping children develop positive attitudes toward education and effort, cultural, ethical and social values that lead to productive and meaningful lives.
Choice is the ultimate attractive lure. Without more options for parents and students, Detroit is destined to continue its seemingly relentless march away from public school salvation — and toward becoming one of the most heavily taxed and educationally deprived districts in the nation.