Lori Higgins, The Detroit Free Press
The Cerveny-Grandmont, Chadsey and Finney neighborhoods in Detroit have a troublesome similarity when it comes to schools: A report out Thursday cites them among 10 areas of the city where it's almost impossible to find a quality school.
The report was released by IFF, a Chicago-based nonprofit community development financial institution with an office in Detroit.
Researchers from IFF found the problem is deeper than just those 10 neighborhoods: Only 20% of the children enrolled in a public school in the city – whether charter or traditional public – are attending a quality school.
"The fact that four out of five kids in this city" are not attending a quality school "is pretty horrifying to me," said Chris Uhl, executive director of the eastern region for IFF, which includes Michigan and Ohio. "That ... should catalyze action."
Meanwhile, the report notes that nearly half of the space in school buildings in the city is underutilized.
Rounding out the top 10 neighborhoods most in need of quality schools: Vernor-Junction, Evergreen, Harmony Village, Mackenzie, Greenfield, Brooks and Mt. Olivet. Six of the neighborhoods are clustered on the city's east side.
IFF – which has done more than a dozen similar reports in cities and states across the nation – spent about two years conducting the study, and was guided by an advisory board and peer reviewers that included officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District, charter school leaders and other education advocates.
"The district agrees that it is time to implement a process to ensure that all communities are served by higher performing schools and have access to them in every neighborhood," Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD superintendent, said in a statement Thursday.
Vitti noted that the district has committed to conducting a facility review, expected to be completed by the end of the school year, to "determine the cost to bring each school to the educational standard our children deserve."
When that district review is complete, he said, the district "will engage our parents and communities over the upcoming years," to determine the best way to rebuild feeder patterns in every neighborhood to increase things like student achievement, building utilization and building quality.
The researchers used enrollment and academic data from the 2015-16 school year to conduct a supply-and-demand assessment of the needs in the city. The findings, officials with IFF say, should help leaders boost access to quality schools and to be more strategic around the placement of schools and investment in existing school buildings.
"This is more of a tool to guide investment decisions. It's not something that's meant to sit on a shelf," Uhl said.
A key recommendation: More coordination is needed between leaders of the DPSCD and the authorizers of charter schools. Currently, only Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are authorized to open new charters in the city, but there are a number of other authorizers with schools in the city.
The recommendation is similar to one of the recommendations made last week in a complementary report released by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.
The IFF researchers identified quality schools using the state's often murky and now defunct color-coded school accountability system, which is being replaced beginning in 2018.
As part of that old system, schools were assigned one of five colors based on how well students met academic goals - with green being the best and red being the worst. For the purposes of the research, IFF identified a quality school as one that received the top two colors of green or lime. In Detroit, there were 178 general education public schools in the city during the 2015-16 school year. Of them, just 28 received a green or lime color.
Few schools statewide, though, were assigned those colors: Just 2.4% received a green and 38.3% received a lime color. A large chunk of schools statewide – 43% – received yellow, the middle color.
The report points to what the researchers consider limitations with using the state accountability ratings. Uhl reiterated that in an interview this week, saying it was the only system available. It's been the biggest source of pushback from those who've seen the report.
"It's a snapshot in time with a tool that's less than perfect," Uhl said. "We were using the system that was available.
Vitti raised an additional concern in his statement.
"Our fear is that this report will not be used to challenge the status quo of unregulated expansion of schools with limited to no accountability for quality or the need to demonstrate that there is a gap to fill empty seats in particular neighborhoods."
Instead, Vitti said, the concern is that the report "will be manipulated to continue the blinded view that closing schools is a school improvement strategy."
Both Uhl and Allen, in interviews earlier this week, said that isn't the intent of the report. Allen, in particular, said closing poor-performing schools "is not effective," and "has not improved quality." The hope, she said, is that school leaders will make "deep investments," in those schools to improve them.
The report highlights a reality often faced by parents in the city searching for a good school to enroll their children: Too few of them exist.
The report says Detroit needs nearly 70,000 more seats available in quality schools to ensure that every child has access to such a school.
"We're not meeting the demand, which leaves us vulnerable to leakages - for students to leave the city to go to school in the suburbs," said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Founation, which funded the research.
Allen said that a few years ago, 25,000 children living in the city were enrolled in suburban schools. That number is up to 28,000 today, she said.
"The best way to attract families is to ensure we have high quality options in Detroit," Allen said.
And while the dearth of quality schools may not be surprising given the overall low performance of public schools in the city, Allen said some may not expect to see some of the neighborhoods on the list.
"Many of these neighborhoods have a ton of choice, but a limited number of quality choices," Allen said.
Allen is one of the five co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a wide-ranging group of leaders who have worked to improve education in the system. The coalition's initial report, released in 2015, helped drive changes in the district and ultimately led to the legislation that resolved the crushing debt experienced by the city's school district and returned local control to the district after years of state control.
Allen said that an earlier but similar IFF report on early childhood education in the city highlighted some of the same neighborhoods as being high-need.
Both reports, she said, "create a road map for (charter) authorizers and school district leaders to ... focus on investment in those places."
The idea of coordination between charter school authorizers and DPSCD isn't a new one. But it is increasingly coming up recently. That's despite the intense competition for students between the two sectors.
"Throughout the country, cooperation between district and charter schools has had tangible benefits for both sectors," the report says, citing cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland having effectively coordinated in areas such as school improvement and facilities.
"No formal district-charter compact exists in Detroit, and cross-sector coordination has been inconsistent at best in the Motor City," the report says.
Allen and Uhl said the point isn't forcing the sectors to collaborate. Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are the only two authorizers currently allowed to open new charters in the city.
"I'm not suggesting they need to like each other or share their secret sauce. I'm suggesting that they be transparent about issues that have a greater impact beyond their individual school systems," Allen said.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins