Worst of Detroit schools to be moved to new system

The worst of Detroit's schools will be pulled out of the district — which the nation's top education official calls the "bottom of the barrel" — and placed in a new system that gives principals and staff more control over spending, hiring and improvement efforts, state officials announced Monday.

The overhaul is meant to help address problems in a debt-plagued district where nearly one in five students drops out. While the Detroit Public Schools has had a state-appointed emergency financial manager for two years, the current one said there's only so much that can be done without more radical change.

"The system is broke and I can't fix it, and you can't fix it," Roy Roberts said at a news conference where he and the governor announced the plan.

As many as 45 schools could be moved to the new system in the fall of 2012. Principals will be in charge of hiring teachers, and they and their staffs will handle day-to-day operations.

The new system won't have a central administration, and after the Detroit school board gave Roberts' predecessor problems, it won't have one of those either. Instead, oversight will come from a public-private authority with an executive committee chaired by Roberts. With layers of management cut out, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said he expects more money to flow directly into the schools.

Eastern Michigan University is partnering with Detroit on the plan and will train teachers hired at the new system's schools.

If the plan works, it could be expanded to other troubled districts in Michigan. It is partly modeled on New Orleans, where most public schools were taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005. Louisiana, in turn, handed many of the schools over to independent charter organizations. Standardized test scores released last month showed modest improvements in the number of New Orleans students with the skills needed to move to the next grade. For example, 64 percent of the restructured schools' fourth-graders were ready for promotion this year, compared to 58 percent last year.

Detroit students consistently score well below state averages on standardized tests, and thousands have fled to suburban schools and charters inside and outside the city. The district's enrollment has dropped from 104,000 in 2007 to 74,000 this year and is projected to bottom out at 56,000. And, with a $327 million budget deficit, improvement has been slow.

"By any measure, Detroit is at the bottom of the barrel as far as education," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said via webcast during the news conference.

"We're not trying just to save children and the public school system, we're trying to save the city of Detroit," he continued. "The city has no viable future if the status quo is allowed to stand."

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he spoke with Roberts about the new plan Sunday, and it appears Roberts and Snyder are willing to work with the union to get this done.

"The concept we can't argue with," he said. "We have to accept the fact that we have to narrow the achievement gap."

Schools in the new system will have longer school days and longer academic years. The plan's promise of stepped up academics and stronger teachers should appeal to parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, which works with Detroit schools to improve parent involvement.

"We've seen many plans before," Buckman said. "What makes the school is not necessarily the system. It is the high-quality teachers. It is the high-quality leaders, and it is highly involved parents across the city to take ownership of their children — and maybe even a few more — that makes great schools."

Meanwhile, more than 20 of Detroit's 141 public schools are slated to close in the next two years to save money as enrollment drops. Roberts said he hopes to sell bonds to reduce much of the district's current debt and then pay those off over time.

Snyder also announced Monday the creation of a program to raise money to help Detroit students attend college. It would be modeled after the anonymously funded Kalamazoo Promise program, which provides scholarships for that city's residents to attend state universities and community colleges.