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City Kids: Putting a laser focus on high achievement (part I)

How do we get public education in Detroit to the next level? It's happening now, though some of the highest performing schools fly under the radar. Amy Kuras reports that good work is getting done: we just need more of it.
Here’s a scene that goes down at just about every party attended by Detroiters over about 35: Somewhere after the first bottle of wine is emptied, the topic turns to Detroit’s recovery. There’s tons of creative energy pouring into the city and people are starting businesses, buying houses and just generally making Detroit a cooler place to live at a furious pace.

But those of us who’ve been around long enough to see other recoveries come and go can’t help but notice one inescapable fact: Many of these newly minted Detroiters are, well, young. Young enough that starting a family is well in the future. And always, the question, asked in doubtful tones, is this: "Will they stay once they have kids and have to deal with schools?"

Finding quality schools is a challenge for Detroit parents, but the one thing we all share is that we support our schools and want them to have the resources to do the best possible job, says Sharlonda Buckman, director of the Detroit Parent Network. "You won’t find one time where a school issue has come on the ballot and hasn’t passed," she says. "The other thing, though, is that we need to stop accepting excuses. We have to stop making excuses and just get it done, and believe that all kids can learn."

Buckman says that the schools that are doing a great job share a can-do attitude about the unique challenges of serving urban kids, whether they are private, parochial, charter or traditional public schools. They are proving that kids from even the most impoverished of backgrounds can thrive when planted in the right "soil" of high expectations, quality teachers and a positive school culture.

One model that’s having a great deal of success in many cities is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Its approach was featured heavily in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." Founded in Houston in 1994  by two young Teach for America volunteers, it provides high-quality teaching, longer school days, and an extended school year as well as Saturday programs.

KIPP director of public affairs Steve Mancini is quick to note KIPP has no plans to come to Detroit. Which is unfortunate, given their track record: More than 90 percent of the children who attend KIPP schools nationwide qualify for free or reduced price lunch (a measure schools use to determine the population of students they have from low-income backgrounds) and by eighth grade, 98 percent of KIPP students are outperforming their local districts in reading, and 90 percent in math. They have nearly as many students on waiting lists for their schools as are enrolled. And while only 8 percent of kids from the lowest income quartile achieve college graduation by age 25, 36 percent of KIPP alumni have. 

"We are investing parents and students with that collective mission in terms of getting kids to and through college," Mancini says. And he attributes that success not so much to any particular way that KIPP teaches their students, or their status as a charter school, so much as the fact they concentrate on recruiting and retaining the best teachers possible.

"Ultimately, it’s not charter school or district schools that are going to improve education," he says. "We are the adults, and what we try to do is stay laser focused on their goal." 

Teacher quality comes up again and again in discussions of successful schools -- not only finding and retaining talented teachers, but creating a environment where they feel respected and investing in their professional development. Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust Midwest, says the research supports that point.

"Teacher quality is the number one predictor of student achievement -- more than poverty, more than where a school is located," she says. "Successful schools understand it’s not just lip service. If you want to have great student learning you have to have great teachers, and value teachers and invest in them."

Equally as important as great teachers is strong leadership -- principals and district leaders who can inspire teachers to excellence and teachers who are willing an able to further that mission, Arellano says.

What those teachers teach is important, as well, says Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, which evaluates schools within the city. "Schools that are successful are places that have a college-going culture, where expectation is that you’re going to college and we will figure out a way to make you successful there and successful here -- we’ll get you to the next level no matter what," he says. "You just have to have these higher level of expectations of the academic potential and achievement of kids at your school."

Whenever two or more Detroit parents are gathered, the schools question comes up -- and that’s exactly the kind of conversations that will lead to better educational choices, Varner says. It’s important that Detroiters become savvy school shoppers -- a concept that probably never occurred to our parents, much less our grandparents.

"We have a handful of DPS schools doing good work, but that stays off our radar screens," he says. "Those schools should be bursting at seams -- they should be fully enrolled, and they are not, always. We really do need high performing schools fully enrolled, and that puts financial pressure on poor performing schools to close."

Quality education is not simply something that affects families -- it’s far more critical than that, Varner says. "We need to figure out how to move the educational system into the 21st century. It’s a Civil Rights issue in that the kids who we have not done well with are poor, black and brown kids."

(Editor's note: Let's stop right there and pick it up with part II of this report next week.)

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Read her most recent piece in the City Kids series here.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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