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Dismantling failing schools right way to stem dropouts

Ohanian Comment: I have little doubt that something radical needs to happen in Detroit. But I wonder how changing the name and removing all the people who work in these schools will help. Where do the new people come from?

Doug Ross, the principal of the model school mentioned in this article, is a former state senator and served as assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. He has a number of articles describing his education plan on the Democratic Leadership Council website. Key to the plan is small classes (no more than 15) in small schools. Ross heads a high school of fewer than 200. 99% black; 58% free and reduced lunch, which seems low for Detroit.

In contrast, Henry Ford High School, one of the high schools slated to be restructured, has 2,210 students.

I suspect the real key to University Prep's success is its focus on individualized instruction. Kudos.

It could be that a huge shakeup is what is needed. Certainly, nothing else has been working for Detroit students.


The devastating news that three-quarters of students who enter freshmen classes in Detroit Public Schools aren't around on graduation day would be even more horrific had it fallen on deaf ears, as have past reports on the performance of Detroit schools.

But new school Superintendent Connie Calloway got out in front of the report from America's Promise Alliance with a surprise announcement that the district will dismantle five of the city's worst performing schools and replace them with smaller, innovative programs. Calloway is not talking cosmetic changes. The district will remove all of the principals and teachers, change the names of the schools and start over with a reform-minded strategy targeted at overcoming the challenges faced by many urban students.

It marks the most aggressive move made by the Detroit district to turn around a failing school system. Calloway is positioning Detroit to take advantage of a $300 million 21st Century Schools Fund proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to replace giant, urban school warehouses with smaller, responsive schools of about 400 students each.

While Detroit school officials are not likely to say so, the new schools will be patterned after the University Prep Academy and other Detroit charters that have achieved remarkable success by setting high performance standards and placing students in family-like environments.

It is the step Detroit must take to save a system that loses 5,000 to 10,000 students each year and this year may fall below 100,000 enrollment.

Calloway is already being criticized by those who question how the five schools were chosen, unions upset that teachers and principals may lose their jobs and parents whose children remain trapped in high schools that won't be part of the program.

But she is well-armed. The federal No Child Left Behind Act gives her the authority to restructure schools that fail to meet standards for six or more years. The five targeted schools qualify, as do most other Detroit schools.

She also is buoyed by the new dropout report. Detroit is holding on to just one in four of its high school students. The rest are either dropping out or choosing other education options. That's dismal.

Detroit schools have challenged the accuracy of such dropout reports in the past. But even if the graduation rate is twice what the Alliance reports, it is still an awful performance.

This level of failure demands a radical response.

Calloway's plan requires the five schools -- Cody, Henry Ford, Osborn, the Ford Ninth Grade Academy and Vetal Elementary -- be swept clean of all existing staff. Teachers will have to reapply for their jobs, but have no guarantee of returning. Administrators will be either reassigned or dismissed, but won't be allowed to return to their current schools.

The proposal to create the 21st Century Schools Fund is part of Granholm's budget package and is still being debated by the Legislature. Lawmakers should approve the fund.

High school dropouts consume a great deal of the state's resources. Forty percent of those receiving welfare are dropouts, as are 70 percent of Michigan prison inmates. Welfare and Corrections are the most rapidly growing segments of Michigan's budget. Aggressively tackling this problem benefits not just Detroit and other urban areas, but also taxpayers across the state who pay the bills when dropouts end up on welfare or in prison.

Calloway's plan is an important first step. She should move as quickly as possible to expand it to the rest of Detroit's failing schools.

— Editorial
The Detroit News


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