In Detroit, Low-Performing Schools Get A Makeover

Michigan's governor announced a new reform program for Detroit schools Monday. The program creates a mini district for the city's lowest performing schools — and it works with university and private partners to improve schools and offer guaranteed college scholarships for city students. Detroit's long-troubled school system has been beset in recent years by financial mismanagement and declining enrollment. The district has already embarked on a plan to turn nearly half of its schools into charter schools.

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In Detroit today, officials announced a takeover of the city's worst schools. After years of budget deficits and low student performance, Michigan is trying a new approach, one that will focus on the worst-performing schools across the state.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the emergency action has the support of the U.S. Department of Education, but many Detroit locals are skeptical.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced what is essentially the creation of a new district for failing schools, the Education Achievement System. The EAS will absorb more than 40 of the worst schools starting a year from now, Snyder said.

Governor RICK SNYDER (Republican, Michigan): So the schools that are challenged will have an entire year to get prepared, to work on their own assessment to improve and, hopefully, not be part of that process, but if they are, to move into the 2012 school year.

ABRAMSON: The Education Achievement System will be headed by Roy Roberts, the same man now serving as emergency manager of the Detroit public schools. Roberts says schools in the new district will get much more autonomy, allowing principals to call the shots and control their own budgets.

Mr. ROY ROBERTS (Executive Committee Chairman, Educational Achievement System): It will allow principals to hire the best teachers; place, train and support them; therefore providing continuous improvement based on student need and nothing else.

ABRAMSON: The plan echoes the strategy used in New Orleans. Louisiana formed the Recovery School District to take over failing schools across the state. The effort will also borrow from a Michigan success story, the Kalamazoo Promise, which offered many students in that city a free trip to college if they qualify.

Roy Roberts says he's talking to donors about setting up a fund...

Mr. ROBERTS: ...to guarantee that all students who graduate from a high school in Detroit will have the financial resources to attend their choice of a two-year college or a career training school in the state of Michigan.

ABRAMSON: By focusing on the lowest achieving schools, Detroit is following the lead of the U.S. Department of Education. Secretary Arne Duncan appeared by videoconference at the announcement and emphasized that this is part of an effort to save not just the schools but the entire city of Detroit itself.

This ambitious plan comes after many other emergency measures to shake up the city school system, which has lost thousands of students in recent years and is running a huge deficit. The plan hopes to resolve that problem with new bonds.

One big question is whether the optimistically named Education Achievement System will truly inspire innovative schools or whether it simply replaces the ineffective central planning of the Detroit public schools.

Michael Tenbusch, of the local United Way, has been trying to bring autonomy to local high schools for years.

Mr. MICHAEL TENBUSCH (Vice President, United Way for Southeastern Michigan): You have to have a principal with the resources and ability to make decisions for the staff in his or her building. We think that's - without that, you don't get to success.

ABRAMSON: The announcement also seems to ignore another recent announcement: a plan to turn 50 city schools into charters in the next year or so.

Greg Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, has been helping Detroit review charter applications, but he was not consulted on this new plan.

Mr. GREG RICHMOND (President and CEO, National Association of Charter School Authorizers): But it's not clear to me yet what role, if any, charter schools will have in that new system.

ABRAMSON: That's another complication that's leading some to ask whether the Detroit schools have too many balls in the air at once.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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