Detroit's 'Count Days' Entices Student Attendance

fromWDET

A lucky student in the Detroit Public Schools system will win a 42-inch flat-screen TV. It's one of many prizes administrators use to help increase attendance. Wednesday is one of two so-called "count days" in Michigan — the day enrollment numbers are tallied and sent to the state to determine funding.

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A lucky student in the Detroit Public Schools is going to win a 42-inch, flat-screen TV today - not for grades, just for showing up. The TV is one of many prizes the school administrators are using to increase attendance. Today is one of two count days in Michigan when enrollment numbers are tallied and sent to the state to determine funding.

In Detroit, where the public schools are wrestling with a staggering deficit, more than $250 million, a count reflecting every possible student is more important than ever.

Noah Ovshinsky of member station WDET has this report.

NOAH OVSHINSKY: It's the afternoon before count day, and for the students of Detroit's AL Holmes Elementary, school is out. It's a little past three o'clock, and Head Start teacher Nina Shirley is passing her students to their guardians. As relatives sign for the kids, Shirley is quick with a plug.

Ms. NINA SHIRLEY (Teacher, AL Holmes Elementary): We've been reminding parents, we've been promoting count day since the first day of school. Our students started on the 14th, and from that day on, we've been encouraging this every day, letting them know how important it is, how important it is to their students that their child is counted on count day.

OVSHINSKY: Nekilea Boren(ph) says she is well aware count day is coming up. As a district employee with two daughters attending AL Holmes, she'll make sure her kids are in school.

Ms. NEKILEA BOREN (District Employee): We need a lot of supplies and things for our children, and it's very important that they get counted so that we can get funds for them so that they can have new books and whatever other things that the district needs.

OVSHINSKY: Every year on the fourth Wednesday after Labor Day, public school districts throughout Michigan count their students. In Detroit, each student is worth about $7,500 in state aid. With that much money at stake, the district has been hard at work trying to increase enrollment.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. BILL COSBY (Comedian, Activist): A Detroit public education is free, but invaluable. Detroit Public Schools - I'm in, and you should be, too. Call this number to learn more.

OVSHINSKY: That, if you couldn't tell from the voice, is Bill Cosby. The comedian-activist recorded several commercials for the Detroit Public Schools. The ads are part of what district officials call the I'm In campaign. Hoping to reverse years of enrollment declines, the schools deployed mobile billboards, lawn signs, even hired a plane for skywriting to reach out to parents and their kids.

To sweeten the deal, individual schools offer a variety of incentives. At AL Holmes Elementary, it's a free dress day. Principal Delores Harris says there are other inducements.

Dr. DELORES HARRIS (Principal, AL Holmes Elementary): I give away a bicycle every year, gift cards every year, and the district is supporting us more this year than ever with the giveaways that they're having for the students - more incentives.

OVSHINSKY: A district-wide raffle promises iPods, laptops and that 42-inch, flat-screen TV. Principal Harris says the incentives don't bother her.

Dr. HARRIS: They're children. They're not little soldiers. And we were kids once. So I don't see anything wrong with incentives or treats to try to convince children to do or be on the track that you want them to be on.

OVSHINSKY: Unlike many states with numerous count days, Michigan only has two, and experts say it's that system that invites incentives. Having more could actually produce a better overall picture of enrollment, but don't tell that to the kid who wins the 42-inch TV just for going to school today.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.

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