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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Detroit Public Schools are taking a big leap into the unknown. Over the next year or so, the system hopes to convert dozens of schools into charters. It's part of a last ditch effort to cut costs and stop plummeting enrollment. The plan faces skepticism from parents and teachers who are frustrated after previous reform efforts.

NPR's Larry Abramson has the first in a series of stories about the attempt to save public education in Detroit.

LARRY ABRAMSON: No one has ever done what DPS is trying to do, turn more than 40 schools into charters, some in just a few short weeks.

Greg Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says when the city first approached him with this idea, he hesitated.

GREG RICHMOND: I was concerned when I first heard about Detroit's ideas of starting a large group of charter schools this year, that they were trying to do too much too fast.

ABRAMSON: Richmond is helping to review applications from groups that want to run charters. He served the same role when New Orleans planted its own crop of charters after Hurricane Katrina. That was a tough challenge but, in many ways, Detroit faces even steeper odds.

New Orleans' schools were empty after the storm, Detroit's are not. Carstens Elementary is still open for business, though it is surrounded by vacant lots. Flight from this depressed area has robbed Carstens of more than one-third of its students in just five years.

Principal Janice Richardson says that's the only reason this school is slated to close.

JANICE RICHARDSON: Declining enrollment and a deteriorating building. But other than that, we're an achieving school and we're recognized as being high-performing.

ABRAMSON: The school's scores have been above the state average, at least until recently. But in a city facing a massive school budget deficit, enrollment numbers are all that matter. Now, there is a way out. Carstens could become a charter. Janice Richardson and her staff say, no thanks.

RICHARDSON: It would satisfy DPS. However, it wouldn't satisfy us. We would preferably like to remain a Detroit Public School.

ABRAMSON: For one thing, a charter school would sweep aside the school's union contract and pension benefits. But veteran teacher Barbara Haug is against charters for another reason. She believes they reject the struggling students who come to schools like Carstens.

BARBARA HAUG: They get the kids. They get the cash. And then a little bit after that, they're suddenly not a good fit anymore.

ABRAMSON: That's a common belief here. Some say it's a myth, since the law says charters must accept all students. But in a city in crisis, with only nine existing charters, suspicions are rampant, even among those who say they want to help the charter movement.

Unidentified Woman #1: What has compelled you to come to this session, learn a little bit more about charter public schools...

ABRAMSON: In a conference room in Detroit, about 50 people gathered last week to see if they could be part of Renaissance 2012, the upbeat name for the desperate effort to save the city's schools. Parents and community members show up for a daylong session, to learn about what it means to serve on the board of a charter school.

It's no party. Charter boards have to find a management firm, hire lawyers, work out contracts. It's all part of the unfamiliar model that practically turns each charter into its own school district.

Some in the audience don't seem to believe Angie Irwin of the National Charter Schools Institute. She explains that Michigan law treats charters pretty much like traditional public schools.

ANGIE IRWIN: Charter schools are required to administrator the same state tests as a traditional system in Michigan.

ABRAMSON: Many of these people are products of DPS. They seem stunned that the system that educated them is deemed a failure and in need of help from outsiders. They want to know...

ROBERTA PRICE: Why is the focus on charter schools? Why can't the traditional schools do this?

ABRAMSON: Roberta Price, an alum of the Detroit Public Schools, can't see why changing who's in charge will make a difference. DPS has some fine schools, others point out, competitive exam schools that attract the city's elite. During coffee breaks, there's a lot grumbling.

NORRIS: I am not giving up on DPS. I don't care what nobody says. I'm tired of hearing that bad rap about us.

ABRAMSON: To a city down on its luck, the plan to save schools comes across like a foreign government coming in and offering charity. But the passion over this issue shows that people here are committed, that they are here to stay.

Greg Richmond, of the Association of Charter Authorizers, says that shows the city is no longer in denial.

RICHMOND: Detroit has lost tens of thousands of students over the past decade. And people have realized they have to change the way they do things in order to turn that around.

ABRAMSON: Now, Richmond says the city needs to attract a dedicated cadre of school leaders and principals, the way New Orleans did. Bringing in new talent, without alienating the people who live here, is the next big hurdle.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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