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A 'funnel district' forms in Ferndale as students exercise school choice


Just north of downtown Detroit following Woodward Avenue is Ferndale. It's a community that cultivates an image as hip and edgy, for a suburb, and historically has been a first stop for families looking to leave Detroit.

Now, every school day hundreds of kids from Detroit travel up Woodward and many other routes on their way to Ferndale’s schools without their families needing to move.  Ferndale has been called a funnel district because of the traffic in and out of the district. Kids coming in from Detroit and some suburbs like Oak Park and Hazel Park make up one end of the funnel.

Exercising their ability to educate students from other districts under Michigan’s schools of choice policy, Ferndale has wooed Detroit students. The district has two high schools that cater almost exclusively to students from Detroit. One of them, University High, has 426 students only 7 of whom come from Ferndale.  

Visiting the school feels different than many Detroit Public schools. The building is small but well preserved and the first person I came across was the principal instead of a security guard. I caught  Bria Gregory walking down the hall on her way to class, wearing school colors in preparation for her volleyball game that night. Gregory said she never considered going to school in her home district of Oak Park. “It wasn’t challenging enough,” she said.

The ability to go outside their districts but still attend public school is a relief for many students and parents fleeing poor school options closer to home. But that choice can come with logistical challenges for parents and students, particularly transportation.  Seladin Fouche is from Detroit and the parent of a Senior at University High. Fouche said he picks up his daughter every day in his truck on a break from work and doesn’t seem to mind. He and his wife chose the school for their daughter because a teacher had a background in forensic science, the field she’s interested in pursuing.

Providing these education options for students from outside the district has caused tension in the town. The school board acknowledged this discontent last year and voted to lower its cap for school-of-choice students. Now, these students can only make up 15% of the school body in grades K-8.

The cap doesn't apply to the two high schools that cater almost exclusively to schools of choice students. As a result, the majority of students from other districts will be going to school inside the Ferndale district boundaries but will not be going to school with many students from Ferndale. 

The politics around schools of choice and the financial realities the district faces put Ferndale in a tough spot. School Board President Jim O'Donnell says each school of choice student brings about $7,700 with them into the district. Since Ferndale is losing population these students make a sizeable contribution to the districts bottom line. This year Ferndale enrolled fewer school-of-choice students than they had spots for, meaning the district lost about $200,000. But O'Donnell says these kids aren't just numbers, that Ferndale also wants to be a good neighbor and provide educational opportunity. 

Choice, however is a double edged sword. Though 10% of the kids in Detroit go outside the city for their education, double that percentage leave Ferndale's public schools every school day. Some of these students go to private schools or charter schools but many go to traditional public schools in fancier suburbs a little further away. 

The students leaving Ferndale make up the other side of the Funnel. O'Donnell says most families choose to leave the district before they even get started in it, that families make the choice before kindergarten in many cases. He calls it "aspirational migration," and says it describes parents coming into and leaving the district in the hopes that a better education is available someplace else. 

Amy Bevevino and Shane O'Dell bear out what O'Donnell describes. They live in Ferndale. But their daughter just started kindergarten in the next district over. They said they didn't base their decision on test scores although they did find those compelling. Instead they said the orientation in the other district "just blew Ferndale out of the water," seeming more organized and giving them an idea of what their daughter's experience would be like from kindergarten through graduation. 

Bevevino and O’Dell don't think Ferndale's schools are bad and they are careful to make this point repeatedly. They just wanted their daughter in the very best school they could put her in.

It's not a choice they said they made easily, and they  don’t want anybody to think they left because of Ferndale’s school-of-choice policy. They both support the policy and say they disagree with some of the ugly things they say they have heard about the schools opening their doors to kids from Detroit.

"I would say I feel almost guilty," Bevevino says. "I see little kids walking down the street to the bus stop and here we are driving our child away. Sometimes I second guess it a little bit." 

Visit our websitededicated to the first-hand accounts and news reports from this highly divisive, but critical moment in Detroit Public School history. 

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