STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

In Detroit, how much school choice is too much?

Things are settling down at the Anderson’s house in Northwest Detroit. The two high-schoolers are doing homework and talking to their parents. Like at least 10% of Detroit's kids, they go to charter school outside Detroit. Their mother, Dorothy Anderson said she made her school choices in part because of the bad experience her son had at his neighborhood school. 

"He was waiting for the bus to go home," Anderson recounts." And he was jumped by a gang of boys. When he tried to get back into the school the security guard wouldn't let him back in. And the school never made a report. It was a huge mess." 

Anderson pulled her son out of the Detroit Public Schools the next day and never considered sending her younger children to DPS schools. Like many parents, Anderson opted out of the neighborhood school over things like quality and safety. But she said choosing another school was a big job, especially when it came time for high school. "It was a huge challenge. A lot of legwork," she said. "Honestly, looking for a high school for them was as much time as we're spending looking for colleges."

Anderson says she might consider Detroit if she had to go through the process again. But, she would need a way to know which schools were really good. 

That's what Dan Varner wants to provide for parents with his nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit. I met Varner at a cleverly converted tomato factory. It now houses preschoolers and grades Kindergarten through 8 at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, or DEPSA. 

Excellent Schools Detroit puts out a scorecard of all the schools in Detroit, hoping to help parents be better education consumers. DEPSA is one of the 51 schools out of 228 that earned a "recommended" ranking by getting a “C” or better on the score card. No school got an "A". It’s not great news. But Varner thinks in general, it’s good that there are choices outside the neighborhood.

"High wealth and middle class families have been conscious consumers of education for a long time," he said. "Folks buy a home based on where they think they'll get a high quality education for their kids." The truth is in Detroit we've not given poor kids the same opportunity."

But now kids in Detroit do have choices, so Varner thinks they also need information about which schools are good. But information can only take you so far. DEPSA does well on Varner’s scorecard and has a good reputation. Even so, only about 30% of the kids here come from the neighborhood. Maybe it’s because kids didn’t get in through the lottery system, or maybe it’s because there’s not an easy way to get to school.

"Looking out the windows of the cafeteria here there are more empty lots than full lots." Varner says as he points outside the school. "So safe routes to school, transportation to school---all those things have to be rethought in this ecosystem given what it looks like today."

That ecosystem looks like a place with a lot of school choices. But education policy in Detroit seems to have stopped at providing those choices. There is not always a way to sort through them or for kids to take advantage of the best ones. And if that’s true the number of choices seems to count for less.

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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