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Detroit Academic Plan Focuses on College Readiness

A $540 million new academic plan unveiled Monday night for Detroit's public schools seeks to dramatically accelerate the performance of students in what has been called the nation's worst school district.

The plan places a high premium on rigorous standards and opportunities to make sure Detroit students can take advantage of a college education. Having thousands of graduates with such a skill set could be critical to the survival of Detroit, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and has ranked at the top of unemployed metropolitan areas several times in the past year.

"The jobs that are available in our community require a skill level that many people who live here do not have," Carol Goss, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a Detroit philanthropy that works extensively with schools, told me last week. "We have to be successful. We don't have a choice."

Emergency Financial Manager Robert C. Bobb presented the plan to the Motor City with his team, which includes Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former Cleveland superintendent who is managing academics in Detroit. It draws on their work, as well as thorough reviews of the district undertaken by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools and a review team reporting to Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, who appointed Bobb to the spot last spring.

By 2015, the plan calls for all Detroit students to be proficient or better on Michigan's state exams and for the district to have a graduation rate of 98 percent—a 40 percentage-point increase from the current 58 percent graduation rate.

That would represent a real upward climb for the district, especially at the high school level. Last year, 34 percent of high schoolers passed the state reading test and just 16 percent passed the math test. Scores for elementary and middle school students are better and improved last year, according to results released last week.

Another target (highlights here) is curbing the number of students being retained in a grade. Nearly a quarter of high school freshmen were retained in the 2008-09 school year. By the 2014-15 school year, the goal is to reduce that number to just one percent, helping to reduce dropouts and boost the graduation rate.

With a goal of having all students apply and be accepted to colleges, the Detroit academic plan places a focus on higher-level coursework, including boosting the number of students using the dual enrollment program or enrolled in Advanced Placement classes by more than fivefold.

The effort pairs well with a new initiative launched last week by a group called Excellent Schools Detroit, comprised of philanthropies and city leaders, including Bobb and Mayor Dave Bing. That group released a $200 million transformation plan that focuses not just on traditional public schools, but also the city's charter and private schools.

It wants to create dozens of new schools, especially at the high school level, and create a citywide standards commission that would set goals for all city schools and issue a report card each year that would aid parents in choosing the best school for their children. You can read more about that effort, and transformations underway in Kansas City, Mo., and Cleveland, in my story in this week's issue of Education Week.

In part because the still-growing deficit is a real issue—and the reason Bobb was hired in the first place—the district will close another 45 schools this year as part of the plan. Bobb closed 29 schools last year.

How much of either of these Detroit plans will come to fruition, and how long they will be followed, is an open question. As the Detroit Free Press notes in its story, Bobb and the school board are locked in a legal battle over whether he should be allowed to make academic decisions.

Absent collaboration, some believe his plan is illegal. Gov. Granholm supports Bobb making academic decisions, but the community remains split on who should control the troubled school system.

The school board and its superintendent released their own plan in July that included individualized learning plans for students. The two sides, who were recently scolded by the state's superintendent, have signaled some willingness to work together.

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