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Detroit Strategic Plan Highlights Neighborhood-Centered Schools

Detroit school officials announced a new strategic plan yesterday that includes fewer school closings than anticipated, promotes its schools as neighborhood centers, and emphasizes early childhood education, art and vocational education, and expanded learning time for the district's 50,000 students.

Roy Roberts, the district's state-appointed emergency manager, said the plan was a response to competition from charter schools and suburban districts: The rapidly shrinking district had more than 164,000 students just ten years ago. A state-run agency, the Education Achievement Authority, also runs a number of schools in Detroit.

The new strategic plan was developed with close to 600 community members over the course of five weeks, Roberts said. The plan is called "Neighborhood-Centered, Quality Schools"—which, perhaps intentionally, frames the district's traditional public schools as a contrast to the city's growing charter school sector, which has resulted in parents sending their students to schools far from their neighborhoods.

Starting this fall, the district will expand its preschool programs to reach all four-year-olds, add parenting programs and life-skills training to its schools, and bring other services, including social workers and prenatal training, to some schools. It is also touting new "Career Academies" that will increase vocational education opportunities.

Fewer schools than anticipated will be closed this year: 28 had been on the cutting block, but only four of those will be closed. The district has said it will avoid displacing effective teachers and will set up a plan for rehiring those who may be displaced due to declining enrollment. Activists in the city had protested the proposed closings (the district has already closed many schools in the past decade). The district said the plan should help meet "the dire need to instill continuity and stability across DPS for both teachers and families."

Principals will also have increased autonomy in selecting their school's curriculum.

In a press release, Roberts said the competition with charter schools would force Detroit's regular public schools to be their best. "From this point forward we are planning to win," he said.

Roberts recently regained full authority as the district's emergency manager, having spent most of this year as an emergency financial manager (and engaged in legal battles with the district's school board). He announced that Karen Ridgeway would replace John Telford as the district's superintendent.

Detroit's schools are in need of some sort of improvement: Detroit students' state test results have dropped in recent years, and the financial crisis is still not resolved, according to Wayne State education professor Thomas Pedroni. This Detroit News article suggests that students' behavioral issues are presenting just as big a challenge as academic issues in the city.

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