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Unlike the city’s elite high schools, the three separate academies at Cody don’t have selective admissions, and the result, Matthews said, “is a certain feeling of inferiority.”

“But I tell our students that they have more grit,” he said. “We want them to be proud of what they’ve overcome.”


Detroit was a city of 1.8 million residents in the 1950s; today, it has about 700,000. The exodus has included many families seeking improved education. Since 2002, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has declined from 164,496 to about 49,500 in 97 schools now.

Meanwhile, the separate charter school sector has exploded. According to Excellent Schools Detroit, the city now has 116 charter schools serving 45 percent of K-12 students. That’s about the same share as DPS, which once served more than 80 percent of all students, and it’s one of the highest market shares for charter schools in any U.S. city.

Some of the charter schools and some DPS schools are top-notch, said Dan Varner of Excellent Schools Detroit, but overall he assessed educational quality in both sectors as “very poor.”

Budget-wise, Detroit’s bankruptcy doesn’t directly affect the public school system, a separate entity with its own taxing authority, revenues and governance. Nonetheless, DPS’ deficit is $94 million, and is projected to reach $120 million later this year.

Then there’s the academic scorecard. While DPS schools have improved their performance on state-run standardized tests, their showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remains abysmal.

In 2013, DPS schools ranked the worst among 21 major cities in the performance of 4th and 8th graders on math and reading tests. Just 4 percent of Detroit 4th graders and 3 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math, compared with 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in the average large city.

Nonetheless, DPS officials say the district is on the upswing. Current enrollment is little changed from the fall of 2012 - notable given annual enrollment losses of more than 10 percent over much of the past decade.

Since there are far more classroom seats than school-age children these days, individual schools have been competing fiercely to attract students.

“Nobody is managing the market,” said Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network. “You’ve got every Tom, Dick and Harry coming in and trying to snatch kids from other schools.”

For parents, the multiplicity of options and the hard-sell tactics can seem overwhelming.

“How do I make the best choice for my child? What parent can do all this research?” wondered Arlyssa Heard, a 43-year-old single mom of two sons. “At the beginning of the year, everyone puts on a good show about how wonderful the curriculum is … It’s not until the end of the year, you realize it’s more of the same.”

Heard’s older son, 18, needed remedial courses at the start of community college. Her 8-year-old son, a third grader at DPS’s Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has struggled in a class with nearly 40 students, she said.

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