Detroit Public Schools push to fill classrooms during critical student enrollment count period

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DETROIT — Getting students into classrooms on the day official enrollment counts begin has been a chore for Detroit Public Schools officials hoping to capture every dollar possible from the state in per-pupil funding.

The shrinking district has in recent years offered free breakfast and lunch, gift cards, pizza parties, vouchers for free school uniforms and even a chance to win a 42-inch plasma flat screen TV to students who show up on what some consider a day more important than the first day of school.

And in Detroit every student counts. Enrollment was 104,000 in 2007. It dropped below 100,000 the next year and was just under 49,000 last fall.

The district receives $7,296 from the state for each student officially enrolled. Like all public schools in Michigan, the per-pupil funding formula is based on the enrollment count period that starts Oct. 1 and another count early next year. Ninety-percent of the funding is based on fall enrollment counts.

Detroit expects to submit fall enrollment numbers to the state in a few weeks.

The district has conservatively budgeted for about 1,600 fewer students this year than last, spokesman Steve Wasko said.

It is anticipating a revenue drop of $49 million, but for the first time in six years is not expecting to close any schools.

"The only secure route to long-term fiscal solvency is enrollment stability, and the only way we will continue to attract students is by offering a superior academic product," said Jack Martin, the school district's third state-appointed emergency manager since 2009.

"In many cases, we do that, and our goal must be to ensure that we are lifting the academic rigor at all schools," Martin said.

The year-to-year budget deficit that topped $300 million in 2009 is now about $127 million. Nearly $256 million still is owed in long-term debt that finances deficits from prior years. That is not expected to be paid off until 2021.

Improving finances is one battle. Improving learning is another.

Detroit has ranked among the worst in the nation in standardized test scores and continues to trail students statewide in math, reading, science, social studies and writing proficiency on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests. But it's closing the gap in some areas. Eighth- and sixth-grade reading is up by double digits since 2010. Fourth-grade reading and writing also are up, Wasko said.

Every child in the district now has a learning plan, said Karen Ridgeway, superintendent of academics.

Where they stand will be clearer come spring when students across the state will be tested on how far they have improved since classes started this fall, she added.

Ridgeway said the district also is putting education into sort of a marketplace where students interested in certain careers or vocations have options. It offers programs in technology, medicine and community health, the arts, design and alternate energy, and communications.

It extended dual immersion bilingual programs into a ninth grade collegiate prep setting at its Academy of the Americas. The school is in southwest Detroit, which has a strong Hispanic community.

The school is expecting a 9 percent enrollment increase, which would push the number to about 800, said principal Nicholas Brown.

Students take most of their classes beginning in Spanish in the earliest grades and phase in more English in later grades.

The district also is opening workforce development centers to allow high school students to earn college credit, increasing the number of available seats for pre-kindergarten students and expanding arts and music programs.

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