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November 2009

Educators should count on data

Today I read this headline in the Detroit Free Press: “School districts study enrollment drops.” The article talked about how school officials in Southfield and Romulus have created committees to study their shrinking student populations and to consider the ramifications. Will they have to close schools? Eliminate programs? Re-purpose their buildings? How can they cut staff while still guaranteeing good student outcomes?  

If you focused only on daily news reports, you’d think that Detroit and other urban districts were the only ones losing students—and the valuable state grant that comes with each pupil. We here at the Detroit-Area Community Information System have done an analysis of public school student enrollment across 83 districts in the tri-county area. We know that districts like Detroit, Southfield and Romulus aren’t the only districts in trouble…and the trouble didn’t just sneak up on us.

While we can blame the current recession for some of this loss, the demographic changes started occurring long before 2001. Our population—particularly younger families—has been moving from our urban core to the suburban townships, while births have been dropping across the region since 1990. Detroit births dropped by nearly half between 1990 and 2007.  For many southeastern Oakland County communities, only about one in five households have school-aged children.

More recently, 46 districts experienced decreased enrollment since 2005. A total of 53,053 students have left public schools in the tri-county area (2/3 from Detroit) in the past three years.  There were actually 36 districts that gained population (one held constant), but they accounted for an increase of just 11,170 students. *

Charter schools were the winners in each county, adding 743 students in Macomb, 1,214 in Oakland and 7,618 in Wayne.  The net for our area is a loss of 32,308 students in the last three years!

It’s great that districts are now trying to be pro-active as they face serious declines in their student populations. But this is also a teachable moment for us statisticians. It’s time we made data more available to school officials, city planners and policy makers. It may feel like our public schools are now being hit by a tsunami, but it’s really a tidal wave that has been a decade in the making.


* Our data came from the Center for Educational Performance and Information

Detroit Economic and Social Development Doesn’t Have to be a Big Gamble

Last week, we rejoiced when Joe Cada, a 21-year old from Chesterfield Township, won the World Series of Poker Championship in Las Vegas and brought home $8.55 million. One week later, 22-year old Tim Conrad from Taylor won the eighth annual Yahoo! Rock Paper Scissors World Championship in Toronto, taking home $7,000. Just think, the Detroit area is $8,557,000 wealthier today than it was eight days ago and all it took was two people playing games of chance.

I’m happy for this two-man kick for our economy, but of course, we don’t want to depend on chance to spawn economic growth and social development. That’s why we here at the Detroit-Area Community Information System (D-ACIS) are committed to making data available to everyone from block club captains to urban planners. Instead of playing guessing games, our legislators, planners and policymakers can rely on current, trustworthy data to budget for basic services and predict future needs.

Just last month, the Urban Institute selected Detroit to join only 33 other cities that are creating sophisticated, accessible data-sharing networks to help citizens and governments address community problems. Together, the cities form the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership that tracks vital information, including births, deaths, crime, health status, educational performance, public assistance and property conditions. As a member of NNIP, D-ACIS will also be able to compare data with other cities facing similar problems.

Good data can take the guesswork out of planning for the future. Some things just aren’t worth the gamble.

National Community Activist Has Hopes for Detroit

The first panel of the day consisted of Otis Johnson Mayor of Savannah, GA; Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ (and star of the Sundance Channel’s documentary, “Brick City”); Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD; and Adolfo Carrion, Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs.  Two of the panelists — Johnson and Sims–were there during the civil rights struggles; the other two, recognized that many battles remain to achieve equality of opportunity for all children.  I was inspired and overwhelmed by the knowledge that the White House brought both generations into its circle and allowed them to tell their stories.

Several messages came to me loud and clear in that session:

1.  Excellence does not exist in a vacuum.

2.  We tend to operate in a “State of SEDENTARY AGITATION.”

3.  We all know what the problems are, but yet we all continue working in different directions.

4.  We need to articulate a SHARED SET OF VALUES for our city and region.

5.  A Zip code should just be an address,  NOT a predictor of life outcomes.

6.  The only impediment we have is ourselves.

I was fortunate enough to join Geoffrey Canada (pictured), founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, on an elevator ride in the hotel.  After a “fawning” hello, I told him that I was sorry to have missed his presentation at the Independent Sector conference in Detroit last week – November 6.

He responded with, “I am rooting for Detroit.”  I assured him that WE ALL ARE!

The Hope of Promise Neighborhoods

About 1,400 individuals from around the country, representing community planning teams from well over 100 cities, have come to New York City this week to learn more about Promise Neighborhoods, a federal initiative based on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is an anti-poverty program that has created amazing outcomes for children. The Promise Neighborhoods initiative has learned HCZ’s “secret weapon:” you’ve got to support children from the womb through college. President Obama is now calling on the formation of 20 Promise Neighborhoods. I traveled to New York to find out what this model could mean for Detroit.

Yesterday (Monday, Nov. 9) began with opening remarks from Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of Policy Link and Melody Barnes, director of President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. Barnes described how departments are being aligned around urban and metropolitan agendas.

A series of four workshops surrounded inspirational talks by Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express, and Geoffrey Canada, the driving force behind the Harlem Children’s Zone. We finished the day with an after-dinner speech by a true American treasure – Marian Wright Edelman, CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund and an icon in the historical fight for civil rights and children’s rights.

While the day was inspiring, my take away was the drumbeat around data, accountability, measurement, outcomes, results, metrics, etc. That’s what D-ACIS is all about: How can we measure the effectiveness of good ideas?

My favorite quote of the day came from an HCZ Board member – “This is a bad place to be average!”

I’m looking forward to sharing with you what I learn today.