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New Student Dispersion Tools

Just as longer commutes can have detrimental effects on adults, it reasonably follows that longer school commutes may have such effects as an increase in stress, tardiness and obesity rates on our youth. Conversely, in areas where housing patterns concentrate poverty and race in a neighborhood, longer commutes outside those neighborhoods might improve student outcomes. Though it is not yet clear just how school commute distance effects student performance, what is clear is that Detroit students and families are exercising their choice. Given the potential problems and benefits, where do these patterns exist and how might schools and families adapt?

For the first time, in partnership with The Skillman Foundation, Excellent Schools Detroit and Great Gains, Data Driven Detroit was able to perform our student dispersion analysis with data covering all publicly funded schools in Detroit*. The Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), working with the Michigan Center for Shared Solutions (CSS) provided Data Driven Detroit unidentifiable enrollment data and census block codes approximating student residence location from the fall of 2013. CEPI also provided information for students attending schools in the Cities of Warren, River Rouge, Southfield, Hamtramck and Highland Park. This summary analysis is the most comprehensive student dispersion analysis D3 has done to this point in terms of breadth of schools, and includes data from more than 141,000 students and 300 schools!

Student Dispersion map of Chrysler Elementary School Student Dispersion 13-14_Western International High School

Student dispersion map examples: Chrysler Elementary School and Western International High School

The Detroit Context

Educational reforms in Michigan have broadly opened up public grade school options and resulted in a complicated school environment where families have many choices, near and far, in where to send their kids to school.

Detroit’s school context is dynamic, if not chaotic, where several schools may open and close year to year, and where there are a number of different public school systems serving students, including suburban schools of choice, charter schools (Public School Academies), the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system, and the state-run Educational Achievement Authority (EAA). With more options, inconsistent transportation, school openings and closings, and other reasons, some students may find themselves, either by choice or necessity, with a more difficult commute. Because of this complex environment, it is not well understood just where youth from different parts of the city choose to attend school and how far they go.

The way students in Detroit are dispersed may have many important implications of interest for educators and planners.

  • Which schools have the longest commutes for students? Which schools fail to draw students outside their neighborhood, and why?
  • Are there parts of the city that have a stronger local draw?
  • Are there parts of the city whose students are more mobile?
  • Are certain students drawn to DPS schools vs. charter schools vs. the EAA schools?
  • How can future transit decisions be made that help students get to the schools that they attend?
  • If schools create neighborhood identity and community by causing local youth to attend classes together, are there neighborhoods that might be disproportionately affected because students aren’t attending local schools?
  • In schools that have further average commutes, how can educators help mitigate those students’ further commutes?

Data Driven Detroit is now making available a couple of new resources to help explore this data. First, our new interactive map allows users to view the locations of schools by type or level and then download digital maps showing the dispersion patterns of each individual school. In addition, we have calculated the average student commute distance for every public school in Detroit and summarized our results in a brief report.

While these data and map resources will not answer these questions on their own, we hope that these tools are useful to researchers, policy makers and educators as they make plans and formulate policy to improve the educational environment in the city.

New Resources

Student Dispersion Maps
D3’s student dispersion maps show the patterns of where students who attend certain schools live. Our tool allows users view maps of any publicly funded school from across the city by level, type, or by searching by name. These maps reveal spatial patterns that would be impossible to understand without this type of visualization.


Commute Distance Summary
The commute distance summary report helps to quantify just how far students from different schools are traveling, and how different types of schools compare against each other. This summary is meant to help educators understand the commute burden placed on their students and assist administrators in planning for school location. The summary lists the average distance for each public school. In addition, the school locations from our study, complete with average distance information, are available as a GIS shape file or table from Data Driven Detroit’s Open Data Portal  (Search for “commute”).

Next Up
D3 will be following up this blog post in the near future with two more blogs on this topic. The first will take a deeper look at a few interesting dispersion pattern maps.  The second will take a closer look at the average commute distance analysis.

Since this analysis elicits more questions than answers, D3 is hoping to continue its analysis of student location data. Through our partnership with ESD and CEPI, we are expecting to get a more complete data set including not just students that attend Detroit publicly funded schools, but also Detroit residents who attend schools outside the city. As a large percentage of Detroit youth do attend school in the suburbs, this next data set should draw a much more complete picture.


 * Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School was mistakenly excluded from the data set delivered to Data Driven Detroit.

4 responses to “New Student Dispersion Tools”

  1. […] Because the education landscape continues to be a topic of much discussion, we recently put an approximated student location data set to good use by creating an interpolated model showing where Detroit public school students are […]

  2. It’s great to see more schools and districts using their data (outside of test scores) to see a snapshot of not only how their students are performing, but why they may be having trouble. Your research on student dispersion is crucial to understanding how commute impacts learning. How has this research changed the landscape of Detroit schools since it was published?

    • I believe that organizations dedicated to changing the educational landscape for Detroit kids (such as Excellent Schools Detroit and The Skillman Foundation) have integrated some of the findings of the dispersion research into their planning. However, I am not sure how it has concretely affected anything to this point. I know that a lot of emphasis has been put on supply and demand analysis, and perhaps the dispersion work has informed that. I believe the over supply issue, and the financial difficulties with schools have been the most pressing issues that people are looking at.

      We’d definitely like to see more come out of the dispersion data set, but I don’t believe there has been much concrete policy to this point. Perhaps individual schools are using it to target students in under represented areas, but we just don’t know for sure.