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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

The Dropout Dilemma


Nov. 28, 2007
There are disagreements about just how bad the dropout rates are in many school districts. But what's being done to fix the problem?

The ninth grade is a critical year for determining whether a student will graduate high school.

That's why Detroit Public Schools has created ninth grade academies - like the one at the city's biggest high school, Southeastern.

Dedria Willis is the assistant principal in charge of the Ninth Grade Success Academy. She walks the hallways brandishing a yard stick, looking for after-the-late-bell stragglers, dress code violations, and troublemakers.

Willis says mixing these 650 ninth graders with the rest of the high school population would be a bad idea.

"They would be lost," she says. "You know, large building, four floors, hallways, ways for them to get into trouble and still be childish."

Willis says ninth grade is the year when many students lose focus, fail classes, or decide to leave school altogether.

So freshmen at Southeastern get their own building, their own administrator, and activities like gender-specific assemblies.

And for kids who are still a little lost, there's a safety net called Moving In a New Direction.

The MIND program targets kids who fail to make it through their ninth grade year with all the credits they need. Students repeat the classes they failed, and they take some tenth grade courses.

Willis says once kids start to realize they're not going to graduate on time, they often give up.

"Most of the time when students - and this is all over Michigan, maybe our country - once they get into the tenth grade and they're over age with not enough credits, they normally drop out," says Willis.

Charaf Rahal teaches English at Southeastern. She says last year, the program got about half the students back on track.

She says considering the home environments her students are coming from, that's a pretty good record. Rahal says many of her students don't sleep in the same house every night.

"If I send work home, it might end up at a different house, or it might end up with a grandma, whoever picks them up," she says. "It is hard life. It's just hard. They come here without breakfast. So I bring in bags of apples and I got a jar of peanut butter, so they get something."

Rahal says her students are typically reading at a fourth grade level. She says in a year, she can usually get them reading at the eighth grade level.

"If I can keep them in - keep them coming, keep them doing the work, they finish at 8th, they can go on to 11th grade and can function," says Rahal. "They won't be so far behind where they're going to give up."

It's too early to tell whether the ninth grade academies will put a significant dent in the dropout rate. Some estimates say three out of four ninth graders in Detroit don't graduate. So even if the ninth grade academies help, there will still need to be opportunities for kids who have dropped out to come back to school.

And that's where the district's "last-chance" schools for dropouts were supposed to step in.

"Students here been trying to come here since the beginning of the semester, and we still haven't gotten a full day of school yet," says Emmanuel Pillars.

Pillars dropped out of high school in 2006. Since then, he says a jobs program didn't work out for him, and he got kicked out of an alternative ed program last year.

So this program, called the Empowerment Academy, really could be Pillars' last chance at high school completion. But school didn't start in September, when he was told it would. It didn't start in October. And November isn't looking good either.

"I feel like, basically they're slapping me in the face," says Pillars. "They saying OK, I ain't gonna be nothing so we ain't gonna put anything in him."

On the day I visited, Emmanuel was one of several students milling around and sitting on tables.

There was one teacher in the room. But it was her first day, and she says she had no materials, and no direction about what to do with the kids. So she had them all sign in, then sent them home.

"It's been a catastrophe," says the school's founder, Reverend Richard Wilson.

Wilson has one of the four contracts awarded by Detroit Public Schools to run the dropout academies. He says the district didn't finalize the contract until well into the school year. And he says the problems didn't end there.

"We are in this DPS disaster," says Wilson. "They've made it as difficult as they possibly could."

The district cracked down on the last chance schools this year, after the state slapped it with a six million dollar fine for failing to follow teacher hiring regulations.

Reverend Wilson says he didn't have a problem following the state's rules. But he says the district added enough of its own red tape to strangle the program.

It added rules barring students with more than 30 credit hours from enrolling. And Wilson says the district has barred him from supplementing teachers' pay. He says he's been told he can hire instructors from a pool of laid-off DPS teachers.

"Well, those teachers don't want to teach in our program, simply because they can make more money on unemployment than they can working in the school," says Wilson.

Other contract school operators are similarly frustrated, although they are up and running.

Reverend Horace Sheffield says he's put up $160,000 of his organization's own money for his school so far this fall. And he says there's no guarantee the district will reimburse those expenses.

Reverend Jim Holley has fewer than half of the 250 students he planned for this year. That's in part because school started so late, and in part because the district said some students had too many credits to enroll.

"Next year I decided not to do it," says Holley. "I can't work like this."

The pastors are all careful not to blame Detroit's new superintendent, Connie Calloway, for the mess. District officials ignored several requests for an explanation.

But an explanation is what parents want.

Temika Jackson says her daughter has now lost nearly a semester of school. She's been going to the Empowerment Academy for weeks now, only to be told again and again that there's been a delay in the start of classes.

"I feel like I got really jerked around," says Jackson. "I really want my child to get the education that she need. Because without an education, they'll have nothing."

Reverend Wilson, who operates the Empowerment Academy, says he's as frustrated as Temika Jackson.

"You know, it's easier to go to jail than it is to go to school," says Wilson, "and that's sad."

And Wilson says jail is where a lot of dropouts will end up if they don't get into programs to complete high school.