Detroit’s fall after the auto restructuring and manufacturing shift in the city have left many wondering if the city would ever be able to come back from the ashes. Metro Detroit remains one of the most segregated areas in the country, over 50 years after the “white flight” that ensued following the 1967 Detroit riots. Along with people, many jobs and opportunities have left the city, which has caused Detroit’s infrastructure to suffer. And the education system has been in crisis, too. Until 2017, the public school district was under emergency management by the state on and off for nearly 20 years. But now, many people are speaking of a so-called “revival” in Detroit, with young people moving to the city and new businesses and art communities popping up.
Google “Detroit revitalization” and you’ll be flooded with deep-dive editorial pieces and edgy video campaigns detailing how this once booming, then downtrodden, and now recovering city is determined to make a comeback, just six years after it went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Beneath the surge of optimism simmer larger, deeper, and more complicated questions: While Detroit may be "reviving," who is really being saved? And is the "revival" impacting the education system?
Despite more young people moving to the city, the population is still on the decline, looming around 670,000, even though it’s geographically big enough to fit Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan -- which have a combined population of 3 million people. Population decline has hit the Detroit Public Community School District (DPSCD) hard. From 1990 to 2015, Detroit’s population dropped 34%, while DPSCD’s enrollment fell 73%. Now there are about 50,000 students in DPSCD, with nearly 30,000 students leaving the city to attend schools in surrounding suburbs. Both the district and charter schools struggle with chronic absenteeism, meaning a student misses 10% or more of the days they were enrolled in school. More than half of students who attended school in Detroit, both district and charter, were chronically absent in the 2017-18 school year, impacting academic achievement and putting students at a greater risk of dropping out.
Additionally, while median household incomes have increased to around $30,000, about 35% of Detroit residents still live below the poverty line, with the child poverty rate at 48%. A 2016 Brookings Institution study found that metro Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. With this concentrated poverty comes real challenges for schools, as they work to not only provide students with an education, but a safe and secure learning environment as well. Teachers can feel the effects of poverty in the classroom, and face the challenge of supporting students in addressing and healing trauma.
But despite all of the challenges, education might be turning around in Detroit. After years of emergency management, in May of 2017 the newly elected board appointed Detroit-native Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to lead DPSCD in a new direction. Once he arrived in Detroit, he put together a five-year reform plan that would “include improving student achievement, transforming the district's culture, championing a ‘whole child’ approach, building a strong team and being responsible stewards of the district's resources.” Since he’s started, the district’s enrollment has gone up for the first time in 15 years, teachers’ pay has increased, the number of vacant teacher positions fell from 275 to about 120 and the district was able to establish music, art, and physical education at all schools -- all while keeping a balanced budget. He’s also funded new positions, such as deans of culture, school-based attendance agents, counselors and school culture facilitators, resulting in additional benefits across the district, including a decline in the chronic absenteeism rate, which was 70% in the 2017-2018 school year. By 2018, Detroit’s graduation rate was 77%.
Likely more than a generation have seen control of their education system go out of their hands. Can Detroit's "revival" extend to the classroom, where the next generation of Detroiters are learning and developing? How do the issues Detroit faces extend to other parts of the country?
NBC News Learn, the education division of NBC News, is headed to Detroit to answer these questions, convening school administrators, teachers, parents, students, thought leaders, policymakers and community members , for an engaging discussion around these challenges impacting local students, and potential solutions. The event, produced in partnership with NBC’s Detroit affiliate WDIV Local 4 and supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, “NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now” will cover what schools are doing to reduce chronic absenteeism and student mobility, how to reframe the teaching profession, why schools need to address student trauma and its effect on learning, and how exposure and access to opportunities can help students in developing purpose.
“NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now Detroit” will take place on Thursday, October 24th from 5:50pm ET - 8pm ET at The Henry Ford (doors open from 5pm to 5:45pm ET). The forum will be moderated by NBC News Chief Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis with WDIV Local 4 Anchor Kimberly Gill, and will consist of engaging panel discussions with school leaders, administrators, experts, community leaders making a difference and live audience q&a. The entire broadcast will be live streamed on NBCNews.com and Facebook, and the second hour will be broadcast live on WDIV. While the event will take place in metro Detroit, it will touch on national issues that are relevant to families around the country, and they can watch the live stream and engage on social media with the hashtag #LearnDetroit.