The Best Classroom Project: Helping Detroit parents navigate a confusing school landscape

Jun 27, 2014

Jason and Dara Hill, with daughter Norah, at home in Indian Village.
Jason and Dara Hill, with daughter Norah, at home in Indian Village.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

This week, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative is looking at how the city is functioning under bankruptcy.

Mayor Mike Duggan says his top priority is reversing the city’s long population decline.

But there are a couple key quality of life issues Duggan has no control over. One of them is the city’s schools.

Here’s the story of one Detroit family’s effort to find good schools.

Meet the Hills

Dara and Jason Hill have owned a gorgeous home in Detroit’s historic Indian Village neighborhood for 15 years.

For the most part, they absolutely love living here. And that hasn’t changed since their daughter Norah was born four years ago.

But they have developed new worries. Right now, one of the biggest ones is where Norah will start kindergarten this fall.

Norah herself isn’t thinking quite that far ahead yet. She’s looking forward to all the fun things she has coming up this summer--including trips to the beach at Belle Isle, and dance camp in August.

“I’m going to princess dance camp when I’m a little bit older, but I’m gonna be still four,” Norah announces, adding: “That’s why I have tights and a leotard.”

But while Norah is busy being an active 4-year-old, her parents are thinking quite a lot about school this fall. In fact, they’ve been actively “school shopping” for over a year already.

Both Hills grew up in Detroit, and they’re committed to raising their daughter in city, too.

“I guess it’s in my DNA,” Dara says.

Dara was educated largely in Detroit Public Schools, where she attended two magnet schools that drew kids from all over the city.

She calls her experience growing up something like a Detroit version of The Cosby Show. Ideally, she’d like something similar for Norah—a place where she’ll have exposure to “all kinds of kids, from all walks of life.”

But the Hills are well aware that Detroit’s education landscape has changed radically from their school years. City parents have all kinds of school choices they didn’t have before.

And while most parents like having that kind of choice, it’s also resulted in a confusing, patchwork landscape of schools—with no single entity in charge of the whole system.

That’s why the Hills have joined forces with other city parents to create a group called The Best Classroom Project.

More choices, more confusion

To understand how the Best Classroom Project got started, you need to know a bit about how Detroit’s current schools landscape evolved.

It’s not news to most people that the Detroit Public Schools have long been plagued by severe financial and academic problems.

DPS students do poorly by nearly any academic measure, even when compared to students in other big US city school districts.

Historically, the school district was run by an elected school board that’s entirely separate from city government.  But for the past 6 years, a succession of state-appointed emergency managers has run the district.

They can claim some limited successes. But after years of state management that included slashed budgets and waves of school closings, the district still doesn’t have a grip on its most chronic problem—a plummeting student population.

The declining enrollment stems from a number of inter-connected issues. But it’s due in large part to the growing number of non-DPS options Detroit parents have to choose from.

There are a number of private schools in the city, though fewer than there used to be.

But by far the biggest change in Detroit’s education landscape over the past 15 years is the exploding number of charter schools operating in the city and nearby suburbs.

As growing numbers of parents have opted for charters, Detroit has become “a distinctive city nationwide for the very, very high degree of school choice it offers parents,” says Michigan State University Education Professor David Arsen.

Most parents like having more choices. But Arsen says that with no one entity to coordinate the distribution of schools and hold them all accountable, new problems have arisen.

“You get a lot of mobility from school to school, and a fairly high level of turbulence in [school] staffing and enrollment,” Arsen said. “And often times, the schools themselves don’t have a durable connection to the neighborhoods.”

Best Classroom Project: Filling in the knowledge gaps

So Detroit parents have a lot of school choices. But they don’t necessarily have lots of quality choices—or even know what to look for in a “good school.”

That’s where The Best Classroom Project comes in.

The group, which currently includes over 100 Detroit families, meets every month to organize daytime school visits and share information.

Dara, a former teacher who now preps future educators as a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, helped write a detailed checklist that parents take with them on school visits.

It asks parents to look closely, and answer questions like: Does the school have a stable environment and low teacher turnover? Are teachers given flexibility to run their classrooms and use different instruction methods? Is the school diverse? How do administrators and teachers interact to build the school community, and reach out to parents and the broader community?

The big idea is to go beyond test scores, and figure out what really makes a school great.

“I think that for too long it’s been a sense of, ‘We’re going to tell urban families what they want,’” Dara said. “We know what we’re looking for. We know what a good school looks like.”

Best Classroom Project members have visited and reported on a number of traditional public, charter, and private schools throughout the city.

Dara has come away from her visits with “very positive” impressions overall, and the overwhelming sense that schools welcome the group’s visits.

But she’s met other school-shopping parents who didn’t get the same kind of welcome, and felt “turned away” from some schools.

“Our experience is—I don’t like to say it, but it’s true—it’s a little bit one of privilege,” Dara says.

The Best Classroom Project is made up of largely middle-class, professional Detroit families like the Hills, who really want to send their kids to schools in the city where they live.

The idea is to create resources that all Detroit parents can use to decide which school is best for their child.

There’s also a sense that if more Detroit parents with means join forces, and send their kids to a handful of city schools—particularly schools that show lots of promise, but maybe still lack a few key resources—they can start building positive momentum throughout the system.

A tricky balance

The Hills admit that can be a tricky balance, though.

They want Norah to go to a diverse, innovative school with a sense of attachment to the community. But they don’t want to make her part of a “social experiment.”

Jason Hill says that like pretty much all parents, the Hills’ first priority is finding a safe, nurturing learning environment where Norah can thrive.

Jason feels like Detroit parents need groups like The Best Classroom Project to help guide them—but they really shouldn’t.

“You should be able to leave your home, and walk your kid to the closest public school,” Jason says. “But the reality of it is…that’s not the case.”

In fact, Detroit schools can sometimes feel like warring tribes competing for the same students. There’s a lack of system-wide coordination connecting schools to the larger community, and to the kinds of social services that many kids in impoverished cities like Detroit desperately need.

Jason says that if Duggan really wants to attract and retain families, his administration needs to start filling some of the holes in the current system.

“I think they should have some sort of integral role to work with the schools, and provide some of the infrastructure and extra support that they need,” Jason says. “Because they’ve been neglected for so long.”

Duggan has suggested he plans to “partner” with city schools to do just that.

But it’s not quite clear how Duggan will accomplish that in such a fragmented school landscape— and with no formal authority over any part of it.