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On the brink of its fresh start, here's an animated history of the Detroit Public Schools

Aug 30, 2016

This summer, Detroit Public Schools ceased to exist except on paper.

But there is a new district that has the same schools, teachers and students as the “old” DPS. It’s formally known, at least for now, as the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Why did this happen? The short story is that the “old” DPS stood on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the last school year. To avoid that, the state — which has controlled Detroit schools for most of the past 17 years — executed a bankruptcy-style restructuring, minus the actual bankruptcy.

So the “old” DPS now exists just to pay off historic debts with local taxes. The “new” district is a real school district that educates students.

That’s the short story of the “why.” But how did this happen? How did the Detroit Public Schools, once considered a national educational model that enrolled more than 300,000 students, get to the brink of collapse? 

That’s a long, complex story that stretches back decades. If you’re really interested, this report from the group Loveland Technologies lays out, in stark detail, the steep rise and equally steep fall of the Detroit Public Schools.

If you’re interested, but not quite interested enough to comb through the entire report, Michigan Radio drew on Loveland’s data to create this short animation illustrating how we got here:

This isn’t the end of the story, though. While the Detroit Public Schools may technically no longer exist, Michigan Radio will continue to follow the unfolding story of the “new” district — which, despite being touted as a “clean slate,” still has to deal with many of the ghosts of DPS’s past.

And early next year, Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity project will take an in-depth look at the history of the Detroit Public Schools, how its decline ties into the plight of the city’s neighborhoods, and how their fates intertwine going forward. Stay tuned.