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For one Detroit family, finding the right school in a sea of choices

Jul 15, 2015

Five-year-old Franca Grassi is only looking for two things in a kindergarten: She doesn't want to be forced to nap, and she wants to see her mom every day. Franca's parents, on the other hand, are a lot more discerning.


“We actually have a google doc spreadsheet of pros and cons of some of the schools,” says Nikki Rittenour from the family’s long, wooden dining room table.

She and her husband, Marc Grassi, recently moved to the city from Asheville, North Carolina. They're part of the recent influx of white, middle-class families into the city. Like a lot of parents in Detroit, they’re trying to find a school they’re excited about for their daughter, who starts kindergarten this fall. But with just weeks to go before the beginning of the school year, they’re still undecided.

 

Rittenour's spreadsheet is a checklist of some of the factors that are important to her, "like distance, and education, testing, if the school is religious, the diversity, community.”

Below the list, at the bottom of the spreadsheet, in bold type, she wrote, “I’m gonna lose my mind.”

For a lot of families, the days of enrolling in your neighborhood school are over. The new norm, especially for middle class families, is to criss-cross the city to find the best option. Over the past year, Rittenour and Grassi have toured 11 schools.

Franca Grassi, Marc Grassi, Mina Grassi and Nikki Rittenour.
Credit Zak Rosen / Michigan Radio

 

“We’ve seen a lot of schools that impressed us in a lot of ways, but they all have some kind of quirk or some issue that makes us not ready to commit to them yet,” says Grassi.

They really like University Prep Science and Math, a well-known charter school on Detroit’s near east side. The facilities, the teachers, the classes have all impressed Marc and Nikki, but when they took a tour of the school in the spring, their tour guide warned them that if a vote to unionize the teachers goes through, the school might shut down.

"We've seen a lot of schools that impressed us in a lot of ways, but they all have some kind of quirk or some issue that makes us not ready to commit to them yet."

“That’s kind of disturbing," Grassi says. "You’d like to know if the school is going to be there. I don’t want to keep having our kids switch schools.”

The head of Detroit 90/90, which runs UPSM, denies the school would be closed if the teachers unionize. The results of the election are still being scrutinized by the National Labor Relations Board.

Regardless, it made Rittenour and Grassi uneasy about the charter option in general.

Some of the DPS schools impressed Rittenour. “The people there are so committed," she says. "You have parents who volunteer, and they’re there the entire school day. Like, they’re not just coming in to do something. I was really impressed by that. But it’s also a question of funding for them, and do they have the resources they need ... and their class sizes.”

At the end of their grueling search, they’ve whittled their list down to three schools. One charter and two privates. They’re waiting to see if they qualify for financial aid at Friends School, a private Quaker school in the city. And they’re waiting to see if they can figure out a carpool for a Catholic school in Grosse Pointe.  

"I don't want to keep having our kids switch schools."

In the meantime, Nikki Rittenour has to deal with friends who inevitably tell her about yet another school.

“And I’m like 'no, don’t tell me! I don’t want to even know there’s another option. Ahhhh! I can’t do it! I can’t go to another school!'" she says.

 

And then she pauses a little, and adds, "...but maybe I should.”

 

 

Support for Bringing Up Detroit comes from the Skillman Foundation. Kids matter here.