Getting to School in Detroit

January 30, 2017

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University. Her research focuses on education policy development and implementation; network-based school improvement; and school choice, with a special interest in Detroit.

By Sarah Winchell Lenhoff

The Michigan Department of Education recently released its annual ranking of public schools, which included its “bottom 5 percent” – schools that are at risk of being closed by the State School Reform Office at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The potential closure list included 25 schools, about 13%, of the 198 schools in the City of Detroit. Although expected, the announcement sent shockwaves through the city, as parents and policymakers alike began to wrestle with the reality of closing schools in a city that is already struggling to provide enough quality educational options for children.

One question keeps coming up: even if parents can get their children enrolled in higher-performing schools, how will they get them there consistently throughout the school year?

Detroit already has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country. Data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information showed that about 53% of students in Detroit Public Schools missed at least 10% of school, 18 days or more, in the 2015-16 school year. Nationally, about 14% of public school students are chronically absent, missing 15 or more days of school a year.

Missing that much school can have devastating effects on students, particularly the most vulnerable. Chronic absenteeism negatively impacts essential student learning outcomes, such as reading on grade level by third grade, and significantly increases the likelihood of dropping out of school. A 2007 study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that, among Chicago Public High School 9th graders, attendance was the single most powerful predictor of graduation, more so than test scores or family background.

My colleagues and I at Wayne State University’s College of Education have established a research-practice partnership with the newly renamed Detroit Public Schools Community District, and our first collaboration is a project aimed at understanding and combating chronic absenteeism in Detroit.

There are many factors that contribute to student absenteeism, and we have organized them into three categories: environmental, non-structural, and structural. Environmental factors are those that are outside the control of individual students and schools. They include things like the city transit system, crime, housing policy, and even state-level school choice policy. Non-structural factors are related to individual students and their families, including parental employment, residential mobility, and access to an automobile. Many non-structural factors are associated with the environmental conditions in which families live. Our final category is structural factors, or policies and conditions within the control of a school or district. These include, for example, discipline policy, school safety, and student learning engagement.

The environmental and non-structural factors that contribute to high rates of chronic absenteeism in Detroit schools are difficult to overcome, particularly in financially-strapped schools with unstable leadership and devastatingly low performance. The Motor City’s transit system, for instance, is notoriously weak, with delayed service and not enough routes to serve the city’s 600,000-plus residents, a quarter of whom do not have a car. Detroit also has alarming rates of childhood asthma, lead poisoning, and tooth decay, all of which can contribute to students not attending school regularly. In addition, while Detroit’s unemployment rate has fallen below 10%, it’s still double that of Michigan’s and the U.S. as a whole, putting too many families at risk of hunger and housing instability.

Despite these challenges, there is evidence that schools have a powerful influence on student attendance, and can mediate or sever the strong association between poverty and absenteeism. Therefore, our first look at absenteeism in Detroit sought to determine whether there was a relationship between school-level conditions and rates of chronic absenteeism. While we found a strong relationship between a school’s percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged and chronic absenteeism, some schools serving the most disadvantaged families have lower than expected absenteeism rates. We were interested in these outliers – what about these schools helped students get to school more regularly?

To help answer this question, we analyzed a measure of school climate derived from a district-wide administration of the 5 Essentials survey, which focuses on five key areas consistently shown to influence student achievement: (a) effective leadership, (b) collaborative teachers, (c) ambitious instruction, (d) supportive environment, and (e) involved families. We found that schools with weaker climates overall had higher rates of chronic absenteeism, controlling for school-level characteristics such as racial makeup, percent of economically disadvantaged students, and grade level. Future analyses will examine each of the five areas individually, to determine if some are more crucial than others in getting students to school in Detroit.

In the meantime, the State School Reform Office will be closing schools, and parents will be scrambling to try to figure out where to enroll their children, and how to get them there. Our research suggests that many of the factors related to strong academic achievement are the same as those that encourage strong attendance – and that being able to get to school is a precursor to performing well academically. State decision-makers would be wise to consider school climate, geography, and parental preferences as they determine which schools to close and how to support students in the transition. Closing more schools without these considerations is likely to result in diminished family involvement, weaker school climate, and, ultimately, poor outcomes for kids.