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How to build better schools in Detroit

From: The Detroit News

By Ingrid Jacques

March 27, 2014

Regina Hollis is determined to find the best schools for her kids.

The mother of three teenage daughters, who lives on the east side of Detroit, doesn’t care what category the school fits into — traditional public, charter, private. She just wants her children to attend a school that’s safe and academically sound.

But Hollis knows that’s not an easy task in the city right now. That’s why she has gotten involved, working with groups like Excellent Schools Detroit to grade the city’s schools and get the word out to other parents. “It’s kind of my passion,” she says.

She believes that if parents raise their expectations, the education landscape in Detroit will improve.

That sentiment is echoed by education reform groups striving to help parents maneuver an increasingly diverse set of school choices. Detroit is no longer dominated by Detroit Public Schools. More than half of students in the city are enrolled in charter schools.

So where should parents turn to learn about all these choices popping up? They now have a new option. At an event Tuesday hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, Dan Varner, who heads Excellent Schools Detroit, and Bill Jackson, CEO of GreatSchools, announced the launch of the resource GreatSchoolsDetroit.org.

The website is a place where families can go to find data and in-depth profiles on a wide range of schools, from public to private. This allows parents to compare schools based on test scores, student academic growth and college readiness. And individuals can also read and write school reviews.

GreatSchools is a national organization with a wide impact. It estimates that half of U.S. families with children have used the site, and it’s one of the leading national sources for school performance information.

“It’s about fostering ever-growing, rising expectations,” Jackson said Tuesday.

But Detroit is only the fourth localized site for GreatSchools. Jackson, who is based in the San Francisco area, says other cities that have the local resource are seeing some positive impacts. For instance, in Milwaukee, Wis., Jackson says more families are applying to get their children into the best-performing schools.

Ike McKinnon, deputy mayor of Detroit, was on hand at the event; Mayor Mike Duggan was originally scheduled to speak. It was positive to see representation from the mayor’s office, as city-wide coordination of certain school services like transportation and enrollment could streamline how school choice works in Detroit.

As McKinnon notes, improving schools is “key to Detroit’s recovery.”

Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, works with thousands of families in the city to help parents make smart education decisions for their children. Buckman spoke at the GreatSchools announcement and says she’s hopeful about this new tool. But she also acknowledged the “digital divide” in Detroit, explaining many parents still don’t have computers.

If parents can’t access this kind of information, it doesn’t do them much good. That’s why the grassroots work that Buckman does is essential.

More Detroit families do have smartphones, however, and the website is available on mobile and tablet platforms, too. “We have to have these tools,” Buckman says.

Good schools are a function of two forces, Jackson says. School and city leaders need to guide schools effectively, and parents must expect and demand a great education for their children.

Mothers like Hollis know that’s true. GreatSchoolsDetroit and other similar efforts are an important step to making better schools a reality for Detroit families.