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Time's running out to get 5,000 new kids to DPS

An empty classroom
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
O.k., o.k., we know this one is empty, but some high school students in the Detroit Public Schools say their classroom are far from empty.

The clock’s running out for the Detroit Public School district.

School starts Tuesday, and DPS officials went into the summer with the hefty goal of recruiting 5,000 new students.

That's an awful lot of new kids, especially given that demographers predict just the opposite. They think DPS will lose students this year, like they have in the past.

It's an important goal for DPS, because even if they have the same number of students as last year, they’ll have to cut $38 million from the budget. 

That would mean cuts "to staff and programs and the like," says district spokesperson Steven Wasko. But he says, "we don't suspect that [failure] would be the case." 

That’s because DPS budget officials built their entire 2013-2014 budget (at least, the one that they’ve shown to parents and community members at local town halls) based on getting those 5,000 new kids.

If they succeed, it would be “a dream come true,” says school board member Annie Cart.

With those kids would come more per-pupil funding. So much more funding in fact, that DPS wouldn’t have to lay off a single teacher, according to the district’s proposed budget.

And that's not all. DPS says it would also mean the return of arts and music programs, better athletics, community center space, special education classrooms, parenting classes, and more.

So the payoff would be sweet. But first, they’ve got to recruit those 5,000 new students.

While district officials aren’t giving out enrollment numbers until next week, spokesman Steven Wasko says they’re feeling confident.

“It’s a bold, dramatic strategic plan,” he says.

Over the summer, the district’s recruitment campaign has been “picking up activity and steam and intensity. That includes a series of campaign walks, and door knockings, and picnics and barbecues," Wasko says.

And, he adds it’s “all designed to make sure parents are aware of the opportunities at DPS. Both for new families, or for someone who may just be going on historical reference based on what they think happens in a Detroit public school.”

So, what’s his elevator pitch to wary parents? “Basically, it’s a new DPS,” says Wasko.

“The tangible evidence of that is that the programs that had to be curtailed due to budget cuts, we’re bringing them back. We’ve heard you loud and clear. You value arts and music and universal pre-K for every eligible 4 year old.”

Still, the most common concern Wasko hears is about student safety. That’s when he highlights the new bussing for after school activities, the reduction in major incidents on campus, and the volunteers they’re recruiting to canvass routes to school on those dark winter mornings.   

Overall, while retention of last year’s students hovers at around 93%, Wasko’s betting that they can make their 5,000 new student recruitment goal.

“It’s really about the delivery of that message. It’s not paid campaign people [talking to parents]. It’s delivered on families’ porches, by the staff and the principal of the local school, by the teachers volunteering to come in on Saturdays for open houses," he says.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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