Detroit schools see one-time opportunity to elevate district with $1.3 billion in pandemic relief

For years, Laela Bullock moved to her own rhythm when it came to schoolwork. The switch to remote learning, if anything, brought a welcome break from fights in the hallways of the 15-year-old’s Detroit school, but her grades still lagged.

Things started turning around with one-on-one tutoring this year — paid for with $1.3 billion the Detroit Public Schools Community District is receiving in federal COVID-19 relief aid.

At last, Laela is reading above her grade level, and on track to graduate on time, said her mother, Alicia Bullock.

"I’m so proud," Bullock said.

The Detroit school system is putting much of its relief money toward tutoring, after-school programs and other efforts to shore up student achievement. District leaders hope the money will not only help students catch up on what they missed during the coronavirus pandemic, but also fix some of what has been broken for decades.

"This is the first time ... I actually feel we have equitable funding," Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in an interview. "Unfortunately, it had to come during a pandemic."

The district, which emerged from state control a few years ago, chronically has been among the lowest-scoring in the U.S. on standardized tests. In the last school year, less than 6% of Detroit eighth graders who took a state standardized test scored as proficient in math.

Nationally, pandemic relief to schools totals $190 billion. High-poverty areas received the most per student, with Detroit getting the highest rate among big districts at more than $25,000 per student, followed by Philadelphia at $13,000 and Cleveland at more than $12,000.

The aid invested in academics includes millions for reducing class sizes, expanding internet access, and tutoring programs like the one attended by Laela. About 1,500 Detroit students participate in that literacy program, which is run by Detroit-area nonprofit Beyond Basics.

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Participants include Quandallis Perry-Fisher, a 15-year-old schoolmate of Laela’s at Denby High. He said he was not a fan of reading and struggled to navigate virtual learning when schools went remote in March 2020.

"I was doing very, very bad," Quandallis said. With Beyond Basics "you have to read to the instructors," he said. "Now, with the vocabulary words ... I read it myself without asking for help."

In 2009, then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Detroit "ground zero" for problems facing American schools. Enrollment has plummeted from 164,000 students in 2003 to about 51,000 as the city’s population dwindled. But district officials said test scores and graduation rates were on the rise before the pandemic.

For Detroit and other districts, it’s "really important to get it right" as they decide how to spend the windfall of federal money, said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, an independent think tank in Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

"I don’t see this opportunity really coming around again. This is an opportunity for schools to get things right to address some of the long-standing issues that keep kids from succeeding," she said.

A challenge for Detroit is how to simultaneously address other, overlapping obstacles that have limited students’ ability to learn.

Alicia Bullock said a top priority at her daughter’s school should be better security and programs that help students avoid fighting. Her daughter complains students have to be patted down for weapons, and classmates smoke and do whatever they want in the school building. The district’s needs are so deep, she said, pandemic funding may not be enough.

"The schools don’t have toiletries. They don’t have resources," she said. "Anytime you don’t have (bathroom) tissue, that’s terrible."

Vitti has announced a proposal that includes spending $700 million in pandemic funding by 2027 on new schools and revamping existing schools to address overcrowding. A final recommendation on how to spend the money will go before the Detroit Board of Education by June.

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The district also plans to spend $189 million to reduce class sizes; $169 million for more after-school and summer programs, electronic devices and internet access; $169 million in raises for teachers and other employees; and $34 million on programs to provide for the social and emotional needs — and mental health — of students rocked by the pandemic.

One parent, Aliya Moore, thinks more of the money should go toward technology improvements and student mental health.

Moore, a PTA president at her 12-year-old daughter’s school, said many students suffered during distance learning.

"You don’t know what the home has looked like, how the schools have been safe havens for these kids," she said.

Vitt has blamed some of the district’s performance on low expectations and limited professional development when it was under state control, most recently from 2009 to 2017. Before the pandemic, he said, the district was making progress, including a grade-level literacy curriculum.

He said it will take time, but the district is ready to make up several years of lost learning.

"Right now, for 10th-12th graders, 60% are off-track on graduating in four years," Vitti said. "We are rebuilding schedules to make sure course recovery is happening. We’re paying teachers more to give up a prep period to offer more course recovery. It’s highly daunting and troubling, but we will get students back on track."