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Excellent Schools Detroit

1938 Franklin Street
Suite 111
Detroit, Michigan 48207

Dan Varner

By Tunde Wey
September 26, 2012

At the beginning of 2012, the student population of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) was 66,360. This represents a 58% decline in enrollment from 167,085 students in 2000. This precipitous fall corresponds with a decline in the quality of education: in 2010, DPS had a below-average high school graduation rate of 62.2%, compared with Michigan’s average of 76%. Enrollment decline has been accompanied by cuts in State funding, leaving DPS with a massive operating deficit (over $327 million) further exacerbated by Detroit’s shrinking tax base.
This steady bleeding of resources from DPS has created a sad, if familiar, cycle: student enrollment drops and funding falls, which in turn causes more students to leave. This self-defeating cycle has seemed impossible to overcome. But to Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, there is still hope for a brighter future.
Varner is a thoughtful man, given to long pauses followed by an eloquent stream of ideas. These expansive ideas connect to form an impressive framework of thought, and if there is anything Detroit’s K-12 education system needs it is a broad grasp of the issues.
In discussing the complexity of challenges that face the city’s educational system, Varner describes a network of interrelated concerns that include institutional racism, class disparity, poverty, weak parenting infrastructure, and other systemic problems. These factors inevitably lead to students’ unpreparedness to succeed in schools. He challenges the popular notion that the problem with schools is predominantly a resource problem.
“The challenge is not so much with the amount of money, but how we spend it,” says Varner. While he does admit that funds (or the lack thereof) are a top challenge of DPS, he posits that the more important issue is how money is allocated rather than how much is available.
According to a Mackinac Center study as reported by Detroit 2020 Report, DPS spent $15,570 per pupil in 2010, substantially more than the state average spending per pupil of $11,987.  More recently, the 2012 DPS operating budget hovers around $1.02 billion (adopted FY2012 Budget, pg. 5); by comparison, the entire city of Detroit with a population of roughly 700,000 residents has an operating budget of about $2.5 billion. To put that in context, the city of Detroit is spending roughly $3,571 per resident, while DPS is hemorrhaging a whopping $18,083 per student. (A staggering sum that, adding insult to injury, has yielded only negative results.)
If Varner is right about resource allocation as more of an issue than resource availability, then the cycle of loss in the city’s school systems seems less inevitable.
Excellent Schools Detroit is a coalition of partners committed to ambitious and specific education outcomes in Detroit. The coalition is made up of educational, government, community and philanthropic organizations such as The Skillman Foundation, United Way for Southeastern MI and Detroit Parent Network, among others.
The goals of Excellent Schools Detroit are summed in its 90/ 90/ 90 citywide plan:  By 2020, the organization strives to see the following:

·      90% of students graduate from high school,
·      90% enroll in college or a quality postsecondary training program, and
·      90% of enrollees are prepared to succeed without remediation.
Should Excellent Schools succeed in this goal, Detroit will be the first major U.S city to hit these levels of academic achievement. Varner is optimistic about the chances of Excellent Schools Detroit. While he admits that their goal is ambitious, the alternative is dismal. 
Writer’s note: I had a wide-ranging discussion with Dan Varner. For two hours we spoke about the state of education nationally, regionally and locally. Varner also gave historical and social perspective to the challenges facing Detroit’s education system. Due to the expansive nature of the topic of education and the need to be concise, I have distilled our conversation to a single focus while also a providing a broad context to the issue. I encourage everyone to learn about all the important work of Excellent Schools Detroit and the personal story of Dan Varner, which for the purposes of this piece I was unable to fully explore.    – Tunde Wey

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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