A Michigan School Board Meets Tough Challenges

By Del Stover

The Southfield Public Schools cannot boast of impressive test scores. Indeed, too many of the district’s students are struggling academically, and hundreds attend an alternative campus that provides intervention and credit-recovery programs.

Yet, this Michigan school system is a success story. Despite a growing population of economically disadvantaged and at-risk students, academic performance is rising, and the achievement gap is narrowing. The district also has gained recognition for its increased emphasis on academically rigorous programs.

Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to graduating students -- and keeping academically low-performing students in school -- Southfield hits a home run. The district’s four-year graduation rate tops 90 percent.

All of this has helped bolster the reputation of this 7,400-student school system, which only a few years ago was seen by some in the community as a district in decline.

“We were a very good school district,” says Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson. “But we had to reaffirm our reputation and really take it up several notches.”

There was no guarantee that would happen. Over the years, Southfield had experienced an influx of low-income families escaping nearby Detroit. Adding to the district’s academic challenges was a growing number of students from transient families, whose repeated moves interrupted the educational process.

At the same time, the district had experienced white flight, fueled partly by concerns over the community’s growing black population -- a trend that’s left the schools with a more than 90 percent black enrollment. The state’s liberal school transfer laws and the growth of charter schools siphoned away higher-achieving students of all races.

Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.