Let's be clear: Michigan school officials want kids in school every day.
But they really want kids in school on Wednesday, one of the most important days of the school year.
"There's just a hard, truthful reality to making sure that students are there that day," said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. "But we want to try to build that culture so that that's happening every day, for students in every school."
That reality? Wednesday is Count Day, for Detroit and the nearly 900 school districts and charter schools statewide. It's vitally important for students to be in school because it's one of two days during the school year in which the enrollment taken helps determine how much state aid schools receive.
And you know the drill: Every student loss equals a loss in the per-pupil grant schools receive. Detroit receives $7,670 from the state for each student.
And that's why the district —like many others — is rolling out a number of incentives that includes prizes and special activities to make it more enticing for students to want to be in school.
In Mt. Clemens, students will receive free ice cream and those who won gift cards during an August back-to-school bash will receive those prizes.
In Detroit, enrollment has been hitting and exceeding the district's projections — a good sign in a district that has lost 60% of its student population in the last decade. This year, the district could see its first enrollment gain since 2005 — a feat happening during a year of transformation for a district now under the leadership of a new superintendent and newly empowered school board.
A review of Michigan school enrollment data finds DPSCD is one of 16 school districts that lost more than 50% of their student population in the last decade.
A few of them are tiny districts in northern Michigan and mid-Michigan — Wells Township, Arenac Eastern and Burt Township districts — where the loss or gain of just a few students could impact their bottom line.
But the biggest decliners also include larger districts, many of them in urban areas. Mt. Clemens Community Schools lost 55% of its student population over the decade, though the superintendent there is encouraged that the losses are slowing. Flint Community Schools lost 71%.
Two districts that have since been converted into charter schools — Muskegon Heights (62%) and Highland Park (90%) — also had big losses. In Highland Park, the loss is due, in part, to the district no longer operating a high school.
Statewide, enrollment has declined 8.5% in the last decade.
Teresa Davis, superintendent of the Mt. Clemens district, said the district's years-long enrollment decline has coincided with its years-long deficit. That deficit, which once was as high as $6 million, has dropped to under a $1 million. And enrollment last year dropped by 50 students, down from the years when the district was losing several hundred a year.
Increasing enrollment is a district goal, and one way to achieve that is by shattering the perceptions people have about Mt. Clemens schools, Davis said.
"We've found that once parents and the community actually come into our schools, they see it is a very different place," she said.
In Detroit, they're not just focusing on Count Day. All week — and in some cases next week — there are special activities planned.
High school students with perfect attendance and behavior from Oct. 4-18 can earn special field trips, job shadowing opportunities and a red-carpet showing of "Justice League," in November.
K-8 students who come to school Wednesday through Friday can earn three wristbands they can use to participate in special activities and earn prizes. Collect all three and they could earn a special field trip.
On Count Day itself, parents can eat breakfast or lunch with their children at school.
On social media, the district has made it clear that its push for daily attendance doesn't begin and end with Count Day — through the use of this slogan: "Enroll. Attend. Succeed — Every School Day Counts!"
"This week, in particular, we're trying to have principals and schools emphasize project-based learning, cultural activities like field trips to make learning especially fun and engaging," Vitti said.
"But we're hoping that that sends a message that it's something that should be happening all the time, to create the right incentive for students to feel excited about going to school, because learning can be fun when done the right way."
Wednesday's count — and the count that will be taken on Feb. 8 — will be used for state aid purposes. But the October count weighs a lot more — 90% — than the February count.
If students are absent on Wednesday, the district can still count them for enrollment. But there are rules. For instance, a student with an excused absence can be counted if that student attends school within 30 calendar days following count day, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
A student with an unexcused absence on Count Day can be counted if he or she attends within 10 school days. And a student who doesn't attend on Count Day because they have been suspended, must attend within 45 calendar days of Count Day to be counted.
Official numbers won't be available for a while. Districts must report them to their intermediate school districts by Nov. 8 and the ISDs have until March 21 to verify the numbers and send them to the state.
The official numbers will likely tell Detroit officials what they've already experienced —that the numbers are up slightly. The district projected 48,000 students — a projection that took into account the return of 11 schools that for the last five years had been part of the Education Achievement Authority. The most recent enrollment number, from mid-September, was 49,131. Vitti said at a recent meeting that it's an indication some parents are bringing their children back to the district.
It's not time to celebrate, though, Vitti said last week. The district needs to increase its enrollment by larger numbers to be financially stable.
"When we're increasing enrollment by the thousands, that's when we know that we've transformed the district," Vitti said. "And right now we're just in the process of rebuilding."
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