Lessons from Muskegon Heights

On July 1, a new Detroit school district was created as part of a major new legislative reform package – the old district serving as a tax collecting structure and the new district educating students. However, the model is not a new concept.


Just four years ago, Muskegon Heights Public Schools used a similar model to change district management. With any extensive reform, it is imperative we reflect on the successes and shortcomings of such a policy. In the case of Detroit Public Schools reform, Muskegon Heights provides valuable insight.


In 2012, Mosaica Education Inc. was selected to be the management firm of Muskegon Heights Public Schools. A name change (the district is now known as Muskegon Heights Public School Academy) accompanied a complete overhaul of the old system. Since then, Mosaica has handed over control in favor of a new self-management model.


The old district was operating on a budget that simply didn’t add up. Total spending in 2010-11 outweighed revenue by over $2 million at over $15,000 per pupil. The 2011-12 school year, the last year under old management, brought along a $1 million dollar deficit as the district spent over $13,000 per pupil. Under new management, the district receives $10.217.17 per pupil and is keeping the revenue amount above the expenditure amount.


While overcoming financial distress was desperately needed, there are still barriers to overcome. The share of economically disadvantaged students has reached 86.4 percent, up from 79.4 percent in 2010-11. While enrollment rates briefly stabilized, increasing by five students from the 2013-14 to the 2014-15 school year, enrollment is down considerably from levels seen before the emergency manager takeover.


The low enrollment numbers have left behind a larger percentage of poor students, far too many of whom are not showing up to school consistently. The 2011-12 school year saw 34.25 percent of students chronically absent compared to the 2014-15 rate of 74.46 percent.


Achievements in the 2013-14 school year included a parental component – striving to reach 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences. The objective of increased parent involvement is still evident today as the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy website includes newsletters to parents and parent surveys. The January 2016 newsletter lays out what families can expect with the new M-STEP testing and also advertises parent-teacher conferences.


The record of emergency management in Muskegon Heights seems to have gotten lost in Michigan’s other important discussions about education reform. The lack of information available might be the driving cause of the phenomenon. However, it doesn’t mean that the district’s successes and weaknesses can’t provide lessons. There must be a continued effort to examine Muskegon Heights, and other schools in similar situations, to strive for more sound education policy solutions for other districts in distress.


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