What the school choice era looks like for Detroit’s 'newcomer' families

September 30, 2019

Associate Professor Dara Hill's long-term research is painting a complex portrait of how Detroit's new residents are navigating a turbulent education system.

Professor Dara Hill is a middle-aged black woman with straight, brown shoulder-length hair. She is standing in a playground smiling. Dana is wearing a navy blue, short sleeve knit shirt and a navy and white floral patterned skirt just above her knees. Her son Hugh is a toddler with short, curly brown hair and is wearing plaid shorts and a gray and red shirt. He is sitting on a play tunnel entrance.
Associate Professor of Education Dara Hill plays with her 2-year-old son, Hugh, at UM-Dearborn’s Early Childhood Education Center.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.

UM-Dearborn education professor Dara Hill says those who've chosen to make a life in Detroit have to get used to answering a stock list of questions. Often topping that list: ‘Is it safe?’ If you're a parent, or are thinking about having kids, ‘What are you doing for schools?’ is a typical follow-up.

Such questions are often rooted in persistent stereotypes about the city, but Hill, who’s made a home for her family in Detroit’s Indian Village neighborhood for the past 20 years, says she legitimately struggled with finding a school for her daughter. She didn’t expect that to be the case. Though people often assume she’s a “new Detroiter,” Hill grew up on the city’s northwest side. She attended a really great citywide public school, one specifically chosen by her parents, who were part of an early wave of school choice families in the 1980s. Later, as an educator, Hill also taught in Detroit. Understandably, she thought all that insider’s knowledge would make picking a school fairly straightforward.

Instead, Hill found an educational environment that was radically different from the one she thought she knew. The school she attended as a kid had since changed locations twice. Many others she was familiar with that had good reputations had closed. Some promising-sounding new ones were opening in the city, but as such, they lacked track records. 

Hill, of course, wasn’t alone in facing these challenges. Longtime Detroit parents had been playing this turbulent school choice game for years. And in Indian Village and other neighborhoods, she now found herself in solidarity with many new families moving to the city, who simultaneously felt strongly about enrolling their kids in neighborhood schools and stumped about how to make it happen. Discussions about schools, she recalls, were the dominant poolside conversation subject at downtown’s Boll Family YMCA. Those conversations eventually led her and others to form a parents network, the goal of which was to collectively figure out ‘what to do about schools.’

Hill was an active leader in the group, but as an educational researcher, she quickly realized it also provided a fascinating set of research questions. Just how were these families, who were mostly newcomers, navigating the system? What priorities and values were guiding their choices? How successful would they be in finding schools they felt were a good fit for their kids? What compromises were they willing to make?

She’s spent the past several years investigating these and other questions, and the results are painting a nuanced mosaic of how newcomer families are navigating school choice in Detroit. Far from a monolithic newcomer block, Hill says these families are motivated by all kinds of values and priorities. There’s even been an evolution of those values over time. Very early on, for example, she says a “takeover” mentality prevailed with many families in the group. “Some people felt strongly that we should form a block and mass enroll our kids — essentially imposing our values on our neighborhood school,” she says. That idea quickly lost momentum, though. Eventually, the discussion turned toward developing ways to effectively evaluate potential schools, not change them. What factors drove each family’s decision, however, proved to be quite diverse. For some parents, the biggest factor was educational philosophy — a category that itself led parents down divergent paths. For others, what mattered most was  location, cost (if private), how long a school had been around, whether it was the “best fit” for their kid, or some intangible combination of all of that.

Dara Hill

Amid that diversity, a few common threads also emerged. One prevalent theme among many families, who Hill describes as “mostly white with some brown mixed in” is a preference for racially integrated schools. “A lot of families expressed that they were afraid that their kid would be ‘the only white kid,’” Hill explains. “For some, that was a deciding factor. For others, that was a concern, but they ended up choosing a less-integrated school anyway, because they felt good about the educational philosophy. So even if that’s a value among many of the parents, there’s a lot of nuance in how it plays out in their choices.”

Similarly, many parents expressed a deep level of commitment to the city, and a preference for enrolling their child in a Detroit school if it all possible. Hill counted herself in this camp. But after spending two years doing school evaluation visits, she ultimately chose a private school in Grosse Pointe for her daughter. The school’s educational philosophy was the decisive factor — and the fact that one of the Detroit schools she was considering closed abruptly before she would have had a chance to enroll. “I mean, I’m a Detroiter. So when we chose a suburban school, it definitely felt like a part of me broke,” Hill says. “And yes — I felt the judgment from some of the other families, and that’s been difficult for us sometimes. But ultimately, we made the best choice for our daughter and she’s been really happy there. We’re kind of like ‘exhibit A’ for how complex these issues are.”
Her work is also chipping away at the persistent stereotype that “there are no good schools in Detroit.” As part of her research and participation in the parents network, Hill helped develop a school visit-based evaluation system that parents could use to assess whether a school might have what they’re looking for. The evaluation, which Hill says builds on the established work of literacy researchers, accounts for dozens of things — like average length of tenure for teachers and whether literature in the school and classroom libraries is culturally relevant. Using this method, the first cohort of parents have to date enrolled kids in 15 different Detroit schools, and she says most parents report feeling positive about their choices. As the group grows, she expects that number may as well.

She’s now planning a next phase of research, which will investigate, among other things, how a new crop of newcomer families are approaching school choice. She’s also interested to see how the first cohort families have fared over the past five years. Notably, those parents are approaching a new milestone — middle school — which means a new round of school searches is likely underway. “In fact, I just ran into one of the families, and of course, we end up talking about ‘what are you doing for middle school?’”

In Detroit, that may be an even more complicated question. If her past research is any guide, it’s also one likely to produce dozens of highly personal answers.