Detroit Coaxes Students to High-Stakes Roll Call

Alex P. Kellogg, Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2009

Public school districts across Michigan mobilized Wednesday to boost attendance for Count Day, the annual fall roll call that largely determines how much money each district receives under the state’s per-pupil funding system.

Students in Detroit were treated to free meals, ice-cream parties, T-shirts, celebrity visits and a chance to win iPods and a plasma-screen TV– just for showing up for class.

Districts received an average of $7,810 per student last year, but that could decline by more than $200 a pupil this year as Michigan looks to close a $1.7 billion budget hole. Every student in class Wednesday represented funding for the school year.

The stakes were especially high for the Detroit Public Schools, where Wednesday’s carnival atmosphere masked grim financial realities. Enrollment has plummeted roughly 50% in the past decade, contributing to a $259 million deficit this year that has put the district on the brink of bankruptcy.

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Detroit schools this summer launched a $500,000 campaign aimed at keeping students that included ads by Bill Cosby.

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In recent weeks, Detroit schools have been touting signs that its enrollment campaign–dubbed “I’m In”–was working. The effort includes radio and TV ads featuring Mr. Cosby, door-to-door visits by him and other DPS boosters, as well as a separate security initiative led by Mayor Dave Bing’s office that will see hundreds of abandoned buildings and homes near schools torn down.

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Dress codes were relaxed, and at several schools, prizes were awarded to classrooms with 100% attendance. Giveaways included movie tickets, snacks, school supplies and extra-credit points. Breakfast and lunch were free to every student. Many of the costs were covered by private donations.

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