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She moved to a Detroit neighborhood for the school. Now her kid is on a waitlist.

A young student kneels on a mat playing with multicolored toys

Montessori preschool classrooms in Detroit have been in especially high demand.

Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat

India Hester is the kind of parent the Detroit school district has been waiting for: Someone who chose to move to the city because of the schools.

In Hester’s case, it was not just any school, but specifically the Montessori program at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, right in her neighborhood, one of the specialized programs the district has developed in recent years to try to reverse decades of steep enrollment declines.

But with school starting in just a few weeks, Hester’s daughter doesn’t yet have a spot in the Montessori preschool classroom. She’s on a waitlist, along with 44 other children, including some who live just blocks from the school. Meanwhile, three children who live outside the city got preschool slots.

The district blames a spike in applications and confusion over the enrollment criteria. But some parents in Detroit are directing their frustration at the district for policies that they say cost them a chance to enroll their children in the neighborhood school they wanted. Slots for 4-year-olds were distributed randomly, without preference for city residents or those who applied early.

Some parents warn that the district’s handling of the process risks alienating a group it has courted: Detroit parents choosing between charters, suburban districts, and city schools.

“I wasn’t expecting not to be able to get into a neighborhood school,” said Hester, who plans to send her daughter to private preschool this year and isn’t sure whether she will enroll her daughter in the district next year.  “I purchased my home based on these opportunities, and now I’m being denied them.”

The scramble for seats in this pocket of the city is in some senses a welcome sign for the Detroit district, which has lost more than two-thirds of its enrollment in the past two decades, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. About half of Detroit students now attend charter schools in the city or suburbs. Another 12,000 attend traditional districts in the suburbs.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has worked to expand the district’s specialty programs, including Montessoris like the one at Palmer Park, as a way to convince parents to take another look at schools in the city district.

“We are excited about this challenge,” Vitti said in an email, referring to the Montessori enrollment issue. By adding Montessori classrooms at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, he said he hoped to “attract families directly in the neighborhood.”

But the enrollment process angered parents who moved to the neighborhood near Palmer Park Preparatory Academy in hopes of walking their children to the Montessori program. 

Adding to parents’ frustration, some families were wait-listed even though they applied within minutes of the application’s release in March. They say they weren’t told that the district had replaced its longstanding first-come-first-served policy with a random selection process. The district says the change is fairer to working parents whose schedules don’t allow them to fill out the application immediately after it is released.

That shift mirrors a national trend aimed at boosting equity in applications for specialty schools by randomizing the process and allowing districts to focus on neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, the district adopted a lottery system for admission to its selective schools. Districts from Pasadena, California, to New Haven, Connecticut, offer neighborhood preference in such schools.

Vitti says he plans to recommend that the school board change the policy at Palmer Park Prep to prioritize neighborhood children for admission to the Montessori program.

A draw for families

Montessori is a free-flowing teaching method that encourages learning by allowing students to pursue their interests. In recent years, researchers have found preliminary evidence that these programs are academically effective. Long the domain of private schools — and thus of affluent families — the Montessori method has gained traction in public schools nationwide, including in Michigan. The number of public schools in the state with “Montessori” in their name grew from 14 to 27 over the last two decades. That number doesn’t account for Montessori programs housed within a conventional elementary school, such as the one at Palmer Park Prep. 

Palmer Park Prep has 413 students enrolled, most of whom attend traditional classrooms. In 2017, the district opened several Montessori classrooms in the building, part of an expansion of Montessori options districtwide. The school is located in the University District, a neighborhood on Detroit’s northern edge that has one of the city’s highest median incomes.

DPSCD’s Montessori programs offer something that’s very difficult to find in Michigan: free, high-quality preschool slots with no income requirements for admission. The state’s high-quality preschool program, Great Start Readiness, uses family income to determine eligibility.

Several parents on the waitlist at the Palmer Park Montessori said they don’t qualify for GSRP because their incomes are too high. (Even for middle-income families, tuition for private child care for a 4-year-old is expensive, typically costing $8,890 per year, according to one recent report.)

The school district was previously able to admit almost all applicants to the Palmer Park Montessori, Vitti said, but interest in all three of the district’s Montessori schools spiked this year. Parents submitted 204 applications for Montessori pre-K classrooms, compared with 176 applications for all grades last year.

Neighborhood benefit?

While school districts must offer seats to all children within their borders, they can establish their own enrollment procedures for specialty programs like the Montessori at Palmer Park. Seats for 4-year-olds aren’t governed by the rules of K-12 enrollment, including Michigan’s Schools of Choice policy.

DPSCD has 16 schools that require applications, some of which require an exam to get in. Among these schools, only the School at Marygrove prioritizes neighborhood children for admittance. Other specialty programs, such as Cass Tech and Renaissance high schools, don’t give city residents preference; 20% of students at those two schools are non-Detroiters.

At the Palmer Park Montessori, of the 57 students who were accepted across all grade levels, eight, or 14% live outside the city. There are 60 students on the waitlist.

Maurice Telesford, whose daughter was admitted to the Montessori preschool at Palmer Park this year, said he chose the school because it is popular among his friends in the University District neighborhood, where he has lived for 12 years. He was born in Southfield but moved to Detroit to support the city, and said he was troubled by the fact that residents weren’t given priority for the program.

“It would be great to hear someone say ‘Hey, we missed this. Here’s what we’re going to try to do to make it right,’” he said.

Some parents in the neighborhood around Palmer Park Prep say they haven’t given up hope that their children will be chosen for admission to the Montessori. Samara Etheridge moved to the area from the other side of Detroit in part because of the program.

“I’m optimistic that I will get that call,” she said.

If it doesn’t arrive, she said she’d rather keep her child out of preschool for a year than send him to another school.

“We’ll try again for kindergarten.”

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

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