Lansing schools increase enrollment, graduation rates. What’s next?


When Ben Shuldiner took over as superintendent of the Lansing School District in 2021, he knew his work was cut out for him.

 “The first thing I needed to say was that the district is not doing as well by its kids as it should be,” he said. “The test scores and graduation rates were certainly not great, and there were a lot of other things that needed improvement. It would have been fraudulent to not acknowledge that.”

 In the decade leading up to Shuldiner’s hiring, the district’s net enrollment had decreased by 2,290 students, with an average of 229 students dropping out annually. In the school year before Shuldiner came on board, only 12.2% of its students met college readiness benchmarks, according to

Nearly three years later, the district’s state testing scores remain far below the state average.

However, Shuldiner said that to foster significant academic improvement,  the district first needed to focus on reversing plummeting enrollment, raising graduation rates and reducing the number of students considered chronically absent.

Some incremental progress has been made. In November, the district announced its first enrollment increase in three decades, with 136 new students bringing the total to 9,909. Ten years ago, that number was 12,463. The district also recorded its highest four-year graduation rate since at least 2006, with 76.37%, or 514 of 673 high school seniors donning caps and gowns in 2023 — up from 68.16%.

Still, as Shuldiner admitted at the district’s Board of Education meeting last week, there’s still a long road ahead.

“I want to be very clear here, we’re not perfect. We’re not even amazing yet, but the process that we’re taking in terms of moving forward has been quite substantial,” he said.

“One of our failings has been transportation,” he added, citing a nationwide school bus driver shortage that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

In response, before the 2022-’23 school year, the district announced that it would no longer use the Dean Transportation bus company for its high school routes. Instead, the district adopted a new policy where families of high school students can choose between a free CATA bus pass for students  or a $50 gas card per child starting before the school year. So far, the district has issued 2,656 gas cards and 755 CATA cards.

While the system is not ideal, Shuldiner said the decision may have boosted high school attendance numbers because students who miss a CATA bus can wait for the next one. However, K-8 students who are too young to ride with CATA unattended still face challenges in getting to school.

“If you look at the elementary attendance over the course of a month, and if a number went down by a couple of points, I can almost guarantee you it’s because two buses didn’t run. We’re still struggling with that,” he said.

 Another obstacle is Michigan’s Schools of Choice policy, which enables parents to enroll their children outside their home district, taking those state education dollars with them. Last year, the Lansing School District saw over 6,500 resident pupils go elsewhere: 833 to Holt Public Schools, 706 to Waverly Community Schools and 532 to the East Lansing School District.

“Families choose to do this because they think the education is better somewhere else,” Shuldiner said. “Our job is to convince them that they’re wrong, but I don’t begrudge a parent for thinking that because, for decades, that’s what the community has been telling them.”

 It’s a vicious cycle of public perception, but one that’s also backed by cold, hard facts. According to the Michigan Schools Index System — a 1 to 100 rating issued annually for each school and in categories like student proficiency and graduation rates — Lansing’s three high schools averaged 42.66 last year. Okemos High School and East Lansing High School scored 89.87 and 75.33, respectively.

One factor in those scores is staffing, which remains a crucial emphasis area for the district. Right now, Shuldiner said the district is short 56 full-time teachers and “another 100 or so staff.” In response, the district approved a new teacher contract last fall that raised the starting salary for teachers to $45,000.

Facilities are another concern. When Shuldiner took over, an alarming number of the district’s buildings were using classrooms without proper air conditioning.

Part of the fix came in 2022, when voters approved a $129.7 million bond that will revamp Mount Hope Elementary, Willow Elementary and Lewton School by 2027.

Mount Hope and Willow, facilities that didn’t have air conditioning, are being demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. During construction, students who went to those schools are attending Woodcreek Elementary and Riddle Elementary, respectively.

Reo Elementary, another building without air conditioning, became Lansing’s new election center this year after former students transitioned to Attwood New Tech Magnet School last fall.

“By combining those six schools into three, each of the three schools that those kids are currently in are air-conditioned. Meanwhile, we’re taking offline a lot of schools that are not air-conditioned and adding those in,” Shuldiner said.

As the work to improve in those areas continues, Shuldiner hopes to see fewer dropouts. Over the last decade, the district averaged 184 dropouts per year, compared with 10 or fewer for the East Lansing School District.

Last year, the dropout rate decreased from 17.04% to 8.62%, down from 122 students to 58. It was the first time since began keeping records in 2006 that the district had fewer than 100 dropouts.

“Most people look at graduation rates first, but the fact that we did this with our dropout rates is in some respects even more difficult, because it means you’re holding on to every child — even if they’re all not succeeding within four years,” Shuldiner said.

 The administration has set a goal to have 11,500 students enrolled, an 85% graduation rate and 90% attendance by 2025. The first would require bringing nearly 1,600 new students in within two years, which Shuldiner admitted “may not be realistic.”

Still, Shuldiner, a 46-year-old Harvard graduate who founded New York City’s High School for Public Service when he was just 26, is optimistic that a major turnaround is possible.

“I knew coming in that Lansing had a lot of latent potential, being the capital city and having MSU down the street. There’s an infrastructure that a city of 125,000 typically doesn’t have. The problem is that the systems and the structures weren’t in great shape, and it would be really special to turn that around,” he said.



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