DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday he’s bullish on Detroit schools, just weeks after saying they were at the “bottom of the barrel.”

Speaking before a Detroit crowd of about 200, Duncan praised Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Roy Roberts as strong leaders who make tough decisions. In a year, the city’s lowest-performing schools will be lumped together for extra emphasis, with principles and staff empowered to run each.

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“You have a leadership team in place … all the building blocks to do something remarkable,” Duncan said at Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science, considered one of Detroit’s best elementary schools.

Duncan, on stage with Snyder, Roberts and others, spoke to parents, educators and local officials as part of a back-to-school tour of the Midwest. He said he “couldn’t be more hopeful, more optimistic” about city schools and would consider his time in office a “failure” if things don’t improve.

“Parents have to be part of the solution. We have to challenge them. And, so in very tough economic times we’re trying to double out funding for parental engagement, from about $135 million to about $280 (million),” Duncan said.

“This is not about feel good parental engagement. This is not about bake sales. This is about how is parental engagement going to increase student achievement, how is it going to lead to higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates,” he said.  “If you can demonstrate that then we want to invest.”

Later, Duncan told reporters that Detroit could become the fastest improving urban district in the country. In June, when Snyder and Roberts announced plans to focus on poor performers, he said the city was at the “bottom of the barrel as far as education.”

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“Part of my job is to tell the truth,” Duncan said during the forum Thursday.

Detroit’s graduation rate lags behind the national average. The district budgeted for 66,000 students but only 43,660 were in class Tuesday, the first day. By comparison, total enrollment was 104,000 in 2007.

Duncan said “there’s no excuse” for kids not being in school. Roberts said about 50 district employees will be fanning out across Detroit to reach parents. State funding for schools is based on enrollment, and a key count day is Sept. 28.

We’ll know if they’re in our system or someone else’s system. … We’re so afraid that these are the same kids that will drop out of school and then half of those kids will end up in prison. We don’t want that,” Roberts told the Associated Press.

Duncan’s bus next took him to the University of Michigan, where he talked to students and faculty about ways to improve teacher training.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.