School Choice

Detroit public schools try to lure skeptical families by adding Montessori programs

In an effort to at least slow the dramatic enrollment declines that have long hobbled public schools in Detroit, officials are hoping to attract families to new Montessori programs opening next month.

“Detroit Public Schools right now is most concerned about ways to give people options,” Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told a small group of parents who came out to an information session about the program this week. “How to do we give options, opportunities and be innovative about doing that?”

Montessori programs, which put kids in mixed-aged classrooms and encourage them to learn independently, have long been popular with affluent families. The approach is used in many private schools across the country.

But when Meriweather heard about public Montessori programs opening in other states, she said wanted to bring those programs to Detroit so that city kids could have access to the same kinds of programs available to children whose families have more resources.

“I went to a conference and there was an administrator there from another state who was talking about their public school Montessori program … and I said ‘Why can’t we do that?’” she recalled.

That was back when Meriweather was the district’s curriculum director.

Now she’s the interim superintendent and the district is preparing to open seven Montessori classrooms in three diverse city neighborhoods — in midtown at Spain Elementary School, in southwest Detroit at Maybury Elementary, and in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood at Edison Elementary.

All three schools will have programs for 4- to 6-year-olds. Edison will also have a class for first and second graders.

“This is not an experiment,” Meriweather said. “[Montessori] is a method that’s been proven over many, many, many years to work.”

The district is now training its first group of Montessori teachers and says that both lead teachers and their assistants will have Montessori certifications. The plan is to enroll 17 to 20 students in each classroom, limiting the student-teacher ratio to 10 to 1 with a lead teacher and an assistant.

Many of the teachers going through the training are educators who sent their own children to Montessori schools “and felt so strongly about what it had done for their own kids that they felt our students deserved that opportunity,” Meriweather said.

Parents who attended the information session Tuesday evening in Maybury’s future Montessori classroom in Southwest Detroit expressed concerns about enrolling their children in a program with an uncertain future given that Meriweather’s tenure with the district could end when a new school board takes over in January.

But she said the program is funded for three years and argued that dedicated parents who believe in the program can keep it going no matter who is in charge. Eventually, she said, she’d like to see Detroit schools offer Montessori programs all the way up through high school.

“You’re tax-paying citizens,” she said. “If this is something you want for your kids and you see it as valuable, I don’t see how they could close it.”

Families who want apply for slots in one of the inaugural classes must submit applications by Aug. 22. Parents of children accepted will have to attend a mandatory parent orientation Aug. 28. Admissions will be determined through a lottery except for some of the slots for 4-year-olds, since some funding for the younger kids will come through a state program that requires schools to give priority to needy children.

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.