Integrated

Detroit just created its first intentionally diverse charter school. Here’s why it might not stay that way

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit Prep charter school aims to be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school.

It was four days into the two-week enrollment period for the new Detroit Prep charter school and Kyle Smitley was starting to worry.

Smitley, the school’s co-founder, had opened Detroit Prep in September with grand ambitions of building the city’s first truly diverse charter school.

She had embraced an idea that’s gained momentum across the country as educators have increasingly acknowledged that the nation’s segregated schools are hurting children and communities, and had managed to recruit an impressively diverse group of black, white, and mixed-race kids for her school’s inaugural year.

Smitley hoped her school’s integrated classrooms could help heal the historic racial divide in a predominantly black city where a flood of new white residents has brought new investment, new energy — and the hurtful perception that the “new Detroit” doesn’t include families who have struggled here for generations.

But the quest for diversity had led Smitley to enroll students in a way that could leave out many Detroiters, opening the school to criticism that it’s catering to the “haves” in a city where most children are among the “have nots.”

And by the fourth day of enrollment, she had reason to fear for the future of her school’s diversity.

As she watched early applications pour in, she saw that most of the families were coming from a few middle-class neighborhoods — ones where white families increasingly are choosing to live.

She knew that state charter school laws would limit her ability to keep the balance. And she fretted about what would happen next.

“We don’t have any control,” she lamented as she scrolled through a list of students who applied. “Our mission and vision isn’t to serve homogenous groups … but there’s nothing we can do.”

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Detroit Prep co-founder Kyle Smitley said she wants her school to serve "all kids" but maintaining her school's diversity will be challenging.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Prep co-founder Kyle Smitley said she hopes classroom integration will help heal the racial divide in Detroit but she faces challenges maintaining her school’s diversity.

In the 20 years since charter schools first opened as a free alternative to traditional district schools in Michigan and around the country, many of the privately run, publicly funded schools have focused on serving poor students in urban areas. It’s one of the reasons why charter schools are some of the most segregated schools in the nation.

But a growing group of educators have tried to change that by building schools designed to attract kids from different backgrounds and different neighborhoods.

It’s not without controversy. “Historically the charter school movement has focused on providing better academic alternatives for students in segregated minority communities and communities with high poverty,” said Dianne Piché, a civil rights attorney and the director of the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools. “So sometimes when charter schools want to open up in less poor areas, concerns are raised.”

But research shows that “students from poverty who are concentrated in a high-poverty school have worse outcomes,” Piché said. “It makes a lot of sense to de-concentrate poverty and one way of doing it is opening a diverse charter school where you have middle income and poor kids together.”

That’s what Smitley and her co-founder, Jen McMillan, had in mind when they decided to open Detroit Prep as the city’s first intentionally diverse charter school.

“It was important for us to create a school to serve all kids … rich, poor, black, white,” Smitley said. “We think that to really prepare kids for the 21st century … we need to create a space where they’re constantly interacting with people who are different from them.”

It was the strength of that idea that enabled Detroit Prep to open at all this year.

New charters have been essentially on hold in Detroit for the last two years as city leaders have grappled with an estimated 30,000 classroom seats sitting empty throughout the city.

Those unused seats — the result of rapid charter school expansion at a time of dramatic population decline — have meant serious financial distress for schools whose budgets are set by student enrollment. School leaders have ramped up pressure on the universities that oversee charters to hold off on new schools until the oversupply is resolved.

The trustees at Grand Valley State University had been pleased with the strong reviews and impressive results at Smitley’s first charter school, the Detroit Achievement Academy, which has served primarily low-income kids in northwest Detroit since it opened in 2013. The school famously appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which spurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations including from celebrities such as Madonna.

But when Smitley applied for permission to open Detroit Prep, GVSU officials worried that her second school could destabilize other schools in the neighborhood by competing with them for students said Rob Kimball, Grand Valley’s deputy director of charter schools.

Smitley addressed that concern by arguing that her new school would be different.

Detroit Prep would be located in Indian Village, a neighborhood known for stately mansions and manicured lawns. Rather than draw students from nearby charter schools, she argued, it would attract families who would otherwise choose private schools or flee to the suburbs.

“Our pushback was that we’re tapping into a new market,” Smitley said.

The new Detroit Prep charter school aims to be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school.
PHOTO: Ali Lapetina
The new Detroit Prep charter school is part of a national movement to diversify charter schools.

That might be controversial, Kimball said, but “my response to that is that the communities of Detroit are changing and our schools should reflect that. We shouldn’t want our schools to replicate the segregation that much of the charter sector has been criticized for … Why shouldn’t we embrace efforts to intentionally integrate schools while maintaining a commitment to open enrollment?”

When Grand Valley trustees green-lighted the school in February, Detroit Prep was the only new charter school allowed to open in Detroit this year.

Smitley and McMillan signed a two-year lease on a church basement in Indian Village. Then they set out to recruit students from across the economic spectrum.

They met with families in the elegant living rooms of Indian Village, inviting parents to visit the Detroit Achievement Academy, and convincing them to help build something most Detroit families don’t have — a free quality school in their own neighborhood.

The pair also visited the local Head Start centers, which serve low-income children, with a similar pitch, promising small class sizes and a project-based curriculum that teaches math, science, reading and the arts through a single subject (this year’s kindergarteners are spending 14 weeks studying trash and recycling). They touted a learning approach that stresses skills like compassion and cooperation and also offered transportation on a school bus that would make stops at two nearby low-income housing developments.

It worked. When the school opened its doors for the first time in September, its inaugural class of 49 kindergarten and first-grade students was truly diverse: 53 percent of students are black, 38 percent are white and 9 percent are mixed-race, Smitley said.

The school also has economic diversity, with 65 percent poor enough to receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

Those numbers are unusual in a city where just 2 percent of students enrolled last year in the city’s main district were white. A full 82 percent of students in the Detroit Public Schools last year were black and 13 percent were Hispanic. Most kids  — 73 percent — were poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Detroit Prep’s diversity has won praise from both black and white parents.

“The student body is extremely diverse. There are interracial, black, white and other families represented, a nice mix of everyone” said Nicole Laws, an African American doctor who lives in northwest Detroit and pulled her children out of a private school this year to take a gamble on Detroit Prep. “The real gift of the school to me, however, is not the racial mix but how they have interwoven the diversity theme into the learning experience, the curriculum, creating a culture of curiosity and respect. This is how you learn. This is how you grow.”

Detroit Prep's founders recruited a diverse group of kids for the school's inaugural year but could face difficulty maintaining the school's diversity.
PHOTO: Ali Lapetina
Children at Detroit Prep are are learning about kids how are different from a young age but maintaining diversity could be a challenge.

Matthew Schmitt, who is white, said Detroit Prep’s diversity was one of the major reasons why he selected the school for his daughter, a first-grader, when he moved this summer from Los Angeles to Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood, just north of Indian Village.

“We’re thrilled about … the intentionality around diversity and integrated education,” Schmitt said, adding that he and Laws are working with the school to help diversify its board and teaching staff, which is predominantly white, so the adults in the school are as diverse as its students.

Teachers say that diversity changes the dynamic in the classroom for the better.

“From a young age, they’re learning about people who are different from themselves,” said kindergarten teacher Shelly Tremaglio, who uses “equity sticks” to make sure she calls on students randomly, rather than allowing personal biases to influence how much attention each student gets.

But as Smitley sets about recruiting students for future years, the diversity her parents, students and teachers all prize might not be that easy to replicate.

* * *

In some states, charter schools can set aside seats for specific groups of children, such as poor kids or those who speak another language. In others, charter schools are allowed to prioritize students from certain neighborhoods.

But in Michigan, strict “open enrollment” rules only allow charter schools to offer priority admission to the siblings of current students and the children of current staff.

That means that if educators want to build diversity — or influence their student populations in any way — they have to get creative.

For Smitley this year, creative meant holding her two-week open enrollment in November for next September’s kindergarten class. That’s months before other schools in Detroit will begin their enrollments and long before most families have even started thinking about next year.

State charter school law doesn’t specify when a charter school should hold its open enrollment. It requires only that the enrollment window be advertised in a newspaper and that it should last at least two weeks. Schools that get more applications than available seats must hold a lottery to determine who gets in, but schools that don’t fill their seats during the enrollment window can fill their remaining openings on a first-come, first-served basis.

Detroit Prep co-founder and Head of School Jen McMillan explains school learning approach that stresses skills like compassion and cooperation.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Prep co-founder and Head of School Jen McMillan explains the school’s learning approach that stresses skills like compassion and cooperation.

By holding her enrollment early in the year, Smitley said shed hoped the process would stay largely under the radar, drawing few applications and enabling her to spend the rest of the year doing targeted recruitment — similar to the approach she used to attract this year’s class.

Early enrollment has other benefits too, since it helps build community by allowing prospective families to attend events throughout the year. It also gives parents the peace of mind of knowing whether their child has a spot for next year.

But Smitley’s methods have opened her to criticism that she’s trying to build a school for the elite.

“In a city that is 82 percent African American, that you would have a public school that has more white children than any other school in the entire city, that doesn’t just happen by mistake. It just doesn’t,” said Danielle North, who works with charter schools through a consulting firm called EdReform Partners. “That doesn’t represent a diverse school.”

A November enrollment is “unprecedented,” North said. “I imagine she followed all the procedures, but no family, particularly lower income, lower education, less savvy families, which make up a large percentage of families in Detroit, would be aware of any open enrollment that would be this early and that would last two weeks.”

Early enrollment windows are used by sought-after schools in other cities, but the tactic is new in Detroit — and for some, it doesn’t sit right.

“Everything about this to me is very, very concerning,” said Neil Dorosin, the executive director of the New York-based Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, an organization that advocates for school choice reform. “The law says ‘two weeks’ and it doesn’t stop you from having those two weeks at a time that’s so far out of the frame of reference for poor families.”

Smitley acknowledged that the approach isn’t ideal but said state law gives her few options to build the kind of integrated school that she believes Detroit needs. She rejected the suggestion that there’s anything wrong with building a school that white, affluent parents want to send their children to.

“It’s no more controversial than the mayor consistently saying that for people to stay in Detroit, we need schools that serve their kids,” she said. “For Detroit to move forward, everybody who lives here has to have a public school that they feel really excited to send their kid to.”

What Smitley didn’t count on was that so many families would be excited about the prospect of Detroit Prep, which is why she was so worried on Nov. 3, the fourth day of enrollment, when a reporter visited her school.

Smitley had advertised her open enrollment window, as required, placing a classified ad in October in the Michigan Chronicle, an African American newspaper. She also advertised the enrollment window on Facebook and asked the parents of current students to help spread the word about the two-week window.

But she assumed that her school was so new — it had been in existence just seven weeks when enrollment began — that only a handful of families would actually apply.

She was wrong. And somehow, news of a promising new school had made a bigger splash on the playgrounds of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.

(I know this because I live in one of those neighborhoods and have a child who will be starting kindergarten next fall. Though I knew very little about Detroit Prep at the time, the first thing I did on the morning of Oct. 31 after dropping my children off at preschool was submit an application to Detroit Prep. I heard two weeks later that my daughter had landed a spot, giving us one option among several we’re considering. Plenty of my neighbors did the same.)

The school got a flood of applications on the first day of enrollment that, judging by their addresses, Smitley guessed “were skewing pretty white and pretty affluent.”

Suddenly, she was faced with the prospect that affluent families could claim all 40 kindergarten seats, turning what was was supposed to be a diverse school into the opposite: Detroit’s first charter school for rich kids.

“Then it’s not a diverse school and that’s what no one wants,” Smitley said.

In the end, just 17 of the available 2017 kindergarten seats filled during the enrollment window, giving her the rest of the school year to try to reach out to churches, neighborhood groups and Head Start centers to fill the remaining 23 seats with a mix of kids.

But when she starts the process again for 2018, the challenge of keeping her enrollment diverse could be even more difficult.

“Next year we’ll have to have a speakeasy enrollment system,” she said. “We’ll just do targeted outreach and not tell anybody or put it on Facebook, not post it anywhere, which doesn’t feel good … Or I could talk the state into doing an income-based lottery, which isn’t going to happen.”

Dorosin said he doesn’t blame Smitley for wanting to create a diverse school — he blames the state of Michigan for its restrictive laws.

“It’s really a shame that the system makes it so that in order for her to offer that product to people, she has to do it in an unfortunately sneaky way,” he said.

Smitley is open to changing her enrollment process but says she has no interest in giving up on diversity.

“I think we’re failing our kids if we allow all kids to sit in rooms with kids that only look like them and that are from the same background,” she said. “So if people think we’re going about it in a bad way, I welcome that feedback because we want to hear all perspectives, good and bad.”

Families wishing to apply to Detroit Prep can fill out an application online.

Trouble with transcripts

Mayor: Detroit high school grads lost jobs because city schools couldn’t produce their transcripts

In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit high school grads lost jobs because school bureaucracy made it hard to get high school transcripts.

By the time students graduate from the Detroit Public Schools, they have likely endured many years of frustrations, indignities and disappointments, but Mayor Mike Duggan revealed in his State of the City address Tuesday night that, for many Detroiters, the challenges didn’t end with graduation.

Until recently, graduates lost job opportunities when they struggled to get copies of their transcripts from the district.

Duggan, during  his roughly hourlong speech, said officials with the city’s Detroit At Work job training program discovered the transcript problem when they were talking with the heads of major hospitals in the city.

The hospital leaders said they were having difficulty filling entry-level positions despite Detroit’s high unemployment rate because Detroiters who applied couldn’t produce their high school transcripts.

City officials were skeptical, Duggan recalled. “So they went over to the Detroit Public Schools and do you know what they found? One million paper transcripts in a warehouse, in a school system run by an emergency manager who was dealing with everything he or she could at the schools.”

It had been taking two to three months for hospitals to get applicants’ transcripts, Duggan said, and “by the time they got the transcript, somebody else had the job.”

The Detroit At Work program contacted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather who “got really mad,” Duggan said, and ordered the district to speed up the process.

Soon, one local business leader donated scanners so transcripts could be digitized and another business leader marshaled his employees to volunteer to physically scan the documents. The issue is being resolved, Duggan said, but he seemed alarmed that the problem existed in the first place.

“How many barriers do we have to erect in front of the folks in this town?” he asked.

The mayor’s speech largely focused on economic and community issues. Since he has very little authority or influence over schools, it’s no surprise that he didn’t spend much time on education.

But he did tout the Detroit Promise scholarship program, which guarantees two years of community college tuition to all Detroit grads as well as four-year tuition to qualifying grads who have good grades and test scores.

“If you apply yourself, college is going to be available to any resident of the city of Detroit who graduates from a Detroit high school,” Duggan said. “It’s one of the privileges of growing up in the city of Detroit.”

He also reiterated his recent vow to fight forced school closings by the state. State officials have threatened to close 25 schools in the city after years of poor test scores but Duggan said closures won’t improve education.

“Here’s what I know for sure,” he said. “We have 110,000 school children in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”

Duggan said he and the newly elected school board “know we need to improve these schools but before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations between the school board leadership and the governor’s office this week. I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out but I want everybody in this community to know that I will be standing with [School Board] President Iris Taylor and the Detroit school board on this entire school closure issue.”

Enroll

How bad timing and poisonous politics killed a $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

A sophisticated new enrollment tool that was supposed to make signing up for school easier in Detroit won’t be of much use to the thousands of families whose children could be displaced by upcoming school closures.

Despite the more than $700,000 and countless hours of planning that went into creating a single application for Detroit’s competing district and charter schools, the effort has been put on hold indefinitely — a victim of bad timing, poor planning, and a toxic political environment.

“It’s a shame,” said Karey Reed-Henderson, a former charter school leader who served on the planning committee for what came to be called Enroll Detroit.

“We came together. We hashed things out,” Reed-Henderson said of a process that brought together charter school leaders with officials from the Detroit Public Schools, the state-run Education Achievement Authority and representatives of community groups.

“It wasn’t always roses and butterflies but the conversation was always around what’s best for the kids and best for families,” she said.

“Unfortunately it just got muddied.”

Now, as 25 Detroit schools face possible shut-down by the state, the handful of staffers still working at Enroll Detroit hope they can use their knowledge and technology to help at least some of the roughly 12,000 children who could be affected.

But the grand vision of creating a common enrollment system similar to those used in other cities is largely dead — at least for the near future.

In common enrollment cities like New Orleans, Denver, Newark and Washington DC, parents no longer need to navigate a mix of deadlines and requirements to apply to multiple schools. They don’t need to drive around, submitting one kind of application to their local district school, another kind to district magnet schools and a host of other applications to a host of charter schools.

Instead, parents use a single application that lets them rank the schools they want for their children. A computer then crunches admission criteria and applies a lottery to assign children to schools.

Proponents say common enrollments are more equitable because most applicants have the same shot at sought-after schools. The systems also remove some of the guesswork for administrators by preventing parents from enrolling in multiple schools, then waiting until September to make their final decisions.

The systems have been controversial around the country, running into opposition in cities like Boston and Oakland because they reduce the influence some parents have had in school admissions. They can also hurt traditional districts by making it easier for families to choose charter schools.

But few cities have the deeply poisonous relationships between district and charter schools that doomed the effort in Detroit.

Here, in a city where roughly equal numbers of students attend district and charter schools, and where thousands of students travel out of town to attend suburban schools, what happened to Detroit’s common enrollment shows how difficult it can be for competing factions to come together. The tensions exposed by the issue are the same ones that make it difficult to solve other serious challenges in Detroit, such as student transportation and teacher recruitment, that would be easier to address if competing schools worked together.

That kind of collaboration isn’t dead, said Reed-Henderson who is the founder of the Metro Detroit Charter Center and the Detroit Teacher Village. “But I think the right people need to get back in the room.”

*       *       *

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

 

Officials with the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit (which is a Chalkbeat supporter) first proposed creating a common enrollment for Detroit in 2013. Though competition for students is fierce in a city where school funding is based almost exclusively on student enrollment, the school leaders who came together around the enrollment effort hoped they could find solutions to shared problems.

“Schools were struggling to find parents and parents were struggling to find schools,” said Dan Quisenberry, who heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group that was involved in the early days of the effort.

There were risks for all parties, said Neil Dorosin, the consultant and school enrollment expert who was brought to Detroit to determine if common enrollment could work here.

“It was very threatening to the district because right now there are a lot of children who don’t make choices because they get rolled up into their district school,” Dorosin said. “It was threatening to the (Education Achievement Authority) for similar reasons. And it was threatening to charter schools who would have to play by a much more transparent set of rules.”

Individually, he said, “it’s not in anyone’s best interest, but it is in the best interest for the customer.”

As the planning group met in 2014 and 2015 to hammer out details, Excellent Schools Detroit raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from foundations and hired a tech company to build a massive database that could match students with schools.

Then, with the system ready to go last year, the group announced it would plow ahead with a pilot project to see how many students it could place for the 2016-2017 school year.

But just as the pilot was launching, a nasty fight was raging in Lansing over a package of bills aimed at keeping the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

One of the provisions in the bills would have created a city-wide Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor, that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools.

The Detroit Education Commission was strongly opposed by some charter school advocates including Betsy DeVos, an influential Michigan philanthropist who was confirmed this month as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Because Excellent Schools Detroit was among Detroit organizations backing the commission and because enrollment was one of the areas over which the commission would have had authority, the issue became politically charged. Though the commission was ultimately removed from the final legislation, the threat of it kept some charter schools away from the enrollment pilot.

“There was a big question of trust,” said Quisenberry, who said he grew concerned that common enrollment officials would steer families to district schools at the expense of charter schools.

To make things even more challenging, the Detroit Public Schools were in turmoil.

Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who was running the district at the start of 2016, resigned amid controversy in early February.

Earley was replaced by former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who agreed to serve as “transition manager” until the the city schools could be returned to a locally elected school board. Because Rhodes did not want to make any long-term commitments for the district, he announced that DPS would not participate in the common enrollment pilot.

That meant that the pilot went forward with less than a quarter of Detroit schools. Of more than 200 schools in the city, just 41 participated in the pilot, including some charter schools, a private school and the 15 schools in the Education Achievement Authority.

The application system placed just 78 children — a fraction of the almost 20,000 kids who were applying to kindergarten or ninth grade, the two grades that were the focus of the pilot.

School enrollment counselors also provided advice to a few hundred additional families, including some who were displaced by charter schools that closed last year.

*       *       *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
A multi-year, $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit has been tabled indefinitely.

Whether common enrollment has a future in Detroit isn’t clear.

The new Detroit school board, which was sworn in last month, has not yet publicly discussed the issue. A district official who played an important role in the planning process and a district spokeswoman both declined to comment on whether the district might someday be open to joining a common enrollment system.

Meanwhile, at Excellent Schools Detroit, a new interim director is rethinking the organization’s mission. The group’s two top officials — its longtime CEO and vice president — both left at the end of 2016.

But some Enroll Detroit staffers are still on the payroll, and they say they’re looking to use the resources they’ve created to help families affected by state-mandated school closings this spring.

State officials “are saying, ‘We want to get the kids in a higher quality school’ but what kind of chance are they going to have?” asked Maria Montoya, Enroll Detroit’s executive director.

Families won’t know for sure which schools will close until March or even later since state decisions are likely to be challenged in court. By then, many of Detroit’s most sought-after schools, including charter schools and selective district schools, will already have completed their enrollments.

Many of the schools targeted for closure are in neighborhoods that don’t have many high-performing schools and where parents have few resources to figure out which schools are taking new students and which offer transportation.

A letter state officials sent to parents suggested they reach out to districts as far as an hour away from Detroit — including some that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Montoya said she’s hoping to adapt Enroll Detroit’s computer system to help track kids as they move to new schools, making sure their records transfer and that things like special education services are continued — details that sometimes fall through through the cracks when schools close.

She’s also hoping that over the summer, some schools will use Enroll Detroit to fill vacancies.

“Instead of using the full system, we could take the technology we have and have schools give us the seats they have available and we could do a real-time placement in June, July, and August when we know families are really applying and looking for seats,” Montoya said.

City leaders are no longer talking about a single city-wide application but there have been conversations around smaller steps such as a common application timeline that would make things easier for parents and schools.

If district and charter school leaders ever do decide to restart the full common enrollment, Montoya said the system remains available and could be fired back up.

“We have all this investment and not just in the technology,” Montoya said. “We have the folks who did our marketing. They created assets other cities have taken years to build. We have logos and tents and outreach things … We have staff and a team and knowledge. The question is: How do you move forward in this landscape?”