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.

Barriers to entry

For many students meeting New York City’s high school application deadline, it’s already too late

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

The day before the city’s high school application deadline, Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, encountered a parent whose child wanted to apply to Baruch College Campus High School, a highly sought-after school in Manhattan with a 100 percent graduation rate.

Moskop had to explain to the family that the school is essentially off-limits to them, she said. It’s not that the student is low-achieving, Moskop said, but the family does not live in District 2 — and 99 percent of last year’s incoming class at Baruch came from that district.

The fact that students who live in certain geographic areas have “priority status” is just one way in which a system with over 400 high schools is, in practice, narrowed for students and families. By Thursday, when high school applications were due, Moskop said, many New York City students had likely abandoned their favorite schools.

“It’s almost, how quickly are the kids willing to give up on their dreams?” she said.

New York City’s high school choice process, which allows students to rank their top 12 schools, should make all schools available to any student regardless of where they live. But many roadblocks complicate that ideal.

By the time the deadline approaches, students at low-performing middle schools tend not apply to high-performing high schools, even if they have high test scores, according to a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The system is notoriously difficult to navigate, particularly for students who live in low-income areas and have less help moving through the process. Some schools have geographic priority, some have academic requirements, and others ask students to provide information beyond what is actually needed.

Many families also hit snags when it comes to attending open houses or a high school fair. These can give students a leg up in admissions, but families often do not realize their importance until it’s too late, teachers and counselors said.

“They don’t go to the open houses,” said Gloria Carrasquillo, a guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 in the Bronx. “They just have that application in a drawer or something.”

Another set of students may see options vanish because of their academic records. Many schools are “screened,” which means they accept students based on factors like grades, test scores and attendance. Families often have unrealistic expectations about whether their children will be competitive, said Elaine Espiritu, family impact coordinator at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School.

Department of Education officials said they are working with middle schools and families to ease the process. This year, they added more information about the application process to the High School Directory, and launched a new website called SchoolFinder, which allows students to search for schools that match their interests.

“We’re committed to making the admissions process to New York City’s high schools easier for students and families and we are listening to the feedback of students, families, and guidance counselors,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

At Brooklyn Laboratory, Espiritu said families appreciated the new SchoolFinder app, and the school organized more than a dozen meetings to make sure families had as much information as possible. Still, the process can be tough, said Eric Tucker, co-founder and executive director of the school.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure that families have the tools to quickly get a kind of snapshot view of the kind of the data that matters most,” Tucker said. “But even then, this is an imperfect process because that amount of choice is overwhelming.”

behind the scenes

Trump’s nominee for ed chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

While many Tennesseans are still unfamiliar with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to oversee the nation’s schools, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos already has quietly influenced the state’s contentious tug-of-war over a school voucher program.

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

Vouchers, which allow the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition, have been a hot potato issue in Tennessee in recent years. Three times since 2011, a voucher bill for low-income students has been approved by the state Senate, only to be shot down in the House, where lawmakers responded to constituent concerns about undermining public schools. But the votes have been increasingly close. During the most recent session, the proposal was only two votes shy of the necessary 50 to become law.

This year, the Tennessee Federation for Children targeted several seats aimed at tipping the balance. Republican Paul Sherrell, who received a $5,000 contribution, defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kevin Dunlap for a seat representing Warren, Grundy and White counties. A public high school teacher, Dunlap virulently opposed vouchers during both years of his term serving on a House education panel.

The group also spent nearly $6,000 in support of Republican Michael Curcio, who won the Dickson-area district seat held by Democrat and voucher opponent David Shepard before he retired this year.

This summer, Tennessee Federation for Children was active during the summer’s Democratic primaries in Memphis, where the latest voucher proposal would have the largest impact. There, the affiliate spent $54,466 in support of school choice candidates — and a combined $25,144 against incumbents Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, who consistently have voted against voucher bills. Parkinson and Turner retained their seats, and only one candidate supported by the Tennessee Federation for Children won: Rep. John DeBerry, a passionate believer that vouchers would improve outcomes in his city.

The Tennessee affiliate is funded in part by DeVos’s philanthropic foundation, the Alliance for School Choice, receiving $200,000 in 2014. The same year, the foundation awarded $100,000 to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank that encourages lawmakers to embrace school choice legislation including vouchers.

It’s not yet clear if the Tennessee House’s pro-voucher contingent gained sufficient ground as a result of spending in this year’s elections, though the lead sponsor of last year’s voucher bill is optimistic.

“The elections definitely benefitted those who believe parents should have a choice in where the students go to school,” Rep. Bill Dunn said this week.

The Knoxville Republican noted that support for vouchers has steadily increased in Tennessee since he was first elected to the legislature more than 20 years ago. While he believes that support needs to grow to clinch the voucher vote, he attributes the gradual rise in part to groups like Tennessee Federation for Children.

“I’m very, very happy that people have gotten involved and said they’re willing to support this,”  he said.

Want to know more about how Tennessee’s most recent voucher proposal would impact schools? Read our explainer here.