National networks have overlooked Detroit. A local fund is banking on homegrown charters.

If nationally renowned charter school networks won’t come to Detroit, the city will just have to grow its own.

That’s the idea behind a nonprofit’s latest bet on K-12 schools in Detroit. Over the next two years, the Detroit Children’s Fund plans to give $3.5 million to four charter schools, hoping that instructional coaches, new technology, and retention bonuses for educators will help provide a model for improving schools in Detroit.

Efforts to woo nationally renowned charter organizations to Detroit have been unsuccessful so far, in part because the city’s existing schools are already underenrolled.

So the Children’s Fund is embracing the more complicated work of directly improving schools. Major attempts to turn around struggling schools have produced mixed results so far. The Children’s Fund, which is affiliated with the Skillman Foundation, hopes to build on that research — and produce better results for students in the process.

The project comes as many policymakers in Michigan are pushing to expand state funding for all schools in the state, especially those with more students who are at risk of falling behind.

(Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Read our ethics policy here.)

“We as a funder are certainly eager to have those conversations with high-performing networks,” said Jack Elsey, president of the Children’s Fund. “But there are lots of challenges to taking that approach. It can’t be the only strategy.”

The Children’s Fund is donating directly to charter schools that it thinks could meet its definition of excellence, but aren’t quite there yet. Its staff believe that roughly 1 in 10 Detroit schools are “high quality” based on their test scores, teacher turnover, and other measures.

The list includes Escuela Avancemos; Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences; Hope Academy; and Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. They were selected because they are located in neighborhoods with few quality school options, because they showed some indications of academic strength, and because their leaders were eager to work with the Children’s Fund, Elsey said.

If the schools make academic gains, the grants could continue for as many as seven years. By 2025, the Children’s Fund wants to help invest $85 million in the city’s traditional and charter schools. It has already spent $5 million to expand New Paradigm for Education, a charter network in the city, and also has provided training to principals and their teams in Detroit’s main district.

Previous efforts to bolster Detroit’s charter sector with charitable donations have produced checkered results. In 2009, four foundations spent $13 million to help open new charter high schools. Four of the 11 schools closed within a decade — some collapsing abruptly — and an architect of the project acknowledged last year that it didn’t come close to reaching its goals for student achievement.

The Children’s Fund is closely linked to the Skillman Foundation, one of the groups that led the 2009 effort.

Critics say philanthropists should focus on lobbying for structural improvements to Michigan’s school system, such as increased funding.

“If a charter school can only do well if it has a lot of philanthropic money pumped into it, that’s not a scalable model,” said Tom Pedroni, an education professor at Wayne State University and frequent charter critic. “Investing more money in charter experiments is only throwing more good money after bad.”

Elsey disputes the notion that previous efforts didn’t work. But he said the Children’s Fund learned from Skillman’s previous work, along with other school improvement projects across the country.

“We are listening to the schools, and better asking them what they need,” he said. “Those are all things that either weren’t present or weren’t present enough” in other efforts.

For Escuela Avancemos, the grant puts an exclamation point on a recent turnaround. Just three years ago, the tiny charter was put on a state watchlist for test scores that were among the worst in the state.

Since then, the school’s rapidly improving scores got it off the watchlist and onto the radar of the Children’s Fund. The grants will total $437,000 per year, said Principal Sean Townsin. That’s roughly a 15 percent bump above the school’s current revenues from the state. Townsin called the amount “very substantial” given the size of the school, which enrolls about 300 students.

The funds will go toward retention bonuses for teachers and administrators who stay at the school — an attempt to curtail high teacher turnover that plagues schools across the city. A portion of the bonuses — each worth $3,000 — will be paid out to returning teachers in November, and the remainder will go out at the end of the year.

Escuela Avancemos will also get an instructional coach, new laptops, and new curriculum.

Those resources will the help the school reach a lofty long-term goal, Townsin said. Few schools in Detroit meet state state averages for proficiency on Michigan’s standardized tests, but he says Escuela Avancemos can get there within five years — with help.

“When we’re talking about the structural and systemic problems in Detroit, you need that level of partnership to move the needle,” Townsin said.

Scroll down to see how officials from the Detroit Children’s Fund presented its charter school grants to its board of directors.