Integrated

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

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

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.”

***

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.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.