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.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.

 

Detroit's future

Reading, writing and soap suds: The unusual new program that teaches kids while their parents do the wash

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit"s Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

The days of bored kids hanging out in front of the TV at Detroit’s Fit and Fold laundromat could be over.

Now, there are books for kids to read — and take home — near the washing machines. There are computers stocked with educational software. And, a few times a week, there’s a picnic table in the parking lot where instructors read to children and work with them on their writing skills.

“This is good for everyone,” said Aaron Eley, 31, who was washing clothes inside the Fit and Fold in the city’s North End neighborhood on a recent evening as his children — Christian, 10, Ma’Kayla, 6 and Aaliyah, 2 — sat with instructors at the table outside.

“It’s good for the parents. They get to wash the clothes,” he said as his children played a matching game that involved finding words in books and writing them on index cards. “And it’s good for the kids. They get to learn some stuff.”

The books, the computers and the picnic table are part of a program called Wash and Learn that’s taking place this summer at three Detroit laundromats through an organization called Libraries Without Borders.

As educators increasingly recognize that teaching children during traditional school hours is simply not enough, Libraries Without Borders and its local partners have been experimenting with bringing literacy programs into people’s lives.  

That includes people whose lives are too complicated to allow them to attend classes or tutoring programs at libraries or community centers. And it includes the kids from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely to lose academic ground over the summer than their more affluent peers.

“The folks who would benefit most from library programs often don’t know they exist, don’t know they’re eligible for a library card or don’t have a consistent enough schedule to go to a Tuesday 6 p.m. program every week,” said Allister Chang, Libraries Without Borders’ executive director.

Chang’s organization offers programs that help children and adults with reading, computers and other skills. It has brought pop up literacy programs to places such as train stations, hospitals, parks and street corners, testing different times and locations in different cities to see what works.

Those experiments proved that some locations were problematic, Chang said.

At the park, “you’re competing against nature at all times,” Chang said. People couldn’t see the computers if it was too bright. If it rained, the park would empty out.

At train stations or on street corners, people don’t usually hang around. “Everyone’s rushing to go somewhere else,” Chang said.

But at laundromats, people have time, they have shelter and they’re often looking for something to do.

“At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” Chang said. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

So Libraries Without Borders started piloting Wash and Learn this summer, testing out child literacy programs at the Fit and Fold and two other Detroit laundromats — the Sunshine Laundry Center in Southwest Detroit and the Coinless Laundromat on the city’s west side.

In New York City, the organization piloted an adult Wash and Learn program, helping people create digital resumes and apply for jobs online at a laundromat in the Bronx.

“We’re talking about equal opportunity here,” Chang said. “After school and over summer vacations, we find in the data that wealthier families are able to send their kids to continue doing more literacy-developing activities than children from low-income families.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Stacy Lorne of Libraries Without Borders reads a book with children at the Fit and Fold laundromat in Detroit.

Some studies show that households in low-income neighborhoods have just one book for every 300 children — far less than in wealthier neighborhoods.

“Isn’t that terrifying?” Chang asked. “We know how just having access to reading materials outside of school can help make sure that you develop a vocabulary over the year and we know how much that affects graduation rates and job employability.”

Wash and Learn aims to change that, which is why books are available at the laundromats for children to take home, whether or not the instructors are present. It’s why the computers are available whenever the laundromats are open.

And when the program is in session, instructors work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, helping them with whatever they need. On a recent night, that included a one-year-old who was just learning to connect with books, older children who were practicing their writing skills and several kids who wanted to spend time on the computers.

So far, the program has been a big hit at the Fit and Fold, said Justin Johanon, who manages the laundromat.

The Fit and Fold has always had exercise equipment available for adults to use while they wait for their clothes to get clean, but there wasn’t much for kids, Johanon said.

“Their parents would plop them down and they would hang around, doing nothing,” he said.

Now, he said, kids are taking the free books and using the computers even on days when the the instructors aren’t there. “It’s awesome,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Wash & Learn program has been in three Detroit laundromats this summer, offering kids instruction in reading, writing and computers.

The North End neighborhood has been surrounded by dramatic change in Detroit. Less than a mile to the south is the New Center neighborhood, where developers are building expensive new condo buildings and where the new QLINE train picks up commuters to deliver them downtown.

Nearby to the north, the price of historic mansions in the Boston Edison neighborhood has been climbing.

But the blocks around the laundromat are filled with families who have struggled for years, Johanon said. Right next to the laundromat is an apartment building that’s home to many children whose parents have trouble making ends meet.

“No one in there has internet. No one has a computer,” Johanon said. “There’s a bunch of apartments, a bunch of kids, and no one in there has anything. A lot of people can’t afford even to do laundry.”

Johanon said he’s tried to let the neighborhood know that kids can come to the reading program even if their parents aren’t washing clothes.

“I just care about what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said.

It is that enthusiasm from laundromat owners and employees that has been the best part of the program so far, said Stacy Lorne, the Wash and Learn Detroit program coordinator.

“They take such pride in this program and such excitement,” Lorne said. “They’re bringing the kids to the computers when we’re not there and they’re making sure they know how to use the technology to get the kids logged on.”

One Detroit laundromat owner gave her $150 to buy snacks for kids, she said. Another printed flyers to help spread the word.

The Wash and Learn pilot program will end later this month but Libraries Without Borders has signaled that it plans to extend and expand the program, serving kids after school and on weekends once the school year begins. Local community partners say they, too, are invested for the long haul.

Wash and Learn “was their idea but we see the benefit so we’re going to keep this here,” said Cindy Eggleton, whose Brilliant Detroit organization is the local partner at the Fit and Fold and Sunshine laundromats.

Brilliant Detroit has family centers focused on families with kids aged 0-8 in several Detroit neighborhoods including one a block from the Fit and Fold. The organization sees the laundromat program as a great way to spread the word about its other programs, including a free all-day “Kids Club,” parenting classes, financial literacy classes and a teen gardening and nutrition program, Eggleton said. “It serves as a place for us to meet neighbors and if they want to come for more, they can come to the Brilliant Detroit house.”

Eggleton notes that programs that promote early childhood literacy are especially important in Michigan now that a new state law will soon require kids who can’t pass a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade.

Libraries Without Borders is encouraged by the early results from the pilot program this summer. The number of kids who have been served so far is relatively low — more than 80 children and their parents have worked with instructors at the three Detroit laundromats. Almost 100 books have been distributed, including children’s books and books geared for young adults.

But the organization sees this pilot program as a first step to possibly someday turning laundromats into places where people know they can go for help.

“This is something we are planning to take nationally,” Chang said, noting that the group soon hopes to have Wash and Learn programs in four other cities.

It just makes sense, he said. “Laundromat workers are in the local community. They care about the local families and this is also a way for them to get more business. This laundromat has programs and computers that others don’t.”