charter wars

Another weapon for charters in their war with the Detroit school district: A new ‘parent’ group that will lobby on behalf of charter schools

PHOTO: Detroit Voice for School Choice
Parents at the GEE Edmonson Academy in Midtown, Detroit, showing support for SB 574.

In the escalating battle over charter schools in Detroit, a local advocacy group is gearing up for an offensive that includes a new weapon: the support and involvement of charter school parents.

The recently formed group, Detroit Voice for School Choice, is planning to recruit, educate and train charter school parents to help advocate for charter-friendly legislation in Lansing and generally push back against what they see as unfair criticism of the independently managed schools.

Detroit Voice for School Choice is in itself a powerhouse of educators and advocates committed to seeing more public money funneled to charters. Pro-district forces argue that sending more tax dollars to charters means less money for Detroit’s district schools. Many of Detroit’s schools, both district and charter, suffer from low test scores and criticism over their effectiveness.  

Members of the group are pulled from some of the largest and most highly respected charter school networks in Detroit, including the leaders of the University Prep Schools and the Cornerstone Schools and New Paradigm for Education schools. New Paradigm runs prominent schools like the Detroit Edison Public School Academy.   

In late November, the group unveiled its parent engagement strategy, which begins with educating parents at partnered charter schools on issues relevant to supporting and expanding the role of charters in the city.

The group’s chairman, Mark Ornstein, who heads the seven-school University Prep network, described it as a “grassroot effort” based in Detroit that is working on the local level for many of the same issues that are also being addressed by a statewide advocacy group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA.

He said Detroit Voice was given $300,000 in seed money by private, pro-charter funders that he declined to identify, though he did specify that no funding is coming from the billionaire philanthropist and pro-charter advocate Betsy DeVos, who now serves as President Trump’s education secretary.

Ornstein said Detroit Voice “has to be in Detroit to really do this work” — a point underscored by Moneak Parker, executive director of Detroit Voice and so far the group’s only staff member.

“Detroit parents are our main focus,” Parker said.

The creation of the group is part of a larger nationwide trend: charter advocacy groups, funded by wealthy donors, that are working to reshape entire school districts. In Denver, New Orleans and Indianapolis, advocacy groups have dramatically shifted enrollment from traditional public schools to charters.

Detroit already has one of the largest charter school enrollments in the nation, with more than half of its roughly 100,000 students attending charters in the city and surrounding suburbs. The charter movement has strong advocates across the state, notably from a powerful political organization called Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by DeVos.

But charters have taken a public relations beating in Detroit in recent years, notably during DeVos’ confirmation hearing when critics linked the poor quality of schools in Detroit to pro-charter laws that were pushed in Michigan by DeVos and her Great Lakes Education Project.

Detroit charters are also facing new challenges as district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recently seized upon criticism of charters in his public vow to “put them out of his business.”

“In the context of Michigan, choice has been disastrous because it has not had guardrails,” Vitti said at a forum in October. “We should not be allowing schools to open as if they’re corner gas stations, hoping that they do well for children.”  

Ornstein said an “anti-choice sentiment” had fostered a climate that required charters to unite to push back. “This is the first time various charters organizations have come together to work together,” he said.

Dan Quisenberry, the president of MAPSA, said the state-level group will collaborate and support the new Detroit-centric group.

“I look forward to giving them information on what is happening in Lansing,” he said. “We’re collaborating. They’re brand new and we support parents, so I look forward to seeing how this develops.”

The group’s first call to action was to gain parent support on Senate Bill 574, which would allow charter schools to receive funding from a millage currently given only to district public school students. Opponents of the bill say it would take money away from district schools already feeling squeezed by what they see as a lack of funding.

As the group gets off the ground, parents will continue to be a large part of its strategy. Already Parker, the group’s executive director, has been visiting Charter Management Organization partner schools and providing workshops on education reform once a month. Parents who show interest are invited to attend six weeks of training to become a fellow.

The fellows will assist Parker in organizing and rallying other parents. Those who complete the training will be paid an annual stipend of “a couple of hundred dollars,” Ornstein said, with the exact amount still to be determined.

“Working with so many different [charter school managers] and charters, we wanted to work in a manner that’s efficient, and utilizing parents who know the school environment and their specific type of campus, it’s important to not have just a cold call, you’re taking advantage of very active parents,” Ornstein said.

David Hecker, president of the AFT, the local teachers union, said he is in favor of empowering parents, no matter their point of view. “If parents want to get together and advocate for schools they think are best, then more power to them,” Hecker said. “I just hope it’s a real parent-led organization, not a charter management-led organization. Whether we agree or disagree, more power to them.”

The group is now looking for additional funding to continue expanding.

“We are a very lean meat organization; there’s not a huge amount of overhead at this point,” Ornstein said. Nevertheless, he said, “There will be the need to look for outside, additional funding. We’ll see where we go in terms of money. If we do the right thing, money will follow.”.

The board of Detroit Voice for School Choice includes:  Ornstein; Ralph Bland, CEO, New Paradigm for Education; Renee Burgess, CEO, Equity Education; Reid Gough, CEO, Cornerstone Education Group; Raymond Smith, vice president, Innovative Teaching Solutions; Kyle Smitley, executive director, Detroit Achievement Academy; and Marwaan Issa, senior executive, Global Educational Excellence.

Marwaan Issa and Ralph Bland are members of both Detroit Voice and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.