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.

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”