charter challenges

The future of 4,000 students is in limbo as Detroit district delays vote on charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Shortly after arriving in Detroit last year, schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti put 13 charter schools on notice: They might have to scramble to survive.

Unlike most of the privately managed, publicly funded charter schools in Michigan, these schools are not overseen by colleges or universities. Instead, the schools got their charters, or contracts, from Detroit’s main school district, which now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The district has 106 schools of its own — and those schools compete with charters for student and teachers.

Vitti announced last summer that the district was thinking of getting out of the charter school business to better focus on the schools it runs directly. He put the matter in front of the school board at a special session in November, with the expectation that there would be a vote in December.

But the matter wasn’t on the school board’s December agenda. It wasn’t on the January agenda, and Vitti now says he’s not sure when a decision will be made.

“Until the board decides to move in a different direction, we are continuing to actively support our district charters,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last week. “At this point, a special meeting has not been called to change direction. When the contracts of individual district charter schools expire, district staff will review their status and make a recommendation to the board for renewal or non-renewal.”

The uncertainty has left about 4,000 students in limbo.

The schools — including some popular schools like David Ellis Academy West, Escuela Avancemos, and Timbuktu Academy — might need to find new authorizers to stay open. And seven of the schools might even need to find new buildings because they’re currently operating in schools that are owned by the district, which could decide to use the buildings in other ways.

“To start over, we would need to find an authorizer, but also find a building,” said a member of a charter school board that leases school property from the district. He asked not to be identified for fear that speaking out could hurt his school. “We would have to attract all new students, potentially in direct competition with the district, which is something we would not be happy about. It makes me tired just thinking about it.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said schools with contracts expiring next year would need to know soon whether they must find a new authorizer and potentially new buildings. Otherwise, administrators could be left scrambling and kids could be without schools.

Five of the schools’ contracts are set to expire at the end of 2019 and a sudden decision not to renew a contract could result in students being left without a school in the middle of the school year, charter leaders say.

“They’re certainly nervous,” Quisenberry said. “They have a very uncertain future now.”

Angela Miles, a parent whose child goes to the Timbuktu Academy, said she wants the Detroit school board to make a decision. “I want there to be a vote so I know ahead of time, so if it closed I could prepare and put my kids somewhere else,” she said.

“This school is dependable – there’s latch key, there’s activities, they’re very involved,” said Okima Smith, another Timbuktu Academy parent. “This is like the last neighborhood school in this area. It would be very hard if the school closed.”

But Vitti said the consideration to potentially stop authorizing charters is not intended to close charters: “Obviously district charters are more than able to shift authorizers and continue to support students,” he said.

The district has been open about its competition with local charters for students, although it continues to oversee the 13 charters. The district can get up to a 3 percent cut of state funding for each student enrolled in those charter schools to offset administrative expenses. 

There is no specific reason why the board has not voted on the issue, Vitti said, but members will be “more precise” in evaluating the schools when their contracts expire.

They plan to look at performance, the number of schools in the neighborhood, how full schools are, financial management, whether the school serves students with special needs, and whether the site may be an option for a traditional public school.

Read the district’s list of pros and cons of continuing to authorize charters presented at the special session last year below.

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.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.