Charter Churn

Founded with great promise, this charter school is now looking for its fifth principal in five years

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Parents aired their concerns outside Southwest Detroit Community School before marching into a meeting of the charter school board.

Parents are running out of fingers to count the principals at Southwest Detroit Community School.

Four different principals have left since the charter school’s founding in 2013. Only one lasted more than a year, and he left his job last month, sending school operators on yet another search for an administrator who can help the school recover from its turbulent start.

Parents crowded into the gym last month to protest the revolving cast of administrators, who they say have failed to do the long-haul work of providing a quality education. The school’s path from a promising beginning to a looming closure shows the profound challenges facing even the best-supported efforts to build a successful school in Detroit. Any group hoping to educate its students must face a landscape where there are more school seats than children, competition for schools is fierce, and funding is based almost entirely on enrollment.

“If the school is going to move up, we need consistency,” Jennie Weakley, a parent at the school, said after the meeting.

Her daughter thrived at the school at first, joining the orchestra and connecting with her third-grade teacher. Then the familiar faces began to disappear, and it wasn’t just the principals. The third-grade teacher left, too, Weakley says. Her daughter went on to have six more teachers in the next two years.

When Florida-based Lighthouse Academies announced plans to open a school in Detroit, it broke ranks with other national charter companies, which have largely stayed away from the city.

Charter operators play the role of a school district —  they hire teachers, choose curriculum, and keep track of student data — and some observers hoped that a national operator like Lighthouse would use administrative tools honed in other cities to bring some stability to Detroit students.

Parents were involved with Lighthouse from the start. Before the school opened, Lighthouse sent an employee to Michigan who built a neighborhood coalition to support starting a new school on the site of Newberry Elementary, a district school that closed in 2005 and was later demolished.

“We had youth, we had community stakeholders, we had parents, we had teachers who had a say-so in what the school structure would look like,” said Elizabeth Santos, a resident who joined the neighborhood coalition, then shaped the school’s policies as one of the first presidents of its school board.

To raise funds for a new school building, the group settled on Turner-Agassi, an investment fund affiliated with tennis star Andre Agassi, which agreed to build a school on the site and lease it to Lighthouse at a rate that would start out low and increase once the school had a chance to attract students, said Heather Gardner, president of EAS Schools, which currently manages the school.

But the school’s hopeful beginning began to wear thin. Teachers and administrators kept leaving, and Lighthouse operated the school at a loss, neglecting to build the reserves that would be needed to continue paying the lease. Several parents described their dismay when they said they were told that the Lighthouse representative who helped found the school was dispatched to expand the company’s presence elsewhere in southeast Michigan.

After three years, Lighthouse pulled out, and parents found themselves in a community meeting debating how best to replace the organization that had brought them together.

It was a low point for the parents, but some charter observers were not surprised.

“It’s the same story in different locations,” said Tashaune Harden, vice president of the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, the union representing teachers at the school.

With Lighthouse gone, Detroit’s charter landscape looks much the same as before. Most schools — including the renamed Southwest Detroit Community School — are run by local companies that lack the advantages of operating on a broader scale.

“Like much of Detroit’s comeback, our charter community is mostly homegrown,” said Rob Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University, which authorizes dozens of schools in Michigan, including Southwest Detroit Community School.

No matter who replaced Lighthouse, they would face steep odds. The school’s academic performance was poor — it was placed under state oversight in March after ranking in the bottom five percent of schools statewide — and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with payments on the building. What’s more, the school’s charter would expire in 2020, and school leaders worried that they would need to show improvement to win a new contract from Grand Valley, one of the state’s largest authorizers.

The board’s eventual choice, EAS Schools, promised a singular focus on the school when it took over almost two years ago. Gardner, its president, previously worked for Michigan’s charter school association, where she helped bring Lighthouse to Detroit. When it pulled out, she turned her education consulting organization into a charter operator with the goal of turning the school around.

Lighthouse’s departure was “really devastating,” Gardner told Chalkbeat. “A lot of research was done, a lot of site visits, a lot of time went into that. It was thought that we were bringing something really important and really amazing to the area, and it didn’t turn out that way.”

Gardner won parents and the school board over with a promise of continuity. Parents would continue to play a key role in decision making, and Gardner’s company would make Frank Donner the new principal.

Donner was popular among parents, and some say they supported Gardner’s company in part because she promised to keep him in place.

But as he neared the two-year mark and test scores failed to rise quickly enough, Gardner says she began to doubt whether Donner, who had never worked as a principal before, was experienced enough to pull off a school turnaround.

The school already had its share of problems. Now, faced with closure by the state if its ranking failed to improve within three years, it was running out of time.

Earlier this month, Gardner offered Donner a job as an assistant principal at the school, but she says he chose to leave instead. Donner did not respond to requests for comment.

“He knew all the families,” said Mariana Hernandez, who has two children at the school. “When we lost him, we were really upset. It was like we lost a member of the family.”

parent protest
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Parents filled the gym at Southwest Detroit Community School last month to protest administrator turnover and demand a new contract for teachers.

Last week, change-weary parents filed into the gym once again with their own solution for improving the school. This time, they wanted the board to approve a contract for the school’s fledgling teachers union, which they hoped would reduce teacher turnover.

But for many at the meeting, the school’s problems go far beyond teacher pay.

Some parents mentioned Donner by name, blaming EAS for his dismissal. Several were outraged that the school spent only five percent of its $5,000 budget for sports this year. Many spoke about teacher turnover and a lack of classroom aides.

“What we all want is consistency and relationships,” said parent Jillian Howard. “If the turnover continues, how can our students excel?”

Parents nodded in agreement, many sitting on folding chairs brought out to handle the overflow crowd. The strong attendance was a sign that instability at the school hasn’t undercut its hallmark parent participation, at least for now.

Maria Orozco enrolled her fifth-grader at Lighthouse in the school’s first year. She knew Donner, and feels cut off from the new school managers, who have asked her to email her concerns even though she doesn’t have an email address.

“If it doesn’t stabilize,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “I’m going to have to take my kids somewhere else.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Michigan Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.