Charter Churn

‘Winging it.’ This principal just lost his job at a struggling Detroit charter school. Here’s what he saw on the inside.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Parents filled the school gym last month to advocate a new teacher contract and protest administrator turnover.

Frank Donner was sold from the moment he heard the pitch in 2013.

Lighthouse Academies promised that their new school in Southwest Detroit would emphasize arts instruction — a rarity in the city. And, crucially, they went to unusual lengths to get input from parents and leaders in the neighborhood.

Donner, a veteran Detroit educator, had heard from too many parents who felt disconnected from their schools. He signed up to teach.

But the problems began almost right away, and they have continued since Donner lost his job in April as principal. He had held the job for almost two years, longer than anyone else in the school’s five-year history. Officials at the school are now searching for its fifth principal.

Chalkbeat visited a parent meeting last month at the renamed Southwest Detroit Community School to find out why this school founded with deep community support is struggling to make it in the city, but we couldn’t reach Donner before the story was published.

Frank Donner, a veteran educator in Detroit, was named principal of a struggling charter school at the behest of parents and teachers.
PHOTO: Southwest Detroit Community School
Frank Donner, a veteran Detroit teacher, became the school’s principal at the urging of teachers and parents.

In phone interviews this week, he said that his belief in the school’s mission didn’t waver when administrators began to leave and it became clear that the school lacked basic curriculum resources. In 2016, he was named principal with the support of parents.

“What was so exciting about Lighthouse and then Southwest (Detroit Community School) was being responsive to the community,” he said. “We weren’t completely successful, but we made some strides. The more we can really engage with all the stakeholders, that’s where we’re going to make some progress.”

What happened next was not unusual for any of Detroit’s troubled schools. But given the school’s promising start, it provided a stark reminder that enthusiastic good intentions aren’t always enough to overcome an education environment as unforgiving as Detroit’s. Lighthouse had no experience operating in Michigan, where state policy encourages fierce competition among schools. And the person tapped to turn the school around when Lighthouse failed — Donner — had never worked as a principal before.

Donner was confronted with the school’s problems almost as soon as he stepped into the principal’s office. He told Chalkbeat this week that administrative confusion and scant resources hurt the schools ability to serve its more than 400 students. He traces the issues partly to Lighthouse, and partly to an education system in Detroit that requires schools to invest time and energy into competing with each other.

“There wasn’t much infrastructure,” he said, recalling his first year on the job. “There was no institutional knowledge. There weren’t clear curriculum resources. There wasn’t a body of lesson plans that had been written down. It was a lot of winging it. Curriculum components had changed every year it was operating.”

Making matters worse, Florida-based Lighthouse struggled to grasp the requirements placed on schools in Michigan.

“It was a little choppy for Lighthouse operating in Michigan as an out-of-state operator,” Donner said. “They didn’t have as much context for the nuances of the Michigan scene.”

Lighthouse also ran up against headwinds faced by every school in Detroit, where they must compete for students and teachers.

“We’re not the only neighborhood where you’ll have a school that opens up on a corner without telling anybody,” said Christine Bell, a board member at Congress of Communities, one of the community organizations that offered advice to the new school. “And then they’re siphoning kids from another school, and then nobody wins.”

With hundreds more open classroom seats than students to fill them, competition between schools in Southwest Detroit is fierce. In Michigan, where state education funding is tied to school enrollment, schools struggle to survive without full classrooms.

Charter schools were flooding into Southwest Detroit in 2013, when the school opened. Districts outside the city were recruiting heavily in the area, Bell recalled, even offering free busing to students who would leave their neighborhoods. More than a dozen charter organizations announced plans to open schools in the area, she said.

“We had a position dedicated to going out into the community to recruit,” Donner said. “All of these things take a lot of time, energy, and people power — and then the return might be one or two students.”

Despite its struggle to stay afloat, Donner says a core of parents and teachers have remained committed to the school and to the values of inclusivity and community involvement that underpinned it from the start. That core was on display last month, when a march to support the teachers union in its upcoming contract negotiation drew dozens of parents and children to the school.

“There is in some ways a lot of stability at that school, even as there’s more instability than any other school I’ve seen,” he said.

Nonetheless, Donner became the latest principal to leave the school after the charter operator decided in April that test scores weren’t rising quickly enough. The school faces possible closure by the state if scores don’t improve. Heather Gardner, president of EAS Schools, which replaced Lighthouse as the charter operator, says the school needs a more experienced principal with a track record of turning struggling schools around.

Donner says he was aware of his own inexperience, but took the job anyway because teachers and parents asked him to.

“I agreed to do it as a member of the community,” he said. “It was daunting, certainly, but I felt that it was the right thing to do, to try to bring some continuity to the school.”

Now, as parents organize to fight for a new teacher contract, he is looking for another job. He wants to be back in a school by next fall, either as an administrator or a teacher. It could be a charter school or a school in the main district — as long as it’s been around for a while.

“As I look for places where I want to work, I’m looking for places that are a little bit more established,” he said.

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 Detroit 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.