Charter Churn

‘This is horrific’: Detroit charter school stuns parents and students with news that it will close next week

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Students at Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy were let out early on Wednesday after learning that their school will close next week.

Updated Sept. 26: Additional photos and interviews with a board member, EQUITY Education, parents, teachers, and students were added to this story.

Just weeks after starting the school year, parents and students at the Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice got the stunning news Wednesday that their school will close next week.

“They’re devastated,” said Charlotte Jackson, a teacher who answered the school’s phone in tears Wednesday morning. “Students were very upset, crying, screaming, walking out, a whole lot of stuff … It’s not good.”

Students and parents learned about the abrupt closure — effective Oct. 1 — during a hastily-called, two-hour assembly with school officials Wednesday morning, including representatives from the school’s management company, EQUITY Education. Also present were officials from Ferris State University, which authorizes the charter school.

In the first two weeks of school this year, average attendance was just 180 students, down from 300 last year, according to EQUITY officials. In Detroit, where parents have many school choices but few quality options, schools can only guess at how many students will enroll before the start of a school year. And because Michigan schools get a set amount of money per for each student, a substantial drop in enrollment can wreak havoc on a budget.

“This year’s student count was far below what they had budgeted for,” said Ronald Rizzo, who runs the charter school office at Ferris State. “When all was said and done, they were too far below. They weren’t going to be able to make it financially so rather than see them perhaps struggle through the year with a sub-par education because of unavailable funds, they decided they would bite the bullet and, even at this time of year, which is terrible, give them the opportunity to go.”

siblings at delta prep
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Kymia Latimer, left, and TraVohn Rumely, on the sidewalk outside Delta Prep. Moments earlier, their mother rushed into the school to ask why she needed to find a new school for her children. “There was no point in them just closing the school down like this,” Rumeley said.

The school was one of dozens in Detroit facing additional scrutiny from the state after several years of test scores that ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Michigan schools. It could have been forced to close if it failed to sharply improve student scores and reduce its suspension rate by a minimum of 20 percentage points. Last year, fewer than 10 11th-graders there passed state math and reading exams out of nearly 100 who took the test.

A letter from EQUITY that was distributed to parents at the meeting said the school’s board, not the people directly running it, had made the decision to close.

“It is neither the wish or will of EQUITY to close at this time,” wrote Renee Burgess, EQUITY’s president. “I believe it is wrong to educationally evict children from their school, particularly once the school year has started. The instability and trauma that is created when you close a school will remain with these children.”

After the meeting, Burgess told Chalkbeat that EQUITY offered the board several options that would have allowed the school to stay financially solvent and remain open for the rest of the year.

Kenneth Coleman, a member of the board of directors, blamed EQUITY for failing to prepare for the drastic decline in enrollment. He declined to comment further on why the school is closing.

“All I can say is that these kids were failed,” he said.

The shuttering of Delta Prep is the latest in a line of sudden charter school closures that have angered parents and raised questions about how well charter schools are managed and supervised in Detroit. Last year, a charter school just outside the city in Southfield closed with two weeks to go before the end of the school year.

Parents said they learned about the Wednesday morning meeting from their children the night before.

“We were blindsided, totally and completely,” said Avian Retick, whose daughter, Dezana Odom, just started her freshman year at the school.

Retick says the school seemed a step above her other options, and that officials with EQUITY assured her that Delta would give her daughter access to college preparation courses.

“They sold us on a lot of opportunities that aren’t going to come to pass,” she said.

Charter school oversight in Detroit got extensive scrutiny last year during confirmation hearings for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who, as a Michigan philanthropist, has been influential in shaping education policy in Michigan.

Michigan allows an unlimited number of charter schools and doesn’t require the same level of oversight as other states, contributing to instability and uneven quality in the privately managed but publicly funded schools.

Rizzo defended the oversight his office provided to the school.

“They have been our list of schools that we have been supporting,” he said. “We have been sending folks over there to work with them on data analysis. We’ve been very engaged in trying to help the academy along.”

He said Ferris State would work with the state’s charter school association to help students find new schools.

“We are committed to doing everything humanly possible in the next several days to try to get students situated in new schools,” Rizzo said.

detre holloway
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detre Holloway, a math teacher, at the door of Delta Prep after the school board voted to shutter the school. He knew the school’s test scores were floundering. But, he said, “I didn’t know how successful it was until I saw all those tears today.”

Delta Prep, a high school in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, opened just four years ago with 46 students. It was the first school  to be affiliated with the Detroit chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African-American sorority. Almost from the start, it was rocked by the same instability that it has now come to symbolize. When Allen Academy, one of the largest charters in the city, closed in 2016, a sizeable number of its students transferred to Delta, sending the school’s enrollment shooting to 333 in its second year.

Forced to expand too quickly, the school never found its footing, Monica Davie, a volunteer at the school, said.

“That explosion is what doomed it,” she said.

As its test scores floundered, the school had a new principal every year, said Diane Pompey, a parent liaison at Delta whose granddaughter has attended the school for four years. Pompey was a regular presence at the school, and many students called her “nana.” As seniors walked to their cars after the meeting, she called out to remind them to return the next day for their transcripts.

principals count
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Monica Davie, right, and Diane Pompey, trying to count the number of principals the school has had since it opened in 2014. They settled on roughly one per year.

School let out for the day after the board decided to close the board next week. After the assembly, students spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the school, waiting for a ride home.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” said TraVohn Rumely, a freshman. “Right now, I’d be in class doing work.”

“Laughing with my friends,” chimed in Kymia Latimer, Rumely’s older sister and a sophomore at Delta.

Around noon, school buses arrived to take some students home. Students who don’t live on the bus route said they’d have to wait near the school until 3 p.m., when school usually lets out, because their parents hadn’t been able to get off work early.

Talk on the sidewalk revolved around where students planned to enroll next. Schools were already competing for their attention — and for the roughly $7,000 in state funding that each additional student will bring to their new school. Students and parents said that Delta urged students to enroll in Detroit Leadership Academy or Detroit Collegiate High School, two other charter schools run by EQUITY Education. Others held handbills distributed by University Prep Science and Math High School, a charter school on Detroit’s east side. And in a tweet, the city’s main district said it’s ready to take students from Delta Prep.

Victoria Haynesworth, a parent at the school, said that officials discouraged students from applying to other schools, suggesting they wouldn’t get in.

“They were making comments about the fact that a lot of the school will not take the children because they scored very low on their tests,” she said.

While some of the city’s top high schools, like Cass Technical and Renaissance High School, require students to test in, most Detroit high schools do not consider test scores in admissions.

A woman who answered the phone at EQUITY Education’s office declined to comment but said she would pass along a request for information.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Students filtered into the midtown neighborhood that surrounds Delta Prep to wait for their parents. Many parents couldn’t get off work early to pick up their children.

Steven McDuell, a senior who was entering his fourth year at Delta, said he planned to transfer to Old Redford with the rest of the football team, which had been busy preparing for the homecoming game scheduled for this Friday.

He echoed other students who left the meeting angry at the board for refusing to try keeping the school open for the rest of the year.

“They sat there and said, ‘We don’t care how y’all feel,’” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. Delta is all I know.”

As the school emptied out, Detre Holloway, a geometry and physical science teacher, left the school through the back door and walked to his car, exhausted by the emotional back-and-forth of the meeting. To Holloway, the reason for the closure is straightforward — there aren’t enough kids — and he brushed aside the question of who to blame for the school’s collapse.

‘“I am numb,” he said. “I saw a lot of finger-pointing back and forth. The kids saw it.”

Holloway and other teachers at Delta said they don’t expect to have any trouble finding another job in a Detroit classroom. City schools have struggled for years to find certified teachers, and there were roughly 90 vacancies in the main district on the first day of school.

For students, the closure marks a major interruption to schoolwork and friendships, and a forced departure from a school where many said they felt at home.

Haynesworth said her daughter, Gabrielle Doctor, started at the school in ninth grade and was crestfallen to learn she would not get to graduate with her class. Instead, Haynesworth is now scrambling to find her daughter another school she can attend.

“My daughter was hysterical,” Haynesworth said. “She was crying. Children were everywhere. It was hysteria. They were crying on the floor. Kids were beating on lockers.”

Gabrielle largely had a “really, really good experience” at Delta Prep, Haynesworth said.

Gabrielle, who was a majorette in the school band, has special needs that entitle her to a full-time aide who works with her throughout the day, and the school has been responsive to her needs, Haynesworth said. .

“I trusted the school with my child,” she said. “This is horrific. I’m furious. I’m emotional … I’m speechless.”

Myiel Commage, a senior who started at the school as a freshman, held back tears as she talked about the Delta marching band and her plans to start a step-dance team.

“I made so many friends here that were basically family,” she said. “That all got snatched away from me.”

steven mcduell
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Steven McDuell, 16, waits for a ride after learning that Delta Prep will be closed. A member of the football team, he has been preparing for the homecoming game this Friday.

impasse over

With tentative deal struck in Chicago charter school strike, Acero students set to return to class

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Acero charter school teachers protest in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters during the nation's first charter teacher strike.

Teachers and management of Chicago’s Acero Schools reached a tentative deal Sunday, putting an end to the nation’s first-ever charter school strike.

More than 7,000 students at 15 Acero charter schools are expected to be back in class Monday morning. The historic strike at the city’s second-largest charter network canceled classes for four days, leaving families scrambling and attracting national attention. 

At an event Sunday afternoon at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, Acero’s teacher and paraprofessional bargaining team spoke in front of a room full of educators and supporters and called the agreement a win.

“Today our students and our families have won,” said Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice — essentially a teacher’s aide — at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school.

This is the first Acero contract negotiated since the charter union joined the Chicago Teachers Union. Among the key agreements is compensation that aligns with pay scales in the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union contract, including annual raises over the four-year contract. The contract of teachers at district-run schools will expire in the spring.

In a statement, Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez said the final agreement would incorporate demands from both sides.

“Thanks to hard work and very long hours from both bargaining teams, we were able to reach an agreement that values teachers and staff for the important work they do,” Rodriguez said, “while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong educational outcomes for our students.”

While neither side offered concrete contract details, the broad parameters of the agreement include:

  • Wage increases for paraprofessionals based on seniority and education level. Previously, wages for paraprofessionals did not have mandated increases beyond annual raises negotiated in the last contract.
  • Caps on class size at 30 students. 
  • A shorter school year that is closer to the length of CPS’s year. The Acero school year began on Aug. 13, earlier than the post-Labor Day start at Chicago Public Schools. Charter schools typically have longer school days and calendars than district-run schools.
  • Shorter teacher work days that reduce additional duties but don’t cut into instructional time. The current instruction day is 7-1/2 hours, but teachers say they currently work more than eight hours a day.
  • Enshrining language that promises so-called sanctuary school status for immigrant students and families into the union contract. The network’s agreement with teachers will include  limits on sharing information about students with immigration authorities, as well as a requirement for a warrant or other legal standard before authorities enter schools. 
  • Carve-outs during the school day for special education case managers and a class size cap for special education teachers.

More than 500 teachers were on strike for four days, freezing instruction for Acero students and forcing parents to scramble to find child care. During the strike, union officials targeted political allies of Acero’s former parent company as the network filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to force teachers back into the classroom.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”