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.

Nope

Tennessee sides with Memphis and Nashville boards in rejecting four new charter schools

Members of Tennessee's State Board of Education listen to recommendations on charter school appeals during their two-day meeting in Cookeville.

Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to reject their applications.

Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.

Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.

The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.

Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.

“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”

The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.

Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.

But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.

Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.

Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.

“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.

The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.

This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.

By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”