With just over a month to go before the first day of school, power players in Detroit’s education landscape are rushing to fill a recently shuttered school.
The campus that until recently housed Southwest Detroit Community School could soon be run by New Paradigm for Education, a charter operator which plans to move one of its six schools into the now-vacant building.
To its supporters, New Paradigm is a standard-bearer of academic rigor in a city that has some of the lowest test scores in the country. By helping it expand, they hope to create a high-quality charter operator to rival the national outfits that have steered clear of Detroit.
A local nonprofit, the Detroit Children’s Fund, has already invested $5 million in helping New Paradigm expand, in large part because of test scores that place some network schools in the state’s 80th percentile for growth. Now a national group, the Charter School Growth Fund, is planning to pump millions more into the school.
Darryl Cobb, a partner at the fund, who confirmed the multimillion-dollar investment, though not the exact amount, said it was based on “strong leadership” and on “the results they’ve achieved for students in their schools.”
Filling an empty school with teachers and students in a matter of weeks won’t be easy. Officials are working on the issues that led to the eviction of Southwest Detroit Community School, but negotiations with the landlord aren’t finished yet. It helps that some parents say they are eager for their children to return to the building, even under different management.
The move to install New Paradigm hasn’t been without controversy. Roughly half of the Southwest Detroit Community School students were English language learners — a population that New Paradigm has little experience serving. Even the organization’s 88-student school in southwest Detroit — a neighborhood full of Spanish- speaking families — didn’t have a single English learner last year.
One former teacher and union leader says the timing of the change was designed to undercut teachers at the school. Teachers at the school unionized last year, a rarity in Michigan’s charter landscape.
Yet Cobb and others are betting that New Paradigm can succeed where others haven’t. Southwest Detroit Community School, which served grades K-8, was plagued for years by low test scores and financial problems before it was abruptly evicted in May.
Cobb was on hand Thursday to meet with families about expanding New Paradigm’s operations into southwest Detroit. So were executives at the Detroit Children’s Fund, as well as a top official from one of its funders, the Skillman Foundation.
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Ralph Bland, founder and president of New Paradigm, addressed roughly a dozen parents, who attended the meeting with their children. Asked whether his school would serve English learners and students with special needs, he said “I just want to make sure that those families get the services they need for their child.”
In recent years, New Paradigm schools have enrolled virtually no English learners.
A month ago, Bland brought a small group of parents from the closed school to Detroit Edison Public School Academy, New Paradigm’s flagship school on Detroit’s east side, to make a pitch for his method. Some came away impressed by the strict discipline that is a centerpiece of Bland’s model, as well as the promise of academic improvements after years of hearing that their children’s former school posted some of the worst test scores in the state.
When Southwest Detroit Community School opened six years ago, it had plenty of powerful backers. Lighthouse Academies, the rare national charter company willing to take a chance on Detroit, had agreed to run the school with an emphasis on the arts and on parent involvement. An investment fund linked to tennis great Andre Agassi helped build a new schoolhouse. Trusted community organizations signaled their support.
“It was a team full of ideas and energy,” said Karina Lopez, who enrolled her son at the school when it opened during the 2013-2014 academic year.
But Lighthouse soon pulled out, leaving behind a budget deficit. The school struggled to find its footing academically and financially, cycling through five principals in five years. After posting some promising academic gains last year, it was evicted for failing to meet steep rent payments imposed by Agassi’s fund, which owns the building.
“With everything they’ve gone through, there are a lot of doubts” that a new charter operator will make a difference, Lopez said. Still, she, like most parents at the meeting Thursday, appeared willing to stay at the location if it could re-open its doors quickly enough.
Christine Bell, director of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, a community organizing nonprofit, supported the school the first time around. She said she’s backing New Paradigm because that’s what parents seem to want. But she added that the property agreement with the Agassi fund needed to be changed to lower the risk of eviction, going forward.
“From what we can tell they would like the school to stay open,” she said, referring to parents. “But that lease needs to be realistic.”
Erica Robertson, deputy director of the Detroit Children’s Fund, said her organization expects that the school building will retain between 50 and 75 percent of the roughly 300 students from last year, as well as most of the families from another New Paradigm school in southwest Detroit, which is moving to the campus. That’s important to the school’s financial health, because each student brings with them roughly $8,000 in state funding.
Robertson said her organization will help fund Bland’s efforts to provide services to English learners at the new school.
“The bilingual immersion programming, the arts-infused programming, those are some of the things we’re thinking about for this community,” she said.
Jennifer Bahns, a former union leader at the school who plans to teach next year at Neinas Elementary, said most former teachers have already gotten other jobs. She speculated that New Paradigm entered the picture well into the summer to ensure that they left.
“They waited until everybody was out of their hair,” she said.
With all the teachers gone and parents seemingly receptive to New Paradigm, the school is effectively a blank slate. The only through-line is Grand Valley State University, the public school that oversaw the old school’s troubled existence. Rob Kimball, the university’s vice president for charter schools, told parents on Thursday that he is working to open the school by the end of the month.
Maria Salinas, a community organizer in southwest Detroit, said she’s supporting the school because of her longstanding relationship with Bland.
“The only difference is that I know Ralph Bland and I know his program,” said Salinas, who had also supported the shuttered school. “In fact, my kids went through some of his programs. That’s the only thing that I can hold onto.”