charter schools

Goodwill charter school would bring dropouts back to school

When you picture a charter school, you may imagine a crowd of youngsters in tidy uniforms learning their ABCs. But one of Shelby County’s newest charter schools, if it is approved, would serve a group of people more likely to be those students’ parents.

Goodwill Industries has applied to open a charter school in Memphis aimed at helping people who have dropped out of school to earn a high school diploma, and, ideally, get on the road to postsecondary education and better jobs.

The schools, called Excel Centers, would use a model pioneered by the Indianapolis affiliate of Goodwill Industries — the organization mostly known as a place for donating second hand clothing. Excel Centers focus on dropout recovery, and serve students ranging from teens who have dropped out of school to adults with children and grandchildren of their own.

Goodwill submitted its application to Shelby County Schools earlier this month and expects to know if it is approved some time in May. The organization hopes to open its first Excel Center in Memphis in the fall of 2015. It would serve some 300-350 students.

The schools combine online learning with classroom instruction, allowing students to work at their own paces.

“[The school] would meet a tremendous need in our community, and would extend Memphis Goodwill’s mission to remove barriers to employment,” said Trina Jones, the vice president of marketing and communications at Memphis Goodwill.

Goodwill estimates that some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have their high school diploma, with an additional 7,200 students dropping out each year.

Jones described some of the schools’ components: “Outreach to adult drop-outs, on-site services such as a child drop-in center, a coach who is helping each student consider “what’s next” after high school and an emphasis on post-secondary studies (academic or vocational training/certification).”

The postsecondary focus is important, said Lili Allen, the director of Back on Track Design at Jobs For the Future, a nonprofit that focuses on closing gaps in the “education-to-career” pipeline. For the program to really benefit students, “they need to be doing more than just credit recovery and test prep.”

The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.

Excel Centers in Indiana have helped more than 350 dropouts earn high school diplomas since 2010. About two-thirds of those earned industry certifications or college credit along the way and about 75 percent now have full-time jobs. Of those not yet working, some of them went onto college instead.

“Excel is very specialized because it has the older student focus,” said Andrew Moore, a Philadelphia-based senior fellow at the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities. “It’s clearly filling a really important niche, and stands in contrast to charters that work with 16–21 year olds.” 

But the demand for the schools had presented a funding challenge in Indiana: The programs draw on a pool of funds traditionally used to educate traditional students, aged 5-18 or so, to educate the adults they bring back to school. The same arrangement will likely be true in Tennessee as well. 

Growing demand

The Goodwill application comes as the number of charter schools in Memphis is increasing, and as there is continued attention to alternative school options. If Indianapolis is any indication, demand will be strong. 

In Indiana, the state had an estimated 400,000 dropouts and was adding 15,000 more each year. Goodwill pitched the idea of a charter school for dropouts to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who can sponsor charters under that state’s law.

When the first Indianapolis school opened in 2010, demand for the 300 spaces surprised Goodwill. The school’s waiting list quickly grew to 2,000. That prompted Goodwill to open more schools. It now has eight schools in four Indiana cities and plans for more.

A new charter school in Memphis that also does dropout recovery, called Pathways, is likewise already planning to expand, as its enrollment has grown from 50 to 150 students in just three months.

For each new school, Goodwill in Indiana will collect a license fee.

“It’s just recovering our cost,” said Scott Bess, the chief operating officer of education initiatives for Goodwill in Indiana. “The biggest thing from our perspective is creating a network all across the country of people who are doing pretty innovative things who can share with each other so everybody benefits.”

Goodwill has also licensed the dropout recovery charter school model to its Austin, Texas, affiliate, which has state approval to open an Excel Center there next fall.

Funding challenges

When Indianapolis’ mayor approved the Excel Centers, the plan was to fund them out of the state’s K-12 school funding formula like other charter schools. The city’s charter school office could not find any provision in state law that prevented it.

But legislators worried as the schools grew in popularity. This year, Goodwill’s Excel Centers enrolled about 3,000 students statewide. The state was soon spending a significant amount of money on these non-traditional students, many well over 18-years-old.

Indiana lawmakers responded by capping the number of dropout recovery schools there at 11 statewide last year and setting a limit of $25 million to be apportioned to such schools. But this year the cap has been lifted and a process for approving new schools established.

Some states cap the age at which a student is eligible to receive education funds, but that is not the case in Tennessee.

According to Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, “In Tennessee, we cannot disallow enrollment solely on the basis of age. And if a student is enrolled, they generate BEP funding, which then goes to the charter school.”

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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 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 non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. 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.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.