Charter growth

More charter schools in Detroit? State’s largest authorizer considers contracts for three schools

The Board of Trustees for Central Michigan University make decisions on authorizations.

After several years in which only a handful of new charter schools opened in the city of Detroit, three new charter schools are being considered by Central Michigan University, the state’s largest authorizer.

The slowdown in new charter schools in the last few years came as critics ramped up pressure on authorizers, accusing them of opening too many schools and creating financial problems for district and charter schools alike. A spokesperson for Central Michigan said the university had not deliberately slowed the pace of new charter schools, but had just not received applications from schools it wanted to support.

The potential resurgence of charter authorizations in the city is thanks to a first-of-its-kind report published late last year, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. The report shows 10 city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school, and in some neighborhoods, more than 3,000 K-12 students are without a quality school nearby.

“MAPSA agrees with several of the recommendations made in the … report released in December, especially the notion that we need to do everything possible to ensure that every child in Detroit is receiving a quality education, in a quality school,” he said. “This will involve opening more quality schools, particularly at the elementary level.”

Quisenberry said authorizers like Central Michigan and Grand Valley State universities are taking the report’s recommendations seriously and are seeking groups who can create “higher performing educational opportunities for students and families in and around Detroit.”

Janelle Brzezinski, director of communications at Central Michigan’s center for charter schools, said when deciding where to put the new charters, the university will use the report, which shows neighborhoods like Finney, Chadsey, and Grandmont in dire need of schools. In the past, charters have been criticized for flooding neighborhoods that already have many schools instead of opening in neighborhoods with a demonstrated need, leaving families to travel long distances to attend.

Brzezinski said the potential schools will undergo a “rigorous” review, with consideration for a school’s education program and the community’s need for a school.

Central Michigan is considering three new schools in the city: Bridge Academy, a diverse community school with a program focused on developing good character; Greenfield Academy, which intends to emphasize reading proficiency, and Phalen Leadership Academy, which will be modeled after a network of schools in Indianapolis run by Earl Phalen, a nationally recognized educator and advocate.

The Phalen Leadership Academy wouldn’t be the first for Phalen in the area: three charters in the city are controlled by Phalen’s management company, but are sitting in limbo as the Detroit Public Schools Community District considers whether to continue authorizing charter schools.

Bridge Academy was approved by Central Michigan’s Board of Trustees in December to continue through the evaluation process, while decisions on whether to continue review for Phalen Leadership Academy and Greenfield Academy are expected later this month.

Whether the schools will be allowed to settle in Detroit isn’t yet a sure thing. There are currently no new contracts on the table for the upcoming school year, and the earliest that Bridge Academy would be allowed to take root in the city would be fall 2019, Brzezinski said.

Grand Valley says it has no plans at this time to open any charter schools during the 2018 or 2019 school years within the city, but a university official said the charter school office is always considering applications for potential schools.

Scores of scores

Republican state board member says A-F school letter grades would hurt poor students, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Tom McMillin, a member of the state board of education, says A-F school letter grades will give the poorest schools the worst letter grades.

A representative of the state board of education spoke strongly against a House bill to evaluate school performance with an A-F report card, but charter supporters argued it was the best way to hold schools accountable.

In the second day of House testimony for the proposal, Tom McMillin, a Republican on the board who represents Oakland Township, strongly expressed his dismay.

“I can tell you which ones will be tagged D and F,” he said, pointing to a graph of the poorest schools. “The ones down here.”

The bill would give each school six letter grades based on student scores, academic growth, improvements made by English learners, graduation and chronic absenteeism rates, and the number of students who take state tests.

Charter leaders and advocates have expressed support for the A-F letter grades because they believe the system would allow parents to see quickly and easily which public schools, traditional or charters, are best-performing.

“One of our guiding principles is that accountability is critical, but the accountability system in Michigan is foggy at best,” said Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, which supports the bill. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and grade ourselves.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with others viewing it as too simplistic because it doesn’t necessarily take into account factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

The state board had voted against using letter grades last year because they felt grades didn’t show enough detail for parents. The state superintendent, who earlier had supported letter grades, submitted a system that was a dashboard of data. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved the plan at the end of last year. The dashboard was created to comply with federal education law.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Republican representing parts of Macomb, wasn’t swayed by McMillin’s testimony. Leaving children “in failing schools and not providing the information to parents that’s easy and clear and concise is wrong.”

McMillin shot back: “It’s easy and clear because it’s arbitrary and it could be very wrong.”

The new proposal calls for a dual way of analyzing school performance. To help account for factors like poverty, in addition to letter grades, every school would also be labeled: significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average. Schools would be compared with other schools of similar demographics.

Because letter grades do not fully take poverty into account, one of the six grades would be for student growth, a measure that has been used in other states because it has been called a fairer way of comparing a wealthy school to a poor one.

The bill would create a commission to figure out the details behind the A-F letter grades and labels, including deciding what demographic factors they will look at when comparing schools. If the bill is approved in committee and passed by lawmakers in both houses, commission members would be appointed this fall, and they would be tasked with implementing the new systems for the 2019 school year.

grappling with grades

Getting kids to class may be harder than some lawmakers think. A new study casts doubt on how big a role educators can play.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a "basketball court" that showcases students with best attendance.

Michigan and other states are focusing more on how often students are absent as a factor in determining a school’s performance. But a new study calls into question whether that’s a good idea.

Two Wayne State University researchers, Sarah Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, said in a report published last week, that when it comes to whether a child will get to class, some schools have more influence over attendance than others.   

Among factors that can influence attendance are how much families trust their teachers, whether the kids feel safe, and response to the school’s discipline policy.  

Michigan is one of 36 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure school performance under the federal education law. But the Wayne State study indicates that it is unreliable to use attendance as an mark of quality to compare schools when the effect of these influences can vary so much.

The findings are problematic for policymakers who want to use chronic absenteeism to judge schools, since the researchers found that in some cases, chronic absenteeism was unrelated to how well the schools were run. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss roughly at least two days of class a month, the report says.

But if GOP lawmakers in Lansing get their way, rates of chronic absenteeism will be even more prominent in determining the success of Michigan schools.

A senate committee Thursday heard testimony for an A-F school grading system. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican representing Saginaw County, sponsored the bill that would give schools six letter grades. One of those grades is for high rates of absenteeism.

“We can’t keep making excuses, it’s transportation or this or that,” Kelly told Chalkbeat. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and acting like it doesn’t matter. And I understand there’s a lot of contributing forces.”

But, “overall, you show me a high absentee rate and I’ll show you poor performance for a school,” he said.

Democrats on the Senate Education Reform Committee like Rep. Adam Zemke and Rep. Stephanie Chang were concerned the bill lacked nuance about similar issues to the ones raised in the report.

The study comes several months after Michigan’s plan to comply with federal education law was approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Chronic absenteeism is one of the factors the state will consider when evaluating school performance.