Future of Schools

Board debates whether money or academics should determine charter school expansion

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Shelby County Schools board members David Pickler and David Reaves were not happy that the board voted to give a lease to a charter school group with no proven academic record.

The Shelby County Schools board leased a contested building to a new charter school with no academic track record because it was willing to pay more money than a charter school with five years of proven academic results.

The contentious decision brought into sharp relief the need for a coherent district policy that determines which charter schools get first dibs on empty school buildings, board members and the superintendent said Tuesday. With the likelihood that its charter sector will grow while the district continues to move out of school buildings in an effort to consolidate strained resources,  several board members said Tuesday they planned to hold a special meeting to develop a policy within the next month.

The board granted the year-old W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools, which faced several controversies last year, a $693,390.90 lease to the former Lanier Middle School building despite the objections of several board members who were angry it was chosen without any academic data to support the decision. TCAP scores won’t be publicly released until later this month, so W.E.B. DuBois didn’t have test results for board members to examine.

“Now we don’t know what the hell we are getting,” board member David Reaves was overheard saying to district administrators after Tuesday’s meeting.

Freedom Preparatory Academy had also tried to lease the space but decided that the price the district was asking would be too high for the number of students it currently serves.

This was the first time that two charter schools had been vying to lease the same space in the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson admitted that Freedom Preparatory Academy has five more years of data demonstrating strong academic results, but given the district’s significant financial needs, he offered the space to to W.E.B. Dubois instead.

“We started from the premise that the two charter schools were essentially offering the same thing, absent a policy,” Hopson said.

Board member David Pickler said that he thought the superintendent’s reasoning was backwards and that the board should offer preferences to charter schools with proven results, rather than those who offered the most money for a lease. “I hope I’m hearing that wrong,” he said.

“One school is offering five bucks a square foot, the other one a dollar,” said Hopson. “More importantly [W.E.B. Dubois’] plan is to purchase the building.” 

In the past the board had asked Hopson to take into consideration the impact of leaving empty buildings in already-blighted neighborhood, giving W.E.B. Dubois’ lease-purchase agreement a leg up.

Freedom Preparatory Academy is currently located in the former Lakeview School but “was busting at the seems this year,” according to board Chairman Cardell Orrin. Orrin thinks Freedom Preparatory would better be able to serve its students by moving into a single building such as Lanier, as it grows from a school that serves grades 6-9 to a school that serves grades 6-12. Freedom Preparatory was one of three middle schools in the state to be recognized by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2013 for its strong academic record.

But the district was asking Freedom Preparatory to pay rent that would’ve worked out to be about 30 percent of the amount of money it brings in from the state at its current enrollment, according to Orrin. So Freedom Preparatory decided not to accept the district’s proposed lease and will instead split its school into two different sites in the coming year, one of which will be in a church.

“We’re disappointed,” Orrin said about Tuesday’s decision.

The W.E.B DuBois Consortium, led by former mayor Willie Herenton, has faced several major challenges in its first year including having to close a middle and high school it had opened in the district’s former Northside High School.

It is currently paying back around a half million dollars that it owed to Shelby County Schools after it over-projected the number of students it would enroll last year by a wide margin, according to the district CFO Alicia Lindsey.

Multiple board members said the repayment agreement with Herenton was bad business and similar agreements should be voted on by the board in the future. “If somebody owes you money you don’t do business with them,” said board member Billy Orgel.

The first time a vote was called on the proposed lease to W.E.B. Dubois, there were only two votes in favor after six votes had been tallied and it looked like it would fail. But just before the final vote was spoken, Hopson made it clear that, with less than three weeks before the start of school, 600 students from W.E.B. Dubois wouldn’t have a school building and the board would have to meet again to find another location for those students.

The motion passed with four votes in favor, the minimum needed for a motion to pass.

Chris Caldwell, Teresa Jones, Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods voted for the motion while Pickler and Reaves voted against it. Shante Avant abstained.

Four individuals who identified themselves as representatives of W.E.B Dubois left the board meeting right after the motion passed, but declined to comment, other than to say they were relieved that it passed.

“It was pretty touch and go for a minute,” one of them said in the parking lot.

Avant abstained from both votes, saying she had heard from worried parents  in her district at both charter schools. “Freedom Preparatory has a proven track record while parents at W.E.B Dubois are waiting to find out what school their child will attend,” said Avant. “It’s a hard decision. We need policies in place and not make these decisions on a case by case basis.”

Avant is facing reelection in less than a month.

In the long term Pickler said that there very may well be 40, 50, or even 60 charter schools in the district and the board needs to call a special meeting to clarify its position. “[Charter schools] are becoming the 8th district” in Shelby County, said Pickler after the meeting. “And we’ve been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.”

Hopson rebutted the view that Memphis will become a charter school district. “I hope we don’t turn into New Orleans…When you really dig into the numbers, if charter schools were performing significantly different than our schools, then that would be a different discussion.”

In other actions, the board agreed to let Vision Preparatory Charter School move into the former Riverview Elementary.

The board also approved the opening of seven new charter schools in 2015, including Aspire, Excel Center, Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Leadership Prep, Libertas, MASS, Sankore Collegiate.

They denied four amended charter school applications: Emerge Collegiate Schools, Memphis Global Leadership Academy for Architecture and Urban Design, Military Academy of Culture and Technology, and Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation Middle School.

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”


Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.