Detroit Charters Face All of the Obstacles of Detroit Public Schools – And Overcome Them

Success at Detroit Achievement Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy-East

In recent months, Detroit Public Schools has been rife with turmoil: districtwide teacher sickouts, sensational pictures of widespread deplorable building conditions, an employee kickback scandal, reports of misappropriated federal funds, and now … more sickouts.

While unions and bureaucrats in the debt-ridden district wrangle over adult issues, costing DPS students thousands of hours in learning time, the city’s 100 charter campuses have pressed ahead uninterrupted with the business of educating students. They represent a broad range of quality, but on average provide students with an additional two to three months of important learning gains, according to the best research.

National Charter Schools Week is a fitting time to recognize some of the options many parents have pursued to escape from a dismally performing urban school district. Two third-year Detroit charters recently allowed me the opportunity to visit. Nearly every one of the students enrolled in these two small schools is poor and black. Each school is offering families an attractive alternative to their otherwise limited options.

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Three years in operation with a building track record provides a fair picture of a school’s effectiveness and trajectory. Detroit Achievement Academy on the city’s northwest side opened its doors in fall 2013 to serve kindergarten and first grade, and today serves about 100 students. The school uniquely has attracted national attention from The Ellen DeGeneres Show and from the Public Broadcasting Service.

Detroit Achievement Academy

Detroit Achievement Academy boasts academic growth in the 99th percentile, as measured by the widely used NWEA MAP assessment. Within the past couple weeks, its inaugural class of third-graders has taken the school’s first state standardized tests.

Founder Kyle Smitley is confident that M-STEP results will continue to demonstrate the school’s success. The academic calendar is longer than in district schools, extending from Labor Day to the end of June. Every student also gets a daily dose of visual arts and a weekly wellness class. The school provides more than enough reason for optimism — not just its Expeditionary Learning curriculum, but also its ability to attract top-flight teaching talent and instill a culture of high expectations.

“We believe kids in poverty in Detroit can succeed at high levels if given the resources,” Smitley told me during my April 28 visit. “It’s not rocket science if you put kids at the front of the dialogue.”

Overcoming the obstacles associated with student poverty could enable Detroit Achievement Academy to earn high marks on a future edition of our Context and Achievement Report Card.

Smitley, a young entrepreneur believes transformation will come to Detroit education locally and organically through small schools like hers. A second Detroit Achievement Academy campus is slated to open this fall.

On the other side of town, Cesar Chavez Academy Elementary East occupies a renovated former Catholic parish school in a blighted neighborhood.

“There’s so much dark on the outside,” said principal Adasina Philyaw, who grew up on Detroit’s west side in a middle-class family, and whose mother taught in DPS. “But it’s not like that in here. This is a place of light.”

She said impoverished parents, many of them single, felt judged in their children’s previous schools. With extra time and care, they let their guard down and get involved at the school. “Parents choose us because they feel safe,” Philyaw said.

Cesar Chavez Academy East

Enrolling students up through fifth grade, CCA-East is the newest of five schools in the Cesar Chavez Academy charter district, which spends about $6,000 less per pupil than DPS.

The poverty rate of the school, as measured by the federal lunch program, is nearly 100 percent. That is significantly higher than the rate of nearby DPS schools. The kids who arrive at the Maxwell Street campus require lessons from the kindergarten teacher on basic hygiene and how to hold a pencil.

The school provides students with two uniforms and other articles of clothing. Besides receiving breakfast and lunch on campus, students gets bags of food every Friday to help sustain them over the weekend. A disproportionate number of these students bring emotional and behavioral issues with them that require additional support.

Despite the challenges, CCA-East is achieving equivalent or better results than its neighbors on comparable M-STEP measures. Philyaw was proud to highlight the fact that 50 percent of her third-graders last year rated proficient in English language arts — a feat matched or surpassed by only one of 63 DPS schools. At the same time, she pointed out the need to improve results in science.

Both schools are accountable to parents and to standards in the contracts set by their university authorizers. Cesar Chavez Academy also works directly with an involved management company, the Leona Group.

Parents around the country continue to embrace more educational choice and the opportunity to access autonomous charters in their own communities. A new poll commissioned by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found 78 percent of parents favor broad public school choice, with more support coming from black and low-income parents. Once a charter school has operated in their area, parents are much more likely to support more charters to open around them.

Though Detroit Achievement Academy and CCA-East operate in different parts of Detroit and have somewhat different approaches, they portend more promising chosen paths of educational hope for families looking to break free. As the Michigan Legislature considers bills to deal with the problems in Detroit Public Schools, it shouldn’t put up obstacles to new urban charter success stories.


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