Cesar Chavez Academy

Standards, Not Geography

Students at Cesar Chavez Academy

In September I visited Cesar Chavez Academy, one of Michigan’s oldest and most successful charter schools. The academy, which serves grades K through 12, is in Southwest Detroit. Nearby buildings are in disrepair, and some are covered in graffiti. Yet the Cesar Chavez campus feels safe and clean. In between classes, students in blue and white uniforms mill about outside.

Just a couple blocks down Waterman Street from Cesar Chavez is the building that used to house Southwestern High School. Despite student and parent protests, Detroit Public Schools closed the high school this year because of its poor academic and attendance track record.

The Mackinac Center recently published a high school report card that considers student socioeconomic status as well as academic performance when grading schools. The report card results support the closure of Southwestern High School: The school received an ‘F’ on the high school report card, and was the 20th lowest-scoring high school in the entire state of Michigan.

Another DPS high school, Western International, offered to take nearly 600 displaced Southwestern students when the closing was announced. The school, at least when it comes to student academic performance, is a mediocre option. Though better than Southwestern, Western International scored a ‘C’ on the Mackinac Center’s report card, meaning that the school does little to improve student academic performance beyond what would be expected.

Cesar Chavez High School, in comparison, received an ‘A.’ In fact, Cesar Chavez is the second highest-scoring high school in the entire state and the top-performing city high school.

Some might be quick to suggest that Cesar Chavez received a higher score because it serves fewer students from low-income backgrounds, or because it is a selective school. Neither statement is true. The school offers open enrollment, and more than 95 percent of Cesar Chavez’s students come from low-income backgrounds, compared to 69 percent at Southwestern.

Cesar Chavez is a smaller school than Southwestern, and it would be unreasonable to suggest that every displaced student could find a spot at the school. But it is a much better nearby option, and it could make all the difference for some students.

(Editor’s Note: This perspective has been adapted and published in the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s February Viewpoints, available at mackinac.org/v2013-06.)