Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in an interview.
(AP Photo/ Carlos Osorio)
'He crossed a Rubicon there. That was a big step.'
If the seven-year history of University Preparatory Academy
in Detroit has proven anything, it is that high dropout rates and low college
enrollment are not inevitable in large urban public school systems, the school's top administrator said. But even as the academy, a charter school, prepares for its first graduation ceremony, Superintendent Doug Ross said the work in Detroit has just begun.
"What we still have a long way to go on is fully closing the
achievement gap," Ross told Michigan Education Report. He added later, "Until
we're able to graduate kids who are academically competitive with kids coming
out of Birmingham, we are still not a success. That is our next goal."
Toward that goal, Ross currently has the support of Detroit
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. In a visit to University Prep's ninth-grade class in
March, Kilpatrick helped kick off a campaign called "Detroit's Great Hope."
According to media reports, Kilpatrick told the students that there is more to
education in Detroit than Detroit Public Schools. He told reporters that he
wanted to add more charter and private schools to the education mix in the city,
saying Detroit needs to view the education of its children in total. Kilpatrick
also said that he had been meeting privately with charter and private school
leaders, including Ross, for ideas on model schools.
"He crossed a Rubicon there," Ross said of the mayor's
statements to the ninth-graders. "That was a big step."
It also was a change in direction for the mayor, who in 2003
withdrew his support for an offer of $200 million to build 15 new charter high
schools in Detroit. Kilpatrick had originally supported the offer from
philanthropist Bob Thompson, but changed course in the face of stiff opposition
from the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Since then, however, enrollment figures
show that thousands of students who are assigned to Detroit Public Schools
choose instead to attend private, charter or conventional public schools in
neighboring districts, taking with them millions of dollars in state funding.
The Detroit Board of Education voted this spring to close 34 elementary schools
next year and more in the following year if the schools do not meet academic or
While Kilpatrick's comments are "a step in the right
direction for parents and students of Detroit," the state's universities won't
be able to respond unless the current cap on charter schools is lifted, pointed
out Ed Richardson, director of the charter school office at Grand Valley State
University. Michigan law limits the number of charter schools that public state
universities can authorize to 150 combined, although the state also passed a law
in 2003 providing for 15 new charter high schools in Detroit to accommodate
Demand is heavy for university authorizations, according to
Richardson and James Goenner, executive director of Central Michigan
University's Center for Charter Schools.
Two GVSU-authorized schools are closing, and more than 20
organizations have applied for those charters, Richardson told Michigan
"We have roughly 50 groups that are interested in starting
charter schools, but most of them are waiting on the sidelines because when
there are no charters available, you really have to look yourself in the face
and wonder why go through the effort," Goenner told the Detroit News earlier
In a pledge they took during Kilpatrick's visit, the
University Prep ninth-graders said they would become involved in changing the
future of Detroit by graduating from high school and going to college or
pursuing other postsecondary studies. They also have invited other ninth-graders
in Detroit Public Schools and charter public schools throughout the city to join
University Prep operates under the terms of a "90/90"
requirement set by Thompson, a Plymouth resident who, with his wife, Ellen,
donated $15 million for the campus near downtown Detroit. He leases the
buildings to University Prep for $1 a year. In exchange for his financial
support, the school must have a graduation rate of 90 percent and at least 90
percent of each graduating class must attend college.
"My guess is we'll end up somewhere between a 93- and
95-percent graduation rate," Ross said. Each student in the school's first
graduating class already has been accepted at a college or technical school, but
they must follow through and actually attend classes to fulfill the second half
of the 90/90 requirement, he said. A third requirement ' that the class have a
median score of 18 on the ACT test ' has been met.
"If you're going to keep 90 percent of your kids in school,
you need to deal with issues of identity and aspirations," he said. Many
students "decide too young that they aren't winners at the school game." He said
large urban school systems like Detroit have a strategy for teaching academics,
but "no strategy for building identity. ' The issue is that the mass production
system used by traditional public schools is obsolete."
Ross said he favors small high schools where teachers and
administrators can get to know students personally. At University Prep, students
are assigned to an "advisory," or learning community, in groups of about 16,
staying with that group and the same adult adviser for two to four years.
According to a report in the Detroit News, Ross and others recommended the mayor
create 50 such schools in the city, if not through Detroit Public Schools then
by other measures.
A second University Prep system, also chartered by Grand
Valley State University and with financial backing by Thompson, is scheduled to
begin operations in the fall of 2008. University Preparatory Science and Math
Academy will open with a middle school only, just as University Prep did with
112 sixth-graders in 2000, later adding a high school and then, potentially,
elementary schools, Ross said. Richardson said the school will be the first
opened under the 2003 law providing for new urban high schools in Detroit.
The superintendent of the new school will be Margaret
Trimer-Hartley, previously the spokeswoman for the Michigan Education
Association school employees union. Trimer-Hartley declined to discuss the move
with Michigan Education Report, but Ross acknowledged that "you could certainly
say it's a little ironic."
The MEA is a longtime critic of charter schools and has
advocated heavy regulation of charter operations and caps on the number of
schools. Most recently, the union lost a court battle over Bay Mills Community
College, an American Indian tribal college in the Upper Peninsula that charters
more than 30 schools. The MEA had argued that, because the Bay Mills board of
governors is not publicly elected, but appointed by tribal members, the schools
it charters are not public and are therefore ineligible to receive public funds.
The Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed the suit.
Ross said he met Trimer-Hartley through her work with "Your
Child: The Coalition," which describes itself as a nonprofit coalition of
Michigan-based education and family organizations that studies education issues.
The scene in Detroit is an example of demand for quality
driving growth, said Stephanie Van Koevering, executive director of the Michigan
Council of Charter School Authorizers. The council is an organization of 11 of
the 26 entities that authorize charter public schools in Michigan, and
collectively represent 90 percent of the student population in charter schools.
A survey of Michigan residents sponsored by the council this
spring showed that 56 percent of respondents either strongly favor or somewhat
favor charter schools, while 23 percent either strongly or somewhat oppose
"As people learn more about charters and how they're
overseen, they tend to be more supportive," Van Koevering said. Parent demand
may be the force that ultimately lifts the cap on the number of charter schools
that Michigan public universities can authorize, she said.
Under Michigan law, a charter school may be authorized by a
local or intermediate school district, community college board, tribally
controlled community college board, or state public university. The bulk of
charter schools are authorized by state universities and by Bay Mills. In all,
there currently are 229 charter schools in operation in Michigan; many report
student waiting lists.
"The fact that there is a cap doesn't leave room for low
performers," Van Koevering said. Some 20 charter schools have closed in the past 20 years and a handful more closures are expected. Lakeshore Public Academy near Muskegon, for example, will close at the end of this year due to low test scores and declining enrollment. The MCCSA doesn't see that as a weakness, but a strength.
"That's accountability in action," Van Koevering said.
"That's not something you see happening in the conventional K-12 community."
In addition to focusing on quality control at its members'
schools, the MCCSA also is building a body of research about what works well in
charter schools and making those techniques known to the education community.
One of the original policy goals behind charter schools was to bring innovation
to Michigan education, she said.
"That's what the charter system has accomplished. Only through competition
can we improve."