The West Michigan Aviation Academy produces results. This happens even though it, like some other charter schools, contracts with a for-profit management organization. Its investment in innovative programming produces impressive student outcomes that counter claims of mediocre performance among charter schools supported by for-profit companies.
The not-for-profit school aims to “provide an innovative, professional and welcoming environment that inspires growth and ignites a passion for lifelong learning,” according to its vision statement. This accurately characterizes the school’s unique programs, which give students real-world skills they can put to work after graduating. Students can even earn their FAA flight certification and private pilot’s license, both at a significantly reduced cost.
The school prepares its students to excel in the workforce by bolstering its graduation requirements beyond those mandated by statelaw. While Michigan only requires 18 credits of graduates, WMAA requires 26. Its students take eight elective courses in addition to the state-required Michigan Merit Curriculum. The school’s STEM programs and community partnerships expose students to a variety of career paths.
Student testimonials speak to the school’s success, as does its consistently strong performance on state tests. Since the school opened in 2010, its students have consistently scored higher than the state average on standardized tests. US News and World Report ranked WMAA 26th in the state - one of Michigan’s best high schools – and in the top 5% of all public high schools nationwide. The school rankings are based on math, reading and science assessment data since 2016, and graduation rates and college readiness metrics in 2020.
The academy’s ranking on the Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card is also strong. The report card adjusts each school’s average test scores for the student population it serves. This calculation shows which schools perform better than would be predicted by their students’ socioeconomic characteristics. WMAA does very well by this measure – earning an A and ranking in the 95th percentile of all public high schools.
Some sources claim that higher test scores among charter schools are due to selection bias, or application processes that favor certain demographics. But this is not the case at WMAA, and it is prohibited by state law. As a state-funded, public charter school with its own board of directors, the school admits Michigan residents free of charge, and it is open to any student in the state. Because the number of applicants consistently surpasses the slots available, more than 100 would-be students are placed on a waitlist in a typical year. Students are selected from the waitlist via a random lottery when slots open.
Even with a randomly selected, diverse student body from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, the school performs at the top of the state. This means the school’s high ranking can be largely attributed to the quality of education the students receive.
This school continued its tradition of success even when it was forced to close its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school moved to online learning, then returned to in-person learning as soon as the state allowed it. The school’s tradition of hands-on learning continued during the state-required closure thanks to kits school employees mailed to families. And the many interactive tools available through Canvas, the school’s online platform, allowed teachers to make the most of virtual learning opportunities.
The learning opportunities at WMAA are possible with the support of a for-profit education management organization, though the school has its own administrators. Charter schools, by nature, are not tied to the state-prescribed approaches used by conventional, district-operated schools. Their autonomy gives them the freedom to select innovative learning models and management organizations they believe will best serve their students and mission. Charter schools are held accountable to this mission by their charter authorizer – for the aviation academy, Grand Valley State University.
It is this ability of charter schools to break free from the conventions of district-operated systems that gives them a chance to improve kids’ futures. If the district-run schools don’t meet a child’s needs, parents can opt for an alternative model that might be a better fit. In Michigan, WMAA is strengthening the case for preserving charter school autonomy, which includes its freedom to choose the type of organizations best qualified to support it.
The West Michigan Aviation Academy is a model charter school and example of what is possible in a pluralistic education system. Charter schools, whether operated by for-profit or nonprofit organizations, serve the critical role of providing alternative education options – especially useful for our state’s neediest students – at no cost to families. WMAA is just one of many success stories of charter schools fulfilling their mission and creating a brighter future for Michigan’s kids.
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