Caniff Liberty Academy and Hanley International Academy, separated by little more than a mile of old urban neighborhoods and shops, share a common drive to improve the outlook for low-income children, and recent results indicate their success. Today, their dedicated teachers and leaders work to compensate for the severe challenges created by physical separation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Located in Hamtramck, surrounded by the city of Detroit, both public charter schools excel at beating the odds when it comes to educating students in poverty. This is demonstrated on the Mackinac Center’s latest Context and Performance Report Card, which rates schools based on their state-tested achievement results but adjusts for student socioeconomic status.
Schools like Caniff and Hanley, in which over 90% of students are eligible for free lunch assistance, shine by beating expectations. Out of more than 2,200 schools statewide, Hanley finished with the twelfth-highest CAP Score, and Caniff is just outside the top 100. Most notably, no school in Michigan showed greater CAP Score growth than Caniff, while Hanley registered the fifth-best improvement statewide. A third nearby charter school, Hamtramck Academy, retained its crown with the highest CAP score in Michigan.
“I don't think it's a mistake that you have three of the top schools in this area,” said Steve Paddock, who supervises Hanley International Academy for its management company partner, the Romine Group. He pointed to a history of different immigrant groups that have formed a close-knit community that values education.
Ahmed Saber, the CEO and founder of Caniff Liberty Academy, said that poverty has not robbed most of his students of their desire to excel. “The students that we get are wanting to learn, even though they come with a lot of challenges,” he said.
Caniff first opened its doors in 2012. Providing a safe learning environment and high-quality academic program has swelled its K-8 enrollment from 280 to 480, a sign of success, according to Saber. “Parents, you can’t fool them,” he said.
The school’s chief academic officer, Azra Ali, says the typical student arrives one to two years behind grade level in literacy skills. But many of those students make academic progress, leading to rising CAP scores for the school. Rigorous teacher preparation is a critical factor in driving those gains. Before welcoming students to class to start the school year, new faculty members at Caniff get three weeks to prepare, and returning teachers get two weeks.
Hanley International Academy staff and leaders work intentionally to surmount similar challenges, carefully tracking student learning through periodic tests. “We created a culture where discussing data and being transparent about data is normal,” Paddock said.
Founded in 2005, Hanley serves about 650 students from preschool through eighth grade and consistently has 150 to 200 students waiting for space to enroll. Students are roughly split between families from Detroit and Hamtramck, with most representing either immigrant or African American families. As at Caniff, a large share of incoming children are not native English speakers, and some are unable to speak the language at all. Six years after opening, the school merged from two buildings into its present-day campus, a development that, Paddock said, marked Hamtramck’s first new school construction since the 1930s.
Yet for now, the coronavirus is keeping the campus closed to students, like at all the other brick-and-mortar schools across Michigan. Building closures have steepened the challenge of keeping students learning, but the Hamtramck charters’ responses highlight the crucial value of flexibility in public education, which keeps most students from losing ground. “The charter school environment is certainly positioned the best to be able to respond to the COVID crisis we are currently experiencing,” Paddock said.
He credits a core team of empowered teachers as not only essential to earning Hanley high distinction on the CAP report, but also to exceeding expectations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the school’s teachers have formed a stable core of trusted experts, serving the urban charter school for eight to 10 years. “Not once did they waver, not once did they say this can't be done,” said Paddock.
Hanley’s administrator added that about 80% to 85% of students are participating in distance learning. That’s a favorable rate, considering the added challenges that will require extra intervention later on. The school intends to hold as much of its regular summer school as public health conditions and executive orders will allow. “The achievement gap being created [by the shutdown] is going to be profound,” Paddock said.
Across town, Caniff educators also have sprung to action. After assessing the needs of families, staff members gave out more than 200 iPads and Chromebooks. Middle school students are expected to use digital devices to receive their lessons and complete assignments. K-5 students receive books and packets of academic work to complete, with teachers providing guidance through phone calls or an online communication platform. According to Saber, “The staff continues to work hard reaching out and educating the students each day.”
Still, it’s been difficult to reach them all. About 30% of students were participating in distance learning at its onset, he said. Now, after many staff phone calls to parents to resolve various technical issues, the participation rate has more than doubled to reach two-thirds.
“One of the main things that has really made a difference is having this laser-sharp focus on improving, a no-excuses kind of attitude that we took with our population of students,” he said of Caniff’s remarkable improvement. “There are so many excuses of why they would not achieve, but we made the decision or the choice to not accept any of these.” This philosophy is embodied in the school’s slogan, #CLA Mission Possible.
It’s difficult to predict just how things will fall out for these Hamtramck charter schools and their vulnerable student populations, in the wake of a dramatic and unexpected shift that affects their families’ health, resources and stability. But all signs point to committed educators continuing to help their pupils overcome and learn.
Paddock summed it up well. “Why should a kid here have less than any other kid just because of the ZIP code that they happen to reside in? Education should be the great equalizer for any kid to give them the opportunity to be successful.”
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