Charter schools multiplying

July 26, 2013 at 10:13 am

Charter schools multiplying in Mich.

Oakside in Waterford is part of the new wave of state charter schools. It opens next month. (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)

Sara McClendon wasn’t satisfied with her daughter’s public school, and she never expected to enroll her at a charter school.

But when Kylie McClendon enters third grade in September, she’ll be starting classes at Success Mile Charter Academy, a new school that’s opening at a former Target store in Warren.

“It was just a fluke because somebody handed a flyer for a new charter school to another parent I was talking to outside our school,” said McClendon, 46. “So I went to three informational meetings, emailed a board member, did a lot of research, and I was sold.”

Kylie will join hundreds of other students flocking to 37 new charter schools opening in the fall across the state.

While enrollment in traditional public schools has fallen in Michigan over the past two decades, charter school enrollment has increased more than 500 percent since the first school in the state opened in the mid-1990s. The state had less than 4,500 students in 41 charter schools in 1995; more than 130,000 children attended 277 charter schools this past year.

Despite their growing popularity, charter schools continue to spark debate among educators, advocacy groups and lawmakers who oversee funding for the state’s public schools.

A recent study by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University has given charter school backers in Michigan a boost.

The center cited Michigan as one of 11 states where charter school performance growth in reading and math outpaced traditional public schools. Its study found the stronger gains in both subjects were equivalent to 43 days of learning per year.

The gains are significant, said state Sen. Phil Pavlov, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“This was the most comprehensive look at charters by a university like Stanford, and the findings were very clear,” Pavlov said. “That there was more growth in math and reading is undeniable. There were 12,000 students on the waiting list when we lifted the cap for charter schools in 2011, so the demand was there. Parents knew there was great value there for their children.”

Success rate matters

But a Royal Oak-based think tank cautions gains by Michigan’s current charter schools don’t mean the new schools will be equally effective.

“Choice is great when it’s a high-performing choice,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, an educational advocacy group. “Choice in and of itself is not the solution for educational problems.”

She said Education Trust-Midwest encourages and supports opening high-performing charter schools.

“But we’re doing a disservice to kids when (school authorizers, or sponsors) continue to open low-performing schools.”

Arellano said Florida-based Charter Schools USA fits in that category. The operator will run Success Mile, where Kylie McClendon will attend, with Grand Valley State University as authorizer.

“They’re brand new to Michigan,” said Arellano, whose group maintains a database on charter operators. “So how would parents know who they are? There’s a huge public need” for information about charter operators.

The Stanford study, which included 27 states, shows that in learning growth for math, Charter Schools USA, which has 58 schools in seven states, rated slightly below traditional public schools.

“Michigan should be focused on attracting and supporting the country’s strongest operators,” Arellano said. “Our students here deserve the same quality assurances that leading states provide their students.”

Rich Page, executive vice president of development for Charter Schools USA, said the Stanford study’s findings on student growth don’t mean the company’s schools are subpar.

For example, he said, if Charter Schools USA schools start with ratings showing the number of students proficient in a subject is about 80 percent and they increase the number to 85 percent, “that’s not going to show much growth, compared to a school with a lower growth percentage in the 50s for example, that may increase to 60 percent.”

Sara Lenhoff, director of policy and research at Education Trust-Midwest, described this as “poor justification.”

“The CREDO study compared student growth in charter networks to that of similar students in traditional public schools,” she said. “So if it’s true that Charter Schools USA starts out with higher performing students, then their growth was compared to the growth of higher performing students in traditional public schools.”

Tim Wood, the Grand Valley State University special assistant to the president for charter schools, said the university is pleased with the company’s performance in other states.

“Charter Schools USA is one of the better operators,” he said. “There are at least 40 other cities recruiting them to come to their cities. We’re very fortunate to begin making inroads with them.”

Wood said GVSU requires the charter schools it authorizes to meet specific standards for student achievement, including national test benchmarks, or be shut down.

New schools opening

Grace Adams of Pontiac is sending her fifth-grade son to Oakside Scholars Charter Academy, a new charter opening in Waterford, also in an abandoned Target store. The school is being opened by Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies and has been authorized by Bay Mills Community College.

“Apollo was a straight-A student in his first school, so I put him in Notre Dame Catholic School, but he wasn’t doing his homework,” said Adams, 67, who adopted Apollo, her deceased daughter’s child. “He’s very excited about going to the new school, and I expect him to do well.”

National Heritage Academies was founded in 1995 and has 74 schools nationwide, with 46 in Michigan. NHA’s growth in reading and math in the CREDO study exceeded that in public schools.

“Our goal is pretty straightforward,” said Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for NHA. “We want to better educate more students and provide new public school choices for them. We don’t believe parents always have all the choices they need, and we will be another choice.”

Lenhoff concedes that overall, average scores among Michigan charter schools are gaining more than traditional public school counterparts in math and reading. But, she adds, “Averages can sometimes mask real and troubling disparities.”

“It is the low-achieving, low-growth charters that concern us most,” she said. “One of the CREDO reports revealed that many Michigan charter school management companies run schools that demonstrate less learning for their students than similar students in traditional public schools. These operators have been approved to open new schools in Michigan in 2012 and 2013.”
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