A Grand Rapids-area high school using flying to interest students in science and engineering. An Ann Arbor school with no textbooks and lots of hands-on learning. A high-poverty Detroit school with students dual-enrolled at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Each of these charter schools uses an innovative curriculum and teaching method, fulfilling a key tenet of what legislators and advocates hoped would happen when they implemented Michigan’s charter school law in 1994. One is too new to be ranked and two are among the top-ranked charter schools in the state.
The schools stand out for other reasons, too:
The Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA) has outpaced most Detroit schools — as well as the state average — on standardized tests, despite having 71% low-income students.
West Michigan Aviation in Grand Rapids has attracted students to a new school that focuses on math, science and technology, areas in which American students often underperform. It’s also one of a handful of high schools in the nation to feature aviation.
Honey Creek, in Ann Arbor, arose out of a successful grassroots movement among parents in Ann Arbor, another underlying principle behind the state’s charter school law.
All are self-managed or run by a nonprofit, something these schools’ founders see as a plus.
“It would be a different place if it was managed by a company,” said Will Hathaway, a former Honey Creek board member. “It wouldn’t have the same feel.”
DEPSA and Honey Creek post detailed financial budgets on their schools’ websites. Honey Creek spends more in the classroom than both the charter school average and the state average. Thirty-three percent of West Aviation’s student body are minority students, groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.
DEPSA began with a for-profit company but dropped it in favor of a nonprofit started by the former principal, who now runs the school. Honey Creek, whose top administrators have all had educationbackgrounds, has maintained its independence by creating a foundation to raise money for the school.
At West Aviation, Dick DeVos, one of the wealthiest men in Michigan, set up the school to be self-managed.
“I’ve been involved in pushing for education reform for a long time now,” DeVos said. “This is another way to keep doing that. Giving students a quality education is why I’m doing this.”
DeVos also chose a longtime Grand Rapids-area principal to run the school.
Each school found a way to fund start-up costs, a huge burden that often leads other schools to privatecompanies that front those costs. DEPSA got an $850,000 grant from the nonprofit Michigan Future in 2010 to help start its high school; West Aviation has a benefactor in DeVos; Honey Creek received help from parents to pay teacher salaries until state aid kicked in and the parents could be reimbursed.
Other nonprofit and self-managed charters also have found ways to fund their schools, whether through selling bonds, taking loans or getting support from foundations.
Looking for innovation – an original charter school goal
Honey Creek, DEPSA and West Aviation aren’t alone in offering innovation in teaching.
Though neither are yet ranked, Brighton’s FlexTech High School, run by the for-profit management company CS Partners, and the self-managed Cornerstone Health and Technology School, a high school in Detroit, take nontraditional approaches. FlexTech offers a mix of online and classroom instruction that provides a flexible schedule, especially appealing to athletes who find themselves on the road a lot in various competitions and training venues. Cornerstone, where health careers are the focus, weaves healthy living and healthy habits into every subject.
And at the state’s highest-ranked charter school, Washtenaw Technical Middle College on the campus of Washtenaw Community College, students can graduate both with an associate’s degree and a high school diploma.
But innovation in charter schools overall has been less than what the original law envisioned.
“The vision was to have choice for parents and to have schools that were innovative in teaching students,” said Dan DeGrow, former state Senate majority leader and current superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency.
He said there has not been enough innovation: “There are some good charter schools, some bad charter schools, and a lot of charter schools in the middle.”
New schools have advantage in providing unique curricula
But Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, an advocacy group, said that charter schools’ overalltrack record for innovation is why the Legislature lifted the cap on them in 2011.
“It’s difficult to transition an existing school into a truly innovative school,” he said. But as new schools, charters have met the need, he said.
Advocates also say charter schools invested earlier in testing — and not just the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. Many — especially those run by National Heritage Academies, the largest charter operator in Michigan — work with adaptive tests. Taken on a computer, they base their next question on the answer a student has just given. That gives teachers a better idea of where students are.
Many charter schools use these tests — now spreading to traditional public schools — several times in the course of the year to help guide instruction.
All that means one thing to charter supporters: They’ve done what the law set out to do.
“The current charter school (environment) has given us quality options for education,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the pro-charter Great Lakes Education Project. He previously worked for Central Michigan University’s charter school office and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
“We think quality is to be praised regardless of the governmental model,” he said. “Parents agree — there’s a big demand for these schools. More choice is good.
“We’re here to stay.”