Charter Churn

‘This is horrific’: Detroit charter school stuns parents and students with news that it will close next week

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Students at Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy were let out early on Wednesday after learning that their school will close next week.

Updated Sept. 26: Additional photos and interviews with a board member, EQUITY Education, parents, teachers, and students were added to this story.

Just weeks after starting the school year, parents and students at the Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice got the stunning news Wednesday that their school will close next week.

“They’re devastated,” said Charlotte Jackson, a teacher who answered the school’s phone in tears Wednesday morning. “Students were very upset, crying, screaming, walking out, a whole lot of stuff … It’s not good.”

Students and parents learned about the abrupt closure — effective Oct. 1 — during a hastily-called, two-hour assembly with school officials Wednesday morning, including representatives from the school’s management company, EQUITY Education. Also present were officials from Ferris State University, which authorizes the charter school.

In the first two weeks of school this year, average attendance was just 180 students, down from 300 last year, according to EQUITY officials. In Detroit, where parents have many school choices but few quality options, schools can only guess at how many students will enroll before the start of a school year. And because Michigan schools get a set amount of money per for each student, a substantial drop in enrollment can wreak havoc on a budget.

“This year’s student count was far below what they had budgeted for,” said Ronald Rizzo, who runs the charter school office at Ferris State. “When all was said and done, they were too far below. They weren’t going to be able to make it financially so rather than see them perhaps struggle through the year with a sub-par education because of unavailable funds, they decided they would bite the bullet and, even at this time of year, which is terrible, give them the opportunity to go.”

siblings at delta prep
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Kymia Latimer, left, and TraVohn Rumely, on the sidewalk outside Delta Prep. Moments earlier, their mother rushed into the school to ask why she needed to find a new school for her children. “There was no point in them just closing the school down like this,” Rumeley said.

The school was one of dozens in Detroit facing additional scrutiny from the state after several years of test scores that ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Michigan schools. It could have been forced to close if it failed to sharply improve student scores and reduce its suspension rate by a minimum of 20 percentage points. Last year, fewer than 10 11th-graders there passed state math and reading exams out of nearly 100 who took the test.

A letter from EQUITY that was distributed to parents at the meeting said the school’s board, not the people directly running it, had made the decision to close.

“It is neither the wish or will of EQUITY to close at this time,” wrote Renee Burgess, EQUITY’s president. “I believe it is wrong to educationally evict children from their school, particularly once the school year has started. The instability and trauma that is created when you close a school will remain with these children.”

After the meeting, Burgess told Chalkbeat that EQUITY offered the board several options that would have allowed the school to stay financially solvent and remain open for the rest of the year.

Kenneth Coleman, a member of the board of directors, blamed EQUITY for failing to prepare for the drastic decline in enrollment. He declined to comment further on why the school is closing.

“All I can say is that these kids were failed,” he said.

The shuttering of Delta Prep is the latest in a line of sudden charter school closures that have angered parents and raised questions about how well charter schools are managed and supervised in Detroit. Last year, a charter school just outside the city in Southfield closed with two weeks to go before the end of the school year.

Parents said they learned about the Wednesday morning meeting from their children the night before.

“We were blindsided, totally and completely,” said Avian Retick, whose daughter, Dezana Odom, just started her freshman year at the school.

Retick says the school seemed a step above her other options, and that officials with EQUITY assured her that Delta would give her daughter access to college preparation courses.

“They sold us on a lot of opportunities that aren’t going to come to pass,” she said.

Charter school oversight in Detroit got extensive scrutiny last year during confirmation hearings for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who, as a Michigan philanthropist, has been influential in shaping education policy in Michigan.

Michigan allows an unlimited number of charter schools and doesn’t require the same level of oversight as other states, contributing to instability and uneven quality in the privately managed but publicly funded schools.

Rizzo defended the oversight his office provided to the school.

“They have been our list of schools that we have been supporting,” he said. “We have been sending folks over there to work with them on data analysis. We’ve been very engaged in trying to help the academy along.”

He said Ferris State would work with the state’s charter school association to help students find new schools.

“We are committed to doing everything humanly possible in the next several days to try to get students situated in new schools,” Rizzo said.

detre holloway
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detre Holloway, a math teacher, at the door of Delta Prep after the school board voted to shutter the school. He knew the school’s test scores were floundering. But, he said, “I didn’t know how successful it was until I saw all those tears today.”

Delta Prep, a high school in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, opened just four years ago with 46 students. It was the first school  to be affiliated with the Detroit chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African-American sorority. Almost from the start, it was rocked by the same instability that it has now come to symbolize. When Allen Academy, one of the largest charters in the city, closed in 2016, a sizeable number of its students transferred to Delta, sending the school’s enrollment shooting to 333 in its second year.

Forced to expand too quickly, the school never found its footing, Monica Davie, a volunteer at the school, said.

“That explosion is what doomed it,” she said.

As its test scores floundered, the school had a new principal every year, said Diane Pompey, a parent liaison at Delta whose granddaughter has attended the school for four years. Pompey was a regular presence at the school, and many students called her “nana.” As seniors walked to their cars after the meeting, she called out to remind them to return the next day for their transcripts.

principals count
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Monica Davie, right, and Diane Pompey, trying to count the number of principals the school has had since it opened in 2014. They settled on roughly one per year.

School let out for the day after the board decided to close the board next week. After the assembly, students spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the school, waiting for a ride home.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” said TraVohn Rumely, a freshman. “Right now, I’d be in class doing work.”

“Laughing with my friends,” chimed in Kymia Latimer, Rumely’s older sister and a sophomore at Delta.

Around noon, school buses arrived to take some students home. Students who don’t live on the bus route said they’d have to wait near the school until 3 p.m., when school usually lets out, because their parents hadn’t been able to get off work early.

Talk on the sidewalk revolved around where students planned to enroll next. Schools were already competing for their attention — and for the roughly $7,000 in state funding that each additional student will bring to their new school. Students and parents said that Delta urged students to enroll in Detroit Leadership Academy or Detroit Collegiate High School, two other charter schools run by EQUITY Education. Others held handbills distributed by University Prep Science and Math High School, a charter school on Detroit’s east side. And in a tweet, the city’s main district said it’s ready to take students from Delta Prep.

Victoria Haynesworth, a parent at the school, said that officials discouraged students from applying to other schools, suggesting they wouldn’t get in.

“They were making comments about the fact that a lot of the school will not take the children because they scored very low on their tests,” she said.

While some of the city’s top high schools, like Cass Technical and Renaissance High School, require students to test in, most Detroit high schools do not consider test scores in admissions.

A woman who answered the phone at EQUITY Education’s office declined to comment but said she would pass along a request for information.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Students filtered into the midtown neighborhood that surrounds Delta Prep to wait for their parents. Many parents couldn’t get off work early to pick up their children.

Steven McDuell, a senior who was entering his fourth year at Delta, said he planned to transfer to Old Redford with the rest of the football team, which had been busy preparing for the homecoming game scheduled for this Friday.

He echoed other students who left the meeting angry at the board for refusing to try keeping the school open for the rest of the year.

“They sat there and said, ‘We don’t care how y’all feel,’” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. Delta is all I know.”

As the school emptied out, Detre Holloway, a geometry and physical science teacher, left the school through the back door and walked to his car, exhausted by the emotional back-and-forth of the meeting. To Holloway, the reason for the closure is straightforward — there aren’t enough kids — and he brushed aside the question of who to blame for the school’s collapse.

‘“I am numb,” he said. “I saw a lot of finger-pointing back and forth. The kids saw it.”

Holloway and other teachers at Delta said they don’t expect to have any trouble finding another job in a Detroit classroom. City schools have struggled for years to find certified teachers, and there were roughly 90 vacancies in the main district on the first day of school.

For students, the closure marks a major interruption to schoolwork and friendships, and a forced departure from a school where many said they felt at home.

Haynesworth said her daughter, Gabrielle Doctor, started at the school in ninth grade and was crestfallen to learn she would not get to graduate with her class. Instead, Haynesworth is now scrambling to find her daughter another school she can attend.

“My daughter was hysterical,” Haynesworth said. “She was crying. Children were everywhere. It was hysteria. They were crying on the floor. Kids were beating on lockers.”

Gabrielle largely had a “really, really good experience” at Delta Prep, Haynesworth said.

Gabrielle, who was a majorette in the school band, has special needs that entitle her to a full-time aide who works with her throughout the day, and the school has been responsive to her needs, Haynesworth said. .

“I trusted the school with my child,” she said. “This is horrific. I’m furious. I’m emotional … I’m speechless.”

Myiel Commage, a senior who started at the school as a freshman, held back tears as she talked about the Delta marching band and her plans to start a step-dance team.

“I made so many friends here that were basically family,” she said. “That all got snatched away from me.”

steven mcduell
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Steven McDuell, 16, waits for a ride after learning that Delta Prep will be closed. A member of the football team, he has been preparing for the homecoming game this Friday.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools. The school has 444 students in grades K through 4, and plans to grow year by year to eighth grade.

Rogers said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

rules and regulations

Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Nearly 10 years after virtual charter schools launched in Indiana, the fast-growing sector could face its first set of meaningful regulations aimed at cracking down on some of the state’s most problematic online schools.

In a 7-1 vote Wednesday, the Indiana State Board of Education recommended that state lawmakers impose stricter rules on virtual charter school and the agencies that oversee them. The proposed rules would stop school districts from overseeing virtual schools, eliminate a fee structure that officials say disincentivizes oversight agencies from intervening in struggling schools, and limit the growth of new and chronically underperforming virtual schools.

The recommendations would most affect two virtual charter schools that have been among Indiana’s largest and lowest-performing online schools: Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which are overseen by the small Daleville school district.

The state board also suggests new requirements to improve student engagement — an issue for the schools since students work remotely — including setting minimum student-to-teacher ratios and making an orientation mandatory before students are allowed to enroll in virtual schools. And the board calls for virtual education programs in traditional public school districts to follow similar rules as virtual charter schools.

“We’ve seen a very poor return on investment of taxpayer money for virtual education,” said board member Gordon Hendry, who led the examination of virtual charter schools. “There’s little regard for student outcomes, and virtual charters perform worse than the worst of brick-and-mortar schools.”

It remains to be seen how lawmakers might act on the recommendations in the legislative session that starts in January. Even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for action on Indiana’s failing virtual charter schools following a Chalkbeat investigation, lawmakers declined to act last year on bills aimed at improving them.

But, since then, Indiana’s virtual charter schools have attracted more attention, with their poor performance falling under the spotlight in a Congressional committee and a new virtual school making last-minute changes to its model after another Chalkbeat investigation into its oversight.

The leader of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, Percy Clark, criticized the state board’s recommendations as being contradictory. He said that because the state funds virtual charter schools at lower levels than brick-and-mortar schools, capping enrollment would prevent schools from being able to afford prescribed teacher-student ratios.

Clark also raised concerns that more rules would interfere with virtual charter schools’ ability to innovate by “forcing virtual schools to comply with traditional standards.”

Still, Hendry touted the recommendations as a critical step to setting “guardrails” for Indiana’s troubled virtual charter schools, which serve about 13,000 students and have consistently posted dismally low test scores and graduation rates.

He came down particularly hard on authorizers, the oversight agencies tasked with monitoring virtual charter schools and stepping in when schools struggle.

“I think there should be a vote of ‘no confidence,’” Hendry said, blaming authorizers for not holding virtual charter schools accountable. He said the money flowing to authorizers of virtual schools causes “a significant conflict of interest” since it’s not in the authorizers’ financial interest to close or limit the growth of schools, making them essentially “too big to fail.”

But the board balked at suggesting that a single authorizer oversee all virtual charter schools — a proposal that Hendry said came out of looking at laws in Colorado, Maine, and Oklahoma, and recommendations from national organizations such as the National Association for Charter School Authorizers and the conservative Fordham Institute.

Board member Katie Mote said that would “push too far,” raising concerns about limiting Indiana’s school choice environment.

Among the board members supporting the proposed regulations was Byron Ernest, the former head of three online schools under the Hoosier Academies network. That included Hoosier Academy Virtual School, Indiana’s first virtual charter school, which closed this year after years of failing grades.