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.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”

governance

Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.