Last April, leaders of a charter school in Detroit sat down over a platter of Lebanese pastries to ponder an impossible choice.
Would they meet the physical needs of their growing middle schoolers by building an adequate gym, or provide for the academic and emotional needs of their many immigrant students?
“We were all teenagers, and it’s nice to have a gym in school,” said Jamal Aljahmi, president of the school board that oversees Bridge Academy West. “But it’s a balancing act.”
In Michigan, the toughest balancing acts fall to schools like this one, where virtually every student is economically disadvantaged, an English learner, or both. Study after study points out that educating such students requires extra money. But while Bridge Academy does bring in extra state and federal funding for its population of at-risk students, the school still receives less overall per student than the state average.
That’s why Bridge Academy finds itself making budget decisions that would be unthinkable for a more affluent district in the nearby suburbs, where middle schools typically use gyms to host sporting events and allow students to blow off steam during recess.
“People are being forced to make choices that are not good for kids,” said Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent and a critic of Michigan’s school funding system. “And yet we’ll all sit back and say that children are our top priority. Until we have indignation and action, we’ll keep getting what we’ve got, which is a death spiral for K-12 education.”
Over the last two decades, Michigan has plummeted to the bottom of national literacy rankings. A nonpartisan group who assembled to address the problem last year concluded that the state needs to send more money to the neediest students. Under the current system, schools get roughly roughly $8,000 per pupil, plus some extra funding for special education students, English learners, and others considered at risk of falling behind.
But to the expert panel, that extra funding wasn’t enough. According to a recent study from Michigan State’s education program, the state’s spending on at-risk students has fallen 60 percent since 2001, adjusting for inflation.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, hopes her first education budget will send more money to English learners, students with special needs, and students from poor families. But her plan to pay for those changes with a 45-cent gas tax hike appears politically untenable, and the Republican-controlled legislature has shown little interest in finding a different path to a weighted funding system.
In the meantime, middle schoolers at Bridge Academy West can expect to spend at least another winter in a gym that isn’t even wide enough for a regulation volleyball net.
As the school board sat down to write the next year’s budget, it was clear the gym would have to wait. The board would use its limited resources to strengthen its curriculum for English learners and students who’ve experienced trauma.
The school occupies the former Greater Detroit Hospital, which shut down in 2003 shortly after getting a cameo in the movie “8 Mile.” During renovations, the school knocked out ceilings to create two long, narrow rooms that would serve as gym space.
Today, students use the spaces for dodgeball and stretching. In one way, the split gym works well for the school, which maintains sex-segregated classrooms. Interim principal Raihan Akhtar said the policy caters to the school’s conservative Muslim families, many of whom have Yemeni or Bangladeshi roots.
But Principal Mohammed Alsanai says the cramped space doesn’t allow students to decompress, especially during the frigid Detroit winter when the outdoor schoolyard isn’t an option. Students who play on the school’s athletic teams are bused to another building for after-school practices.
“I don’t think it’s big enough for middle school students,” Alsanai said.
Traditionally, public schools would ask taxpayers to foot the bill for something like a new gym. One of the wealthier districts in the state, Ann Arbor Public Schools, is preparing to ask residents to chip in for a $1 billion bond to repair and renovate school buildings.
But charter schools don’t have that option under Michigan law. (Neither does the Detroit district, which largely lost its ability to levy taxes as part of a state-imposed restructuring.)
Instead, Bridge Academy must rely on its general fund to build an adequate gym — the same pot of money it uses to pay teachers and buy curriculum.
“We adopted social-emotional curriculum because a lot of these students came from traumatic situations or lack support systems at home,” Alsanai said. “So we ended up buying new curriculum to support students’ mental health.”
He added that the school hopes to build a new gym within a year or two if its enrollment continues to grow.
Part of the money they spent on curriculum will go to new books, he said, while another part will go toward training teachers to work with English learners. In some cases, that means teaching math and science concepts to 11- and 12-year-olds who speak virtually no English and have family members who are affected by the war in Yemen, which has left millions of people at risk of cholera and starvation.
The ultimate goal is to prepare teachers to work with students like Tamid, a Bangladeshi student who is often absent and who speaks limited English. One morning in May, Tamid was working on a middle school-level worksheet, but he couldn’t get past the first question.
“What’s the motivation…” asked an aide, reading from the worksheet.
“Motivation?” Tamid said.
The aide explained the word, and Tamid copied down the definition.
Tamid is just beginning to learn English, so he gets lots of facetime with a specialized English-as-a-second-language teacher and an aide.
Still, it’s not easy to do middle school classwork in a language you are just beginning to grasp. Every time a teacher turned away to work with another student, Tamid puts his head down as if to sleep. With help, he made progress. After a half hour of starts and stops, the worksheet was done.
The challenges facing Tamid are a reminder that the new curriculum doesn’t address the full depth of the school’s needs.
“I have a substantial course load, but I can’t possibly keep up with all the English learners in the school,” said Linda Westbrooks, the sole teacher focused exclusively on 195 English learners. Just over 300 students attend the school.
Once students build their English skills — but before they’re considered fluent speakers — they are placed in a classroom with two dozen other students, a teacher, and one or two aides.
To the students, it’s not the same as working with Westbrooks.
“When you get into a classroom with so many kids, it’s hard to get help,” said one 12-year-old English learner who’d been moved into a mainstream classroom. Even the additional funding won’t allow the school to hire more teachers.
A few minutes later, the lunch bell rang. If it were winter, the class would have headed upstairs to the narrow gym. But it was May, so they went outside to blow off some steam.