In October 2018, state-imposed fines were piling up for Detroit Community Schools, leaving a gaping hole in the budget of the 700-student charter network. Sharon McPhail, a former city councilwoman, had been running the schools for years without certification, and the state was putting its foot down.

As the authorizers of DCS, officials at Bay Mills Community College are ultimately responsible for overseeing the school, which includes an elementary and high school on a single campus in northwest Detroit. While they had hoped that DCS would resolve the issue on its own, by the fall it was clear that it was up to them.

In response, they took drastic measures, dissolving the school board and appointing one of their own employees in its place — opening another chapter in the troubled story of one of Detroit’s oldest charters.

The role authorizers play in overseeing charter schools is a central question in the national debate about charters. In Michigan, a state where critics have often argued that charter schools don’t face enough oversight, the coming months at Detroit Community Schools will offer a test case: What happens when charter school authorizers aggressively intervene in the operation of a school?

The school board insists that Nancy Berkompas, who was appointed as conservator of the school and later hired as superintendent, represents the school’s best chance to leave behind two decades of poor academic results and administrative instability. 

Nancy Berkompas

“We as a school have the upper hand with Nancy here,” said Patrick Devlin, president of the school board, noting that she helped the school avoid a budget deficit in her first year, and that she has decades of experience as an educator.

Yet charter experts consulted by Chalkbeat expressed concerns that Bay Mills won’t be willing to take tough actions — like demanding better academic performance, or closing the school if something goes seriously wrong — with, Berkompas, a former employee, in charge.

“That is really problematic,” said Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies charters. “If I were a parent in that school, what would worry me is, if something surfaces that is not good, is the authorizer willing to do something about it?”

Mickey Parish, president of Bay Mills, declined to comment, citing an ongoing lawsuit. McPhail is suing the college and the state to challenge her dismissal.

School officials say Berkompas, an educator with a half-century of experience, was their only good option. Finding qualified education leaders is seldom easy, perhaps especially in Detroit, where a key funder is focusing on training new school leaders.

Even with her long experience in underfunded rural schools, Berkompas faces steep odds. School turnarounds are never easy to pull off under the best of circumstances, but she is dealing with a tough situation that is all too common in Detroit: a tight budget, a large number of high-need students, problems with the school building, and a staggeringly high rate of teacher turnover.

When DCS opened in 1997, it seemed to embody the argument that charters would bring fresh new approaches to public education.

The founder of DCS, Bart Eddy, had been a teacher at the Detroit Waldorf School, a private school in the city’s upscale Indian Village neighborhood. Eddy imagined a teacher-driven public school that would borrow from Waldorf’s focus on the arts and practical skills. In his application to open a new school, he said that teachers would make all administrative decisions by consensus.

Two decades later, DCS’s hallmark isn’t educational innovation, but lagging academic results and relentless teacher turnover. Consider:

  • Fewer than one in 10 of its graduates complete any postsecondary degree within six years, far below the state average;
  • Less than 5% of its high schoolers were proficient on the SAT — a college entry exam — last year, far lower than the state average;
  • Other state test scores fell last year. Fewer than 10 percent of students in grades 3-7 met state benchmarks in math and English language arts last year;
  • About half the teachers leave the school annually. Of 39 educators employed there four years ago, only five remained last June;
  • Last year, fewer than half of high school teachers were certified in the area they were teaching.

There were early signs that things were going well under McPhail. A year after she arrived, the school was named a “reward” school by the state education department, a recognition that its test scores had improved. She helped bring a community health center to the building. 

Then came reports that McPhail wasn’t certified as an administrator, and that she had recruited a CFO who’d previously been involved in a bribery scandal in Texas and a former district judge who had been removed from the bench for misusing court funds.

The state cracked down in 2016, fining the school for wages paid to McPhail and another uncertified administrator. The first fine was for $79,000, nearly enough money to hire two teachers. The state plans to withhold another $197,000 in fines over the next four years.

But until October of 2018, things continued at DCS as if nothing had happened. Then, under threat of more fines, Parish, the president of Bay Mills, dissolved the school board and replaced it with a conservator. He chose Berkompas, who had been working as a liaison between Bay Mills and some of the charter schools it authorizes. It was an extraordinary step: While most authorizers in Michigan have the power to take over the schools they oversee, none had used it before, according to interviews with several charter school authorizers and experts.

Told of the circumstances at DCS, Amy Ruck Kagan, a vice president at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said it’s not clear that the school has done anything wrong.

“I think it is a close situation to watch, but I actually don’t think there is anything that is against best practice,” she said.

She said it’s not unheard of for authorizers across the country to put conservators in charge of schools. In such situations, she said, it should always be clear who is in charge of the school and for how long.

Berkompas set out to generate a sense of stability at a moment when the school badly needed to maintain its enrollment and to convince teachers to stick around.

But stability wasn’t easy to come by in Berkompas’ first year. In the early days of 2019, a broken pipe flooded the high school, displacing students for more than a month.

They moved to temporary classrooms in a church conference hall. The new environment was noisy — the classrooms had thin walls and no ceilings — and it hurt student and teacher morale, said Lydia Whitehead, who led the high school English department before leaving for another school last summer.

“It’s a wonder that the kids didn’t kill each other, because they were fighting every single day,” she said. “Kids who were straight-A students under normal circumstances lost their minds.”

That spring, the state treasury noted that the school was in danger of becoming fiscally distressed. The spring testing period — the first since Berkompas took over — also went badly, with fewer than 10% of students passing the state exams in virtually every subject area and grade, a decline from previous years.

At the same time, staff at the school were preparing to make the case to Bay Mills that their charter contract should be extended. Berkompas says she steered clear of the process because her mandate was to improve the school’s finances.

In June, school leaders traveled to its campus in northern Michigan to make the case for the school. Berkompas, who was still conservator, joined them for the five-hour trek back to her hometown, but she says she didn’t join the discussions.

“I felt it was a conflict of interest, so I just accompanied the team,” she said. “I was still an employee of Bay Mills.”

By the end of the month, she wasn’t a Bay Mills employee any more. At the end of the school year, the college agreed to return control to the school board, ending Berkompas’ tenure as conservator.

The board’s first move: Hire Berkompas as superintendent.

Whether that decision will help the school improve or simply prolong its two-decade struggle remains to be seen.

Despite the school’s struggles, Bay Mills has played a key role in keeping it open. In 2014, DCS’s previous authorizer, Saginaw Valley State University, put the school on probation. McPhail was superintendent at the time, having taken over after serving as president of the board. She reached out to Bay Mills, which agreed to give the school a full charter contract. A statewide think tank called it a “questionable authorizing decision,” arguing that Bay Mills was effectively propping up one of the “worst charters in Michigan.

“I do think that most authorizers have tolerated too much dysfunction because they don’t want to just close the school,” said Robin Lake, executive director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank focused on charter schools.

Indeed, it’s more common in Michigan for schools to shut down under financial duress than to be shut down by their authorizers for underperformance.

Devlin, the school board president, said Bay Mills was performing an important service by keeping the school open. Since Redford High School closed a decade ago, DCS has been the only high school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. Every student at the school is classified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state, compared with 85 percent in the main Detroit district.

“I just know what would happen if we weren’t here,” he said. “A lot of these kids would just stop going to school. The one shiny thing that I see for them is the school. It’s their ticket out.”

Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent organizer for 482Forward who works in Brightmoor, said the school plays an important role in the neighborhood.

“It’s a staple in our community,” she said. “We are rooting for its success.”

As the tiny, remote tribal college struggles with declining enrollment, it has come to depend to an unusual degree on the money it draws from charter authorizing. Almost half the college’s revenue — $5.4 million — came from the charters it was overseeing in 2017, according to an audit. That’s more than its revenue from tuition and fees, and roughly equal to its grants from the federal government.

Valant, the charter researcher, said that the current arrangement, with Berkompas in charge and Bay Mills dependent on charter school revenue, is problematic. “If the authorizer depends on revenue from the schools, they have fewer incentives to hold the schools accountable.” But he added that closure could still be a bad idea. “When schools close, it inflicts a lot of harm on the parents and the kids.”

In any case, it seems highly unlikely that the school will shut down, said Gavin Buckley, a former high school teacher at DCS who left at the end of last year.

“For the last six months I was there, every staff meeting they would remind us that the school was not closing, that Bay Mills had extended the contract at the school,” he said.

Finding qualified leaders to run schools in Detroit is a perennial challenge, one that has drawn the attention of philanthropists. Devlin said the board was delighted that Berkompas submitted her resume.

“We were worried about the turnover and attracting someone to take it over, and Nancy answered all of our prayers,” he said, adding that while he read other resumes, Berkompas was the only candidate who was interviewed for the post.

Berkompas, who said she counts Parish as a friend, insists that she is maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with her former employer, pointing out that Bay Mills still requires the school to report on its activities in detail through an “extreme reporting system.”

Devlin said Berkompas’ qualifications speak for themselves.

Berkompas got her start as an educator more than 50 years ago. She worked as a K-12 teacher for 18 years, taught in state prisons for 14 years, and served as superintendent of Rudyard Area Schools, a remote district in the Upper Peninsula. She says she has taught every grade level except kindergarten.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, she laid out her plans for the coming year: She already helped balance the budget. Now she wants to bring in academic specialists to work with teachers, contract with additional counselors to support students with trauma, and build a “young fives” program to help younger students prepare for kindergarten.

One key priority is to hire more teachers. Another goal, she said, is to ensure that the school meets the state’s definition of “academically sound.”

“I would like to be in the ballpark,” she said.