A charter school for the rural poor closes

When fourth grader Ian Matthews heard his school would close the end of the last academic year, he said he asked his principal, “Why do they want to break people’s hearts?”

For Ian and more than 150 other students, Threshold Academy, a charter in rural Ionia County, had been a refuge from the constant reminders in other schools that they were different because their families were poor. More than 90 percent of Threshold students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Central Michigan University, the charter’s authorizer, declined to be interviewed on its decision to close Threshold, but in a written response said the school was “unable to consistently deliver a quality educational program.” Declining enrollment has also been cited.

For Threshold Principal Victoria Simon, the answer is more nuanced. True, Threshold’s students had not achieved the academic standards set by CMU, but their overall scores on reading and math tests were improving each year. Expecting children of poverty to score as well as middle class children in other schools was unrealistic, she said.

“CMU’s goal is to have them college ready,” she said. “Even having our kids graduate from high school is an American dream.”

After announcing it would not renew Threshold’s charter, CMU administrators offered to help parents enroll their children in other traditional public and charter schools in Ionia and Montcalm Counties.

The closing highlights the often painful choices confronting education leaders, who must balance academic progress against more intangible factors such as the need to provide a safe, stable environment for vulnerable students. The episode also taps into a debate over the wisdom of keeping high concentrations of low-income children together in school, or whether they are better off learning alongside children from middle-class backgrounds.

“I think most of these children’s parents love them dearly, but poverty does lead to neglect. They’re not being read to, they’re not being nurtured enough. Unfortunately, some of our families are changing constantly. Instability is huge.” – Threshold Academy Principal Victoria Simon.

Students like them

EightCAP, the nonprofit that managed the school, founded Threshold Academy in 1997, offering kindergarten through 5th grade specifically for the poorest children in rural Ionia and Montcalm counties.

In Ionia County, 22.8 percent of children live in poverty, a 70 percent jump between 2005 and 2011, according to the 2013 Kids Count report. In Montcalm County, the child poverty rate is 26.5 percent, a 39 percent jump since 2005.

In pulling Threshold’s charter, CMU did not “take into account the social and economic factors,” EightCAP President Dan Petersen said. “These kids are supposed to be coming to school ready to learn, and they’re not ready to learn.” Many face varied obstacles before they can begin to learn, he said, including chaotic homes, emotional and physical abuse and improper nutrition.

That said, Petersen’s and Simon’s suggestion that Threshold performed well for a school with low-income students is not necessarily borne out by analysis. In Bridge’s Magazine’s 2013 Academic State Champs report, Threshold Academy scored 94 last year. A score of 100 would mean Threshold performed at a level expected for students in their income bracket. Threshold’s score suggests its students were falling short, even when compared with students in other low-income schools.

Difficult homes

Ten percent of Threshold students lived with grandparents, about twice the state average. For nearly a third of Threshold students, their transient living arrangements met the definition of homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which ensures homeless students have access to public schools.

One student slept on a trampoline so she would be off the ground, Simon said. Another told Simon her stepfather had beaten her mother, and added, “That’s why I’ll never get married.” For Simon, the comment spoke volumes about what her students considered normal in a family: husbands beat wives; therefore, I’ll never get married.

“It does have such a dramatic impact on them in a lot of ways,” she said. “In school you have to have organized thinking and structure. If your home is in chaos, it’s hard to have organized thinking.”

She’s had students who tested positive for methamphetamines, not because they were using it, but because it was being made in their homes, she said. Once or twice a week, child protective services workers were in the school investigating reports of abuse and neglect.

“I think most of these children’s parents love them dearly,” Simon said, “but poverty does lead to neglect. They’re not being read to, they’re not being nurtured enough. Unfortunately, some of our families are changing constantly. Instability is huge.”

She estimated that 15 percent of her students had a parent who was in jail or prison. Boyfriends and stepfathers moved in and out. Only about 6 percent of the students lived in a typical two-parent home, Simon said.

Such instability can profoundly affect a child’s ability to learn, research shows.

Poverty and the “family stress, negative social and environmental characteristics” that often accompany it can interfere with development of the parts of a child’s brain critical for memory, learning and language, a panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported in 2008.

Add to that the challenge of growing up in rural poverty where fewer social services or even the support of neighbors are available, and the chances for academic success can seem insurmountable. Some of Threshold’s students were the second, third or fourth generation living in poverty. About 40 percent of their mothers and 60 percent of their fathers had dropped out of high school, Simon said, increasing the risk their children would not graduate.

“We tried really hard with these kids to build up hopes and dreams and show them that they can succeed,” she said. Simon said she understood that CMU has been under pressure to improve test scores of the schools they charter, but she said the authorizer should have considered not only where Threshold’s students ended up, but where they began.

While declining to answer specific questions, CMU officials released a written statement from Cindy Schumacher, executive director of CMU’s Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools.

CMU had gone “to substantial lengths in the last several years to help the school make the improvement required for reauthorization,” she said. “These attempts have been unsuccessful… While it is a difficult decision, CMU cannot justify authorizing a school that is unable to consistently deliver a quality educational program and meet its student achievement goals… CMU believes the decision to not reauthorize Threshold Academy is in the best interest of the parents, students and community.”

Lagging scores

In the last school year, 47.7 percent of Threshold’s students were proficient in reading on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (or MEAP) test, and 25.8 percent were proficient in math. While that left much room for improvement, those reading scores were higher than in the Grand Rapids, Detroit and Flint public schools and 18 other CMU charter schools, but well below the state average of nearly 70 percent. Threshold’s math scores were higher than in the Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit and Flint public schools and 28 of CMU’s other charter schools, but below the state average of 40 percent.

Simon conceded her students’ test scores were low, “but they were good and getting better,” she said. “These are really challenged kids, and to think that they were doing that well is fantastic.”

By mid-June, she was packing up her office in the former elementary school building in Orleans, about 35 miles northwest of Grand Rapids. It’s a hamlet so small that you could miss it as you drove by on M-44. Desks, books, computers and other equipment were stacked in the hallways, ready to be sold.

Simon recalled the day this past spring when she went classroom to classroom, telling students they would not be returning this fall. She tried to put a positive spin on it, telling them they would attend schools closer to their homes and make new friends.

“It was one of the worst days of my entire life,” she said.

Parents, too, were dismayed. “I cried right along with my daughter,” Amanda Durham said. “The teachers there, they treated you as family.”

This fall, the former Threshold Academy students will be scattered through dozens of traditional public school districts and charter schools across Ionia and Montcalm counties. Some research
suggests they might be better off among middle-class students.

In 2012, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project, warned that children raised in high poverty areas can develop multiple behavioral and emotional problems. There is little research, however, on whether the same can be said of children attending schools where most students are from poor families.

“It would seem to be good to mix kids of different economic levels,” said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy. While she was unfamiliar with CMU’s decision to close Threshold, she said having low-income children attend school with classmates from more-affluent families shows them that “there are opportunities, and it opens the world for these kids.”

But on the other hand, “I think another issue at play in all of this is stability for these kids,” she added. “As we open and close schools willy-nilly, I think we have to look at that component.”

Simon certainly doesn’t believe her students are better off at other schools. At Threshold, no one was teased because they were poor or their father was in prison, she said. School staff, she said, had become a surrogate family for many children. “I think it’s just another example of ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away.”

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Comments

Tam
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 10:42am
Please explain "...a quality educational program and meet its student achievement goals..."
Mel Haga
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 11:23am
I was privileged to be an original school board member when Threshold Academy was founded. We started Threshold to serve Head Start graduates and their families to give these kids a head start before they were integrated into regular public school and I feel we met that goal and continued to do so even as Central Michigan took a different view of what success at Threshold really was. Success as the founding board envisioned it included both academic achievement as well as social adjustment and preparation for integration into the general public school environment at first at the 5th grade level and later at the 6th grade level. Central bought into that philosophy at their initial charter but later moved toward only looking at academic and MEAP achievement and ignoring the social connection on which Threshold was founded and initially chartered. Even as the school moved physically from Turk Lake in Montcalm County to Orleans in Ionia County the school did not wavier from its mission of serving kids from economically disadvantaged families. Because we served that population Threshold was one of the very few, if any. charter schools who ran a fleet of school busses in order to get the students to the school. Transportation is and continues to be one of the major barriers in rural counties to employment and without school or public transportation also to education and Threshold met that need by providing bus transportation for all of its students. They did that using the basic foundation grant given to all public schools without the ability that general public school districts have of asking for help at all level, including transportation, through a millage referendum. Based on our founding principles Threshold was and continued to be a success and met a need that is many times neglected in general public schools. My hope is that someone will track the progress of all the Threshold students as they are integrated into general public schools, not only academically but also socially and hopefully verify that our initial premise was indeed true.
jessica
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 3:31pm
This school is the only family some kid had and now it's gone. I'm considered low class and my son has mental issues and goes to public schools because of reasons and he's ON all the time with nothing being done about it. My daughter gets picked on for her issues and sense send off style it's dealt right then. This is the saddest thing CMU has done for being concerned with education. Some of These kids are gonna suffer and not know who to turn to for help.
David Zeman
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 5:24pm
Dear Jessica, Thank you so much for your honest and passionate thoughts on the school's closing.
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 4:34pm
CMU was aware of the condition of the children who would attend the charter school from the start and was willing to be the beacon of light that would help to light the path to higher education for those in poverty. My question is where along the way did CMU lose their focus and become more concerned with their image and the ability to meet the numbers than the well being of the children. The families of those children in that area have in effect been tossed right back into the revolving door of ignorance and poverty that they were in when the charter school was started. CMU being an organization of higher learning should have been the mentor for the success of the school rather than the executioner that has now destroyed the hopes and dreams of hundreds of children. Perhaps CMU should have stayed out of it altogether, at least the families would not have to feel that added level of disgrace by having what hope for a decent education for their children they embraced. CMU is a wealthy enough organization to fund the charter.
Terry Clingersmith
Thu, 08/14/2014 - 1:33am
In large part where CMU lost site of Thresholds vision was in Lansing, where there is increasing emphasis on test scores, with little or no regard for the populations the charter schools are serving, and increasing pressure on accreditors to authorize only those that exceed the averages. Unfortunately the current analysis of test scores is static, looking only at the most recent scores, and really can't reveal improvements over time as a whole, nor does it take into consideration the starting point and improvements over time for individuals. I think that as a society we can do so much better than this, but sadly, given the present political climate I doubt we will any time soon. Mel, I thank you for your early work, support, and vision, you saw the need and helped meet it. And Victoria (Simon), I hope you again find the opportunity to serve children in need, children who through no fault of their own have been dealt a few strikes, but given just that little extra attention can, and indeed do thrive. They might not beat state test score averages, but they far exceed where they would've been without your genuine love, caring, nurturing, and mentoring. Keep up the good fight!
bobbie
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 5:44pm
These school meant so much to my family (it was like a family to us). They helped my children so much. i can't say enough about it or how even though my kids no longer attend the school we cried when we learned it was closing. This was a school that even after your children "graduated" from it you were still welcomed back.
Michelle
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 6:09pm
My children all attended Threshold Academy. I honestly believe closing the school was the worst decision CMU could have made. There were so many kids there that are now going to be segregated from the so called "normal" kids. At Threshold they were taught right along side everyone else. They were given the same expectations and while they may have fallen short at times. There were more times when these kids realized that they were capable of so much more then they thought. Now many will be put in special needs classes and given the impression that they are not capable of the same things as anyone else. I learned at the school one day that the teachers hadn't even met the majority of the parents. They had never come to a parent teacher conference, never been to the school for any reason. While I understand many parents work during the day, Threshold staff went above and beyond to make it possible for every parent to be there. I think the saddest thing I learned was that in my youngest sons kindergarten class there were 4 kids who had ever played the game memory. One was my son, one was his cousin, who is the product of a single parent home, and then two other boys from large families. These are the situations these kids are coming from. A home where no one has the time to play a simple game of memory with their children. My sons had more friends from single parent homes then not. And many living with grandparents for one reason or another. These kids just lost the most stable thing in their lives. A place where people took time for them and encouraged them and showed them they were important. A lesson so many kids don't get today regardless of the school they go to. Still to this day my daughter is close to the staff from Threshold. She knows she can still rely on them for help and encouragement when she needs it and she will be a freshman this year. It's sad that people cannot see beyond the test scores to the children andall their needs.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 08/13/2014 - 11:38am
This sad and disheartening event should make everyone involved in education rethink the purpose of school. A school can be a place where children excel in all parts of growing and learning especially in the non academic areena which must come first since it is the foundation upon which useful knowledge can be acquired and understood. CMU is obliged by law to perform in an educational environment focused on a hundred year old concept of education and knowledge, our current environment driven by false metrics, distrust and a simplistic binary worldview that believes "college and career ready" simply means the highest score possible. Although a single article cannot provide the full context behind the closure of this school it sounds like Threshold was doing what it intended to do, provide hope and create aspirations for a better future. Children who have those characterisitics can take care of the learning they need to particpate in our society.
Don
Sun, 08/17/2014 - 8:14am
Thank you, Threshold, for making a difference to those families. Your closing highlights the different failure standards existing between traditional schools and PSA's. There are MANY consistently failing schools in Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids that should be shuttered, but such action by the state does not appear likely.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 08/17/2014 - 2:02pm
What this article suggests to me is that problems with education are not just with urban minority schools and poverty is the issue along with parental involvement. It is too bad that test scores are what drives education now. It is too bad that we can't work together with charter schools and public schools to provide the kind of education that all students deserve. It is too bad that the education reform we have seen since No Child Left Behind based on the business model and competition has created so many winners and losers in the education "market." Our kids deserve better.
Celeste
Mon, 08/18/2014 - 10:25am
I am a teacher with Detroit Schools. I know for a fact that there are other charter schools with lower scores. There is definitely something else behind this school closure. It sounds like this school had an education model that CMU should have been duplicating instead of closing. Michigan education leaders don't want to deal with the poverty issue and how it effects students. I am sorry to hear this program closed.