Once upon a time in public education, when all schools were neighborhood schools and attendance was a matter of which side of the boundary lines you lived on, families like Marilyn Williams’ would have been rare indeed.
The mother of two teenage daughters just two years apart, Williams' daughters don't just attend different classes, but entirely different campuses. Her eldest, also named Marilyn, goes to the Henry Ford Academy School for Creative Studies in the New Center neighborhood of Detroit, where she’s a junior. Micah, a freshman, attends Cass Technical High School, not quite three miles away in Midtown. Williams sees it as a way for both of her girls to get the education that suits them best.
The Henry Ford Academy is a charter school, with “focus on innovation and creativity,” according to its website. Cass Tech is one of Detroit’s selective high schools, and is the alma mater of many of Detroit’s leadership class. The former suits Marilyn, a non-traditional learner who thrives in a setting with small class sizes and a teaching method her mother describes as creative. Micah is more suited to Cass’ demanding curriculum and standards. And if they both stay in those schools through graduation, the fact they’ll have different yearbooks and alumni networks doesn’t bother their mother at all. She appreciates the choice.
When charter schools were first opened in Michigan in the early 1990s, the thinking was that the schools would be innovators; their contract, or charter, with the colleges or school districts that oversaw them would push them to explore new educational strategies, sharing the best results with more traditional schools. Over time, however, as the schools have failed to outperform other public schools, the arguments for them have emphasized the importance of choice, period.
And many parents would agree. Tonya Crain is the mother of 17-year-old Brandon and 9-year-old Kiera, both of whom attend University Preparatory Academy, the charters were a way to get them out of Highland Park’s public schools, which have been plagued by steeply falling enrollment and, more recently, an emergency financial manager.
Crain says she likes the smaller class sizes and increased emphasis on academics, but also the peace of mind she gets from the school’s emphasis on security and safety. University Prep emphasizes parental involvement and communication, which she appreciates. Her son wasn’t happy about relocating after he’d already started high school, but he found friends and was able to adapt.
“He was resentful at first, but his grades have improved,” she said. He’s investigating community college in Macomb County, where she now lives, and has settled into academics. But Kiera had to adjust, too, and was put in remedial classes until she can catch up with her classmates.
To Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the experiences of these parents demonstrate the charter-school experiment is working exactly the way it was intended to.
“We do per-pupil funding in Michigan, and Proposal A allows choice,” he said. “That decision was made with Proposal A. Either we think those things are good or we don't. ... These are public schools, so how do public schools hurt public education?”
The choice offered by the state’s public schools is wide, running from demanding traditional academies that require students to test into their grade levels, to those with a different philosophy altogether. Les Lance, a Farmington parent, chose Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, a social-studies immersion school that emphasizes introspection, curiosity and “the ability to recognize and initiate a balance between tradition and new ideas,” according to the school’s website.
For Lance, it fit his first-grader, Cianna, whom he describes as having a great sense of humor and vibrant personality. And it fit him and his wife.
“We like the environment,” he said. “They were organized. The leadership seems to have everything in place, with good parent communication.” He also talked to other parents, noting that “word of mouth is a very powerful thing” when it comes to choosing charters.
“I don't think anyone would tell you they're not in favor of schools of choice,” Lance said. “We're asked to do more (as parents), but I'm already involved. I recognize that charters have the same challenges as public schools. So much depends on leadership.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.