Bob Thompson, Dave Bing and the Skillman Foundation are trying to give kids in Detroit a quality education. As Americans, we believe that providing a quality public education to every child is a fundamental freedom. Yet, the question remains: are we providing that education?
One recent study revealed half of Michigan’s teachers say they give up on disadvantaged students at least "sometimes," if not "a lot." Another study noted that state colleges and universities spend about $600 million a year to teach students what they didn’t learn in high school (which says nothing of youth who never make it to college).
Add to that the thousands of students displaced this summer when the Detroit Public Schools and the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit in separate actions shuttered nearly 50 schools. These families had few if any options, with most charter public schools at capacity and suburban schools threatening to oust and arrest incoming "carpetbaggers."
It may take months to see how many of the 10,000 students Detroit’s public schools are projected to lose this year have indeed found someplace else to go – or hit the streets, but school officials say they may close another 20 to 30 schools to offset a $200 million deficit.
Can anyone argue the city’s children don’t need additional choices in public education? Or that the future of Detroit and the state don’t demand a far-reaching educational turn-around?
Such arguments can’t be made, at least not in good faith. It’s time to get all students in quality schools, keep them there, keep them safe, and engage them in the kind of active learning that positions them to be successful adults.
There are answers, if only decision-makers would keep the interests of children at the forefront.
The most obvious solution comes from businessman and NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who’s teaming with Detroit’s Skillman and Thompson foundations to build 15 small charter high schools, allowed under a unique 2003 law. The first school would be near Bing Group headquarters, where he also is building 40 middle-income homes, in part to serve the company’s 1,400 workers. The new schools would pledge a graduation rate of 90 percent, with 90 percent of those going on to college. Grand Valley State University is supporting the effort, helping to ensure the schools are beacons of hope.
"We all have a duty to make a difference," Bing said. "I can no longer sit idly by and watch this city, this community, continue to fail. People don’t have to live like this. … Our residents need to know that people care and that there is an alternative to what we have now. It has to be done today; we can’t wait another moment."
Are charter public schools really different? Do they work?
A 2005 Michigan Department of Education report shows charters perform at or above their peers — even while serving many students who were plummeting in other schools. It’s heartening that Detroit-area charters surpassed the local district in all 7th- and 8th-grade subjects on the 2005 MEAPs, including by 13 percentage points in reading and 15 points in writing.
Are charters different? Well, they’re small. Each is its own district, so bureaucracy isn’t an issue. Academic performance and nurturing environments are a given, or changes are made. As one Detroit charter leader says, if a teacher can’t hug and love children, that teacher is in the wrong place.
Detroit has charters focused on the arts — one has computed that students each receive the equivalent of nearly $225,000 in private arts lessons during their 13 years of schooling. Others focus on the basics, moral character, or ethnic cultures. Extensive tutoring is frequently available.
Importantly, charters welcome parents into the school, arrange parent support programs, and involve them in the learning process.
One school tracks involvement through ID cards, and had 431 parents last year volunteering 10 or more hours. Total time volunteered? More than 7,000 hours. This school’s MEAP scores even beat the state average in fourth and seventh grades.
Charter public schools have proven themselves, as the families of 50,000 southeast Michigan students can attest.
Consider the Detroit mom whose daughter attended a charter until the 20-minute commute became impossible. Shortly after the girl re-enrolled in the nearest conventional school, a neighbor saw her walking. When the neighbor heard what was happening, she contacted the mom and said, "Your daughter is going back to [the charter school]." She noted that the girl had loved her charter and worked hard to excel there. She said no child should be deprived of an excellent education, and she now takes the girl to and from school, free of charge.
That’s the child-focus we all need.
Every child deserves a quality education — as Americans, we believe this. Like Bob Thompson, Dave Bing and the Skillman Foundation, let’s get to work. Let’s not get in the way. Let’s move forward and provide excellent schools for every family and every community.
Daniel L. Quisenberry is president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.