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City kids: High-quality charter schools await Detroit families

School's in at James and Grace Lee Boggs
School's in at James and Grace Lee Boggs
It's known as The Schools Question, because all of us who don’t beat a path north of Eight Mile the minute the pregnancy test turns blue hear it: "But where will your kids go to school?"

That question is about to get a little easier to answer this fall, with 32 new charter schools opening up in the state. Some of those new schools  -- the result of a controversial law passed in 2011 that removed caps on charter schools -- will be opening in Detroit. Here’s a look at three startup schools opening this fall that will offer Detroit parents more options for their children, especially those parents whose desire for a high-quality education is limited by their checkbooks (charter schools are public schools and as such are tuition-free).

Detroit Achievement Academy

Kyle Smitley is not someone who fears a challenge. She launched an eco-friendly children’s clothing line, Barley and Birch, while in her second year of law school in San Francisco. That, and her company’s social responsibility, led to a lunch with several fellow socially conscious entrepreneurs hosted by President Obama. And while that was exciting, the event itself left her feeling flat. "All we talked about was how great we all are," she says. "I thought, 'if this is the best we have to offer I am afraid'." She also was wondering if, in her late twenties, she'd peaked, if lunch with the president was going to be her career high point.
 
Meanwhile, Detroit was calling her home. She’d grown up outside Toledo, and Detroit was "the big city" where she would go for cultural activities. "I always knew if I was ever going to move back to the Midwest from California, Detroit would be it," she says. 

Inspired by the students at a Chicago charter school her company had contributed to, she decided to launch a high-quality school in Detroit. She and her team found a home for the school in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood, in the educational wing of the landmark Bushnell Community Church.

"We want kids who need the most help, where they don’t have an option for a good school," Smitley says. "We're talking to people in the neighborhood and asking how can we make this an organic, grassroots process, and they’ve really helped us in building a very cool school culture."

The school will serve kindergarten and first grade to start, and they plan to add a grade each year. Smitley says they've hired teachers with between five and 12 years of experience, and each classroom will be capped at 25 with a master teacher and a teaching assistant in each room. The school will use a curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, which is linked to the national Common Core Standards. It takes a project-based approach, with students using multiple subjects to learn about a topic and then going on an "expedition" to apply their knowledge. 

Another unique aspect of what they are doing is a focus on food. The Northwest Detroit Farmer's Market is literally in the school's parking lot, and the school will grow some of its own food as well. Food will become a teaching tool for many of the subjects students will tackle, the school will serve three meals a day to students, and they will know where, how and by whom their food was produced.

"We're taking them from their parent all day long, and it's really hard to feel really good about that when we're now going to feed them super nasty processed food and then demand so much of their minds," Smitley says. "That struck me as not something a good school does."

Unlike the majority of the wave of charter schools opening this fall, Detroit Achievement Academy does not have a big operating company standing behind them (also true of the Boggs School, below). That means they have to stand or fall on their own merits, Smitley says, something she is fired up to do.

"The charter world in Detroit has been commandeered by these for-profit companies that know they can phone it at about a six, because they know that’s better than the 2 DPS has to offer," she says. "Our goal is to design a school around the best practices in education, and seeing how that can really change what education can look like for the city of Detroit."

James and Grace Lee Boggs School

If you have been in Detroit for any length of time, you have heard -- or should have heard -- the names James and Grace Lee Boggs. Nationally known authors and activists, Grace and her late husband Jimmy have impacted the culture of the city in true grassroots fashion, including founding the Detroit Summer youth program and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

That's why the founders of the school asked Boggs if the school could take her name. She told them it could, says principal Julia Putnam, "if we went beyond what we even believed was possible." 

Putnam was one of a group of educators who began meeting in Boggs' home to talk about education and the education system in 2002; they began formally planning the school in 2008 and received their charter from Eastern Michigan University last year.

"We were talking about what we were doing in the classroom to meet the needs of children as a whole child as opposed to just focusing on intellectual capacities as measured by standardized tests," she says, and eventually came to the decision that their vision for that could be best achieved by starting a school of their own.

The school, which will serve children in kindergarten through fourth grades, takes a place-based approach to learning with the ultimate focus being the community surrounding the school (at 4141 Mitchell St., on the city's East Side). The concept of volume might be taught by having children calculate how much dirt they need for a garden bed they are building for a local church; history is taught through the history of the surrounding neighborhood, and language skills would be reinforced by interviewing a longtime resident and turning their story into a narrative.
 
"We know relevance helps children learn better, and when the work is directly applicable to something kids can understand it," Putnam says. "Grace Lee Boggs has always taught that the purpose of education and one of the ways to turn the city around is to use the energies of young people in a true community-based school, and use the problems and assets of the community as the curriculum."

As a charter school, its students will be subject to standardized tests, and traditional classroom education is also part of the school, Putnam says. But she is confident the whole-child approach they are taking -- engaging children's minds but also their hearts and hands -- will allow for success both on such traditional measures and in the school's own objectives. In short, they want to graduate people with grit, a sense of mastery, good health and an ability to do community work. Much of that, Putnam says, is based in her own upbringing in the city, where being able to move out of the city was seen as a chief measure of success.

"What we wanted is that if they choose to move out of city, it is because something is calling them, not as a measure of whether or not they are successful –- and we mean that as young people who are able to go to Princeton or open a plumbing business and have both be a measure of success, because since they were five years old they've learned to be an individual using their unique gifts, and who can make an impact on the city."

Y Detroit Leadership Academy High School

Many people don’t know that the YMCA of Metro Detroit runs schools – two, as a matter of fact: the K-8 Detroit Leadership Academy and the Detroit Innovation Academy. This fall, the Detroit Leadership Academy High School will open in the Cody-Rouge neighborhood at Ford and Evergreen Roads, starting with a ninth-grade class. 

The school, says superintendent Shaun Hill, will have an entrepreneurship focus and is centered around three core disciplines: academics, community, and personal power. 

That last is key to teaching young people to be resilient and take responsibility for their own lives, Hill says.

"I think a lot of kids think their parents or their school are in control of their lives," she says. "Personally, I think kids need confidence and motivation to succeed -- and I can build them up to be confident." That allows them to roll with the punches that will inevitably come during their path in life. For example, if a conflict arises with another student, confidence allows them to handle the situation without escalating it; if they get a bad grade on a test, confidence allows them to take ownership of what went wrong and fix it.

Creating an entrepreneurial mindset ties into that as well -- after all, the generation of students in school now is not so much preparing to go into an existing job as to create their own, which may not even have been invented yet. It also empowers them to try things, deal with the aftermath if they don’t work, and get up and try again.

"It helps them to look at failure differently," says Hill. 

The affiliation with the Y also allows them to tap into the Y's Achievers program, which recruits youth from disadvantaged areas and connects them with academic help, career development, community service, and recreational opportunities. A college-going culture is extremely important at the Y-DLA High School, and one of the highlights of the Achievers program is frequent college visits both locally and nationally. 

The school plans to provide a college transition counselor to help young people navigate the maze of college applications, scholarships, and financial aid, as well as a college success advisor who will track graduates as they enter higher education and connect them with resources to help them stay in and compete college.

"We want them to aspire, achieve, and realize their dreams," Hill says.

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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