Selected readings on US charter schools
“I don’t like when people distract me from learning,” she says firmly. “Right now, I’m learning how to read by learning strategies that show how to sound out our words.”
She’s 5 years old. Yes, her vocabulary includes “distract” and “strategies.”
The kindergartner is among 40 students attending Detroit Achievement Academy, a new charter school for kindergarten and first-grade students on the city’s west side. The project-based school is the brainchild of Kyle Smitley, 29, an entrepreneur who left a lucrative children’s organic clothing business in San Francisco to move to Detroit and open the school in September.
Smitley, who mingled with movers and shakers in the White House and Silicon Valley,now lives near the school and spends her days visiting classrooms and overseeing a cafeteria that serves students three meals a day — something she believes is essential in a neighborhood where the median household income is $16,000, according to Smitley.
“I was having a lot of fun running in a crowd with other young entrepreneurs, most of them much more successful than myself — lunches in the West Wing and dinners at Steve Jobs’ house — but I still felt so empty,” she said. “I had an increasing feeling that I should be contributing to the world in a more tangible, meaningful way.”
Smitley, a native of Defiance, Ohio, also wanted to move closer to family. When she was growing up, her father, a Tigers season ticket-holder, used to take her to games.
“After I went to college, traveled the world, lived and visited other major cities, I knew that nothing could compare to Detroit for me,” she said. “The history, the people, the culture. Everything else felt like a watered-down version.”
When she decided to open a school, Smitley visited what she describes as the highest-performing schools across the country. “I made a list of best practices and set out to create the best school in the country right here in Detroit,” she said.
Among those practices is a low student-to-teacher ratio. The school has four classroom teachers and one arts instructor/literacy interventionist, or one for each 10 children, which allows for a lot of one-on-one instruction.
But obstacles abound. The school, housed in the Bushnell Congregational Church at 15000 Southfield Road, was vandalized a week after it opened in September. “We lost five computers, a slew of projectors, speakers and other pieces of technology,” said Smitley.
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres learned about the loss through an email blast and invited Smitley and first-grade teacher Danielle Johnson to appear on air the next month. She presented Smitley with a $25,000 check, along with another $25,000 check from Shutterfly, an online photo publisher.
A fundraiser for new computers was held before the show. Smitley said 100 percent of the Ellen and Shutterfly donations went to operations.
Last week, DeGeneres gave Smitley another $25,000 check from Shutterfly. Smitley, in turn, surprised DeGeneres by revealing that the school named its library the Ellen DeGeneres Library. Viewers of the show donated books from the school’s wish list.
A lack of operating funds is an issue for the fledgling school. The academy’s annual operating budget is around $600,000, but it receives about $400,000 in state funding.
To bridge that gap, Smitley and her staff raise money and accept donations of supplies. They also hope to add a grade each year to the school.
“We kept our staff despite the budget shortcoming because studies show that building a strong school culture is the single biggest determiner for school success. … It is the rough path to take, but the right path for student achievement,” Smitley said.
But the Detroit Achievement Academy has entered a crowded educational market. The city has 65 charter schools competing with Detroit Public Schools, the Education Achievement Authority, suburban schools that accept city students and parochial schools.
“Detroit is saturated with school choices,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education research organization. “The problem is, far too many of them are low-performing schools. Our kids desperately need more high-achieving schools. According to Stanford University researchers, a school’s performance at the end of its second year of operation is a reliable predictor of the school’s future performance.”
The academy’s principal, Sharon Yaecker Roesser, agrees the end of the second year is the best indicator.
“But we do know that there are indicators in year one that will lead to strong results by the end of our second year,” she said. “We are hopeful and energized by what we are seeing early on. We have strong initial data around parent satisfaction, and we are very excited by our initial academic growth.”
Smitley said she believes student growth is the best way to judge her school’s performance.
“MAP scores (Measures of Academic Progress) for our first grade are nationally normed and widely accepted,” said Smitley. “One hundred percent of our kids are on grade level in math, some by a wide margin. Most of our kids are on grade level in reading.”
Academy board member Lewis Butler, a professor of economics at Hillsdale College, says “commitment to a great vision” is what sets DAA apart.
“We know teachers matter, so we went and found the best teachers we could, even if it means we have to have a smaller budget for things like technology,” he said. “There is a culture of excellence at DAA, so do not expect us to settle for less than our best anytime soon.”
The president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies praises the school, which is authorized by Grand Valley State University, despite its lack of a track record.
“Detroit Achievement Academy is a unique school with an innovative focus on individual students, healthy living and gardening in an urban setting,” said Dan Quisenberry. “There isn’t another school like it in Detroit.”
Parent Lori Rodriguez drives her son Deigo from Southfield to attend the academy and said he is having an easier time reading.
“He doesn’t even talk like a 5-year-old,” she said. “He came home with homework the other day and the assignment was to find words that rhyme with tree.” She said she thought she was going to have to help him find the words. “But he could read all the words by himself,” she said.
Kamilah Harris’ son Kris Twilley, 6, is in the first grade. Her daughter Vakharia Twilley, 5, will attend next year. “I have noticed significant improvement in my son’s reading ability,” she said. “He’s now reading at a third-grade level, and I feel so proud and optimistic about his future in academics.”
Smitley said she believes her school can thrive despite intense competition, and help students grow.
“I have a dream to create a world-class school, and hopefully it will spur on others to rise to the challenge of providing a great education to every kid in Detroit,” she said. “We are all in this together.”
Source: The Detroit News – by Shawn D. Lewis