A Tribal College’s Bold Approach to Launching Public School Academies, Charter Schools - Higher Education

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A Tribal College’s Bold Approach to Launching Public School Academies, Charter Schools

by Eric Freedman

It’s a long, long way from Bay Mills Community College, near the shores of frigid Lake Superior, to Detroit.

You can measure that distance in miles (about 350) or in drive time (roughly 5½ hours) or in cultures (an American Indian-governed two-year college and a predominantly African-American, economically declining city).

But distance, time and demographics aside, the school and the city are united by Bay Mills’ status as the nation’s only tribally-controlled college that authorizes quasi-public schools, known officially as public school academies. And it’s the state’s second-largest authorizer of charter schools.

What Allyn Cameron calls the college’s “mission toward charter schools” began out of frustration as the small community college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula enrolled many high school graduates who did not have enough math or English skills to do college work.

“When we would get new students coming in, we were spending two, three sometimes four years to get them up to the level to take college-level courses. We found that disturbing,” says Cameron, a longtime member of the college’s board of regents and the communications director for the Bay Mills Indian Community in Brimley, Mich.

There was another motivation as well: the tribe’s desire to re-establish its own school on the reservation for Native and White children, said Dr. Patrick Shannon, the college’s director of charter schools.

“When the charter school law came along, the tribe saw an opportunity not only to help Bay Mills, but also other tribes and other minority groups,” Shannon said. “It’s a unique relationship. Usually you don’t see tribes working with state governments.”

The college describes itself as committed to a “community-based and culturally diverse environment that supports and maintains the Anishinaabek culture and language” with a curriculum “designed to integrate traditional Native American values with higher education as a way of preparing students to assume responsible roles in their respective communities.”

Its first two charter schools opened in 2001: the Arts & Technology Academy in Pontiac, an industrial suburb of Detroit; and the Bay County Public School Academy in Bay City, near Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.

Septembra Williams, the chief administrative officer at the Arts & Technology Academy, says her management company appreciated the college’s commitment to increasing student achievement and diversity.

The academy’s pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade student body of almost 400 is primarily Black and Hispanic. Most would otherwise attend public schools in the Pontiac district, where the state Department of Education ranks the high school among the state’s 92 “persistently lowest achieving schools.”

The miles between Pontiac and the college haven’t been a problem, Williams says. Administrators from Bay Mills’ charter schools look forward to descending on the campus for their annual October get-together, which includes ceremonies, presentations and other activities.

“I love the professional development and training they offer to the schools,” says Williams. “They’re very serious about how we educate our students.”

Leaders of Bay Mills’ charters also meet monthly with college staff, says Stephanie Marion, principal of Three Oaks Public School Academy in Muskegon.

She adds that the college strives to keep charter administrators and leaders up to date on matters such as testing and U.S. Department of Education activities.

“I enjoy the relationship we have with Bay Mills and the staff. We’re always abreast of any new developments,” Marion says.

Three Oaks, a K-5 school, has about 290 students, most of whom are Black and impoverished.

In Michigan, charters can’t charge tuition but receive per-capita state aid. They are independently managed, compete for students with traditional public schools and have smaller teacher-pupil ratios than public schools.

Authorizers such as Bay Mills receive 3 percent of that per-pupil school aid to pay for administrative, chartering and monitoring responsibilities.

It costs Bay Mills about $15,000 in attorney and other fees to get a charter school up and running, according to Shannon, who says, “It’s very costly. It takes a while to get that paid down.” In addition, some charters with small student populations are expensive to oversee.

Unlike public school districts, a charter’s board of directors is not elected by local voters. And, although its teachers must be state-certified, salaries are generally less than at public

schools.

Currently, Bay Mills has Academies scattered across the state. The nearest, the Ojibwe Charter School, is across the street from campus. But others are sprinkled throughout Michigan, including campuses in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids and the vacation destination of Traverse City.

Most of the academies serve elementary or elementary and middle school students, so they haven’t served as feeders to the community college, Cameron says.

The concept of charter schools arose from a political movement to give parents more education options for their children. It was hoped that charters would be more flexible and innovative than traditional public schools. A 1994 state law opened the door for charter schools. Now, more than 100,000 children attend charters in Michigan, representing 6 percent of the state’s K-12 population.

Central Michigan University currently controls the most charter schools, with 55. Bay Mills is second with 44 — although one is losing its charter this year — and Grand Valley State University has 34, Education Department figures show. In the mid-1990s, the Michigan Legislature capped the number of charters that public universities could issue at 150. The Legislature imposed no such ceiling on the number of charter schools run by community colleges, although two-year colleges may authorize charters only within their district boundaries. Bay Mills’ status as a tribal institution allows it to charter schools anywhere in the state, much like a university.

Cameron says other authorizing institutions “have helped mentor us through some issues.”

Bay Mills’ rise to the status of a mega authorizer of charters wasn’t always smooth. The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, sued to challenge the college’s authority to issue charters supported by taxpayer funds. The state Court of Appeals ruled in 2006, however, that the union lacked legal standing to sue and dismissed the case.

Critics of charters claim they often lack adequate supervision by the authorizing institutions, despite the schools’ tax supported operations.

A staff of five, headed by Shannon, works with Bay Mills’ charter schools, with assistance from a network of former school administrators.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, says the college has been active in putting the Ojibwe language into writing and into its curriculum and sharing that with the schools it charters.

“There are some interesting things like that that differentiate it,” he says.

An education specialist at Bay Mills developed K-5 social studies curriculum material about Native peoples in the Great Lakes, which is available to all its charters. There is no requirement to use it, but some have incorporated parts of the material, Shannon said.

Bay Mills belongs to the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, made up of the largest and most experienced authorizing institutions.

“They have standards they all agree to,” says Quisenberry, and that distinguishes them from local school districts that also can grant charters but lack as much experience.

The state sets no official metrics to measure the performance of the authorizing institutions, according to Mark Eitrem, the interim manager of the public school academy program in the state Education Department.

There’s also no guarantee that any charter will continue operating. Eitrem cites three principal reasons why they close: financial problems, governance problems by their boards and educational performance problems as reflected by test scores.

Cameron notes that some of Bay Mills’ charter schools have begun the reapplication process, which is mandatory after eight years.

“Unfortunately, for some it will be a very difficult process,” he says.

Bay Mills already has decided not to extend the charter for one of its schools due to poor academic performance and lack of financial sustainability. The two other criteria it uses are compliance with the terms of their charter and with state and federal law, and parent-student satisfaction.

Shannon said his office uses “intervention processes” during the eight-year charter period to help schools meet all the requirements.

Even so, “I don’t expect all of them to make it,” he continued. “Some are struggling, quite frankly.”

On the other hand, high-performing charters may serve as models because they are doing so well as measured by individual student improvement, participation in the free and reduced lunch program and other factors, he said. The college is launching a “Golden Eagle Award” program to recognize their achievement.

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