1:27 pm
Tue July 29, 2014

Do Michigan's charter school rules need big changes, or just more tweaks?

Credit KT KING (

What will it take to fix Michigan's charter school laws?   

The rules governing charter schools in Michigan were first put into place a little over two decades ago. Since then, there have been revisions – the biggest of which happened a few years ago when the state lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can open in Michigan

But after the Detroit Free Press published a blistering investigation into the state's charter schools, the law may be headed for more revisions. 

And some are starting to make the case for a complete overhaul – not just of charters, but of Michigan's entire education system. 

"Let's start over," says Dan Varner, head of Excellent Schools Detroit, and a member of the state Board of Education. "I think it’s time for a complete reset of the way we deliver public education in Michigan."

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12:56 pm
Fri July 25, 2014

Why even the biggest charter school supporters don't love Michigan's charter school laws

When then-governor John Engler pushed for charter schools in the early 1990s, he was hoping to create a system of schools with more freedom and less regulation. But charter schools in Michigan today have to abide by almost all the same regulations as traditional schools.
Credit Chuck Grimmett/wikimedia commons

This text is adapted from a segment of a State of Opportunity radio documentary produced by Lindsey Smith and Dustin Dwyer. To hear the full documentary, click the player above. To read more about how Muskegon Heights schools made history by converting to a charter district, go here

 Let's talk about one statewide trend that’s played a significant role in the events of Muskegon Heights schools: private companies that run public charter schools. 

A recent Detroit Free Press investigation sparked a statewide conversation about why these management companies don’t have to disclose their finances to their charter school boards. The Freep found numerous examples where that lack of disclosure and oversight led to some shady deals.

Gary Miron from Western Michigan University studies charter schools, and has a reputation as a critic of Michigan’s current charter school laws. 

Miron says that original idea for charter schools was to have small, locally controlled, locally operated schools that would be free to pursue new ways of educating kids.

But that didn’t happen in Michigan.

Today, Michigan has more public charter schools being operated by for-profit companies than any other state in the country. Miron published a study last year, which found that for-profit companies run 79% of Michigan’s charters, twice the share of the next closest state. At least a half-dozen states ban for-profit charter management all together.

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4:20 pm
Thu July 24, 2014

Muskegon Heights schools were in trouble. Then the district made history. Twice.

Dancers from the Muskegon Heights High School Academy perform during the Festival in the Park parade earlier this summer.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

There are a lot of school districts in trouble in Michigan. 

Forty-five districts are in a deficit. Five districts are currently subject to state oversight under Michigan's emergency manager law. Two school districts completely ran out of money last year, and dissolved. 

Today, in a State of Opportunity documentary, we bring you the story of how one troubled school district survived. 

Two years ago Muskegon Heights made history by becoming the first school district in Michigan to convert entirely to a charter district and turn the operation of its schools over to a for-profit company. It had never happened before in Michigan, or, as far as we've been able to determine, anywhere else in America. 

But this spring, Muskegon Heights schools were in trouble again. Just two years into a five-year contract, its management company walked away from the district. And, once again, leaders in the community had to work with the state to find a plan to keep the district's doors open. 

This, ultimately, is the story of how they succeeded, at least for now. And what lessons we might take for the other school districts in Michigan that are facing financial problems. 

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7:00 am
Wed July 23, 2014

Detroit kids go to camp to do things they can't do in the city

Detroit students get to practice archery at Camp Burt Shurly.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

This week on State of Opportunity, we’re going to summer camp!

I spent this past Monday with about 100 elementary school students at Camp Burt Shurly, a 250-acre campground near Chelsea. The week-long, overnight camp is run by the Detroit Public School district. Each Sunday a new set of campers arrives by bus. There's tons to do here – everything from boating and swimming to arts and crafts, nature hikes and archery. And because the camp is run by a school district, the campers have to take math and English classes, too, to help combat the "summer slide" many kids face.

Camp is paid for with Title 1 funds, so it's free for DPS students, many of whom might not be able to afford camp otherwise. 

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11:00 am
Fri July 18, 2014

The Boggs School's message to kids is, 'I'm so glad you're here'

Credit Andrea Claire Maio

Over the last year, Zak Rosen and Andrea Claire Maio have been following students and educators at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. 

Maio and Rosen have done pieces in the series about control in the classroom, two young students at the Boggs School who are best friends, and about making school more human

For the series' last piece, Maio focused on the Principal of the Boggs School, Julia Putnam -- a cornerstone of the school.

Julia from andrea claire maio on Vimeo.

Putnam met Grace Lee Boggs, the school's namesake, when Putnam was 16 years old.

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7:00 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Teaching students how to switch between Black English and Standard English can help them get ahead

Credit user: frankjuarez / flickr

Last week we did a story about whether people judge others based on how they speak. (Spoiler alert: Yep, they do.) One African-American high school student we spoke to said he hated how often teachers corrected him when he spoke. "Every time you try to say something they gotta correct every line you say. It's like ... I don't want to talk to you now."

University of Michigan education professor Holly Craig says that type of "correctional" teaching style is a sure-fire way to turn African American students off from education, and the results play out time and again in standardized test scores for African-American students. 

Across the country, black students consistently lag behind their white peers on standardized tests. Experts have been trying to come up with ways to shrink the achievement gap for decades, but it’s still there. Craig and a team of researchers thinks teaching kids how to code switch at an early age can go a long way reducing the gap. 

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7:00 am
Wed July 9, 2014

Do we judge people on the way they speak?

Credit user dbphotography / flickr

It’s not hard to find an example of people being judged because of the way they speak.

Take the George Zimmerman trial. The primary witness for the prosecution was a young African American woman named Rachel Jeantel. She was Trayvon Martin’s friend and was on the phone with him the day he died. You can listen to some of her testimony here.

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11:02 am
Thu June 26, 2014

Science is war and the kids are winning in Saginaw, Michigan

Middle School students from Saginaw learn about velocity using balloons at a Saginaw Valley State University-sponsored math camp.
Credit Shauntel Manning / Daniels Middle School

The buzzer comes out. The kids get amped. For Jan Jeske's kids at Ruben Daniels Middle School in Saginaw, a war is about to break out, and she's totally fine with it. 

Jan runs the science bowl at this school where 95% of kids are on free and reduced-price lunch. Three years ago, she started a team with three girls. Now, she has six full teams competing on everything from the history of science to complex physics. And when it's time to practice, things get fierce.

"It's like a bloodbath in my room," she says with pride. "They just go for it." 

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10:43 am
Mon June 23, 2014

Detroit Free Press investigation looks at the state of Michigan's charter schools

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

What I'm about to share with you is MUST-READ material. It's a multi-part series on charter schools from the folks at the Detroit Free Press. To quote my colleague, Jack Lessenberry, "These are stories that everyone in this state who has kids, knows kids, or has any interest in our future should read."

Free Press reporters spent a year investigating Michigan's charter schools and are rolling out their findings all this week. According to the Freep, more than 140,000 Michigan children are enrolled in charter schools and, based on the data, we are failing most of these kids. That's because, in part, the state has some of the weakest laws regulating charters, so schools stay open long after they've proven they just can't get the job done in terms of improving student achievement.

In a nutshell, here's what the Freep's investigation turned up:

Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.

The Detroit Free Press investigative series, State of Charter Schools, runs all this week. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

7:59 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Making an education vision real in Detroit

A Boggs School class picture.
Credit The James and Grace Lee Boggs School

Click on the link to hear the radio version of this story.

The James and Grace Lee Boggs School just wrapped up its first year. It’s a K-4 charter on Detroit's eastside that hopes to grow to a K-12.  The school had an ambitious, community-based vision, that’s being tempered by the day-to-day reality of running a school.  

A few weeks ago, the students and staff at the Boggs School took a walk.

They ended up at the corner of Heidelberg and Ellery Streets, just about a mile from school. When they got there, they saw that polka-dots and naked dolls and charred houses had taken over the block.

Here's a video of their trip to The Heidelberg Project:

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