WUOMFM

Muskegon Heights

Antonio Thomas and Julieaunna Clark are students at Muskegon Heights Academy high school
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Students in Muskegon Heights are very familiar with uncertainty. They’ve been threatened with school closure many times over the past several years—first because of finances, now because of failing test scores. 

Muskegon Heights Academy high school is one of the 38 schools the state School Reform Office says could close by the end of year if some kind of turnaround plan isn’t put in place.

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

The tiny white ball arcs against the cold gray sky, almost too hard to see.  

"That's a good ball," says Devon Kitchen, eyes focused as the ball drops quietly on the still-soggy fairway at Lincoln Golf Club on the northern edge of Muskegon.

It’s one of those days when spring backtracks, feels more like winter. Not a great day for golfing.

But it doesn’t seem to bother Kitchen. The 17-year-old is just happy to be on the course again. He's dressed in a bright orange cap, dark gray pullover and black pants. Tiger colors. Kitchen is a student at the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy, home of the Tigers. Before Kitchen showed up at the school, the Tigers didn't have a golf team. Now they do. 

"It was a challenge," Kitchen says, "but we got here."

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

It’s a serious question some school officials in Saginaw, Ann Arbor and neighboring Muskegon have asked themselves in the last couple of weeks. The answer, for some, has been a reluctant – yes.

Muskegon Heights’ football team hasn’t played a game at home this season.

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

Jul 25, 2014
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.

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

Jul 24, 2014
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. 

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith has a big update this morning to her already award-winning coverage of the Muskegon Heights school district. If you haven't been following the story, Muskegon Heights was in such bad financial distress a few years ago, district officials took the unprecedented step of requesting a declaration of financial emergency from the state. The solution to the district's problems was to turn over operation of its schools to the for-profit charter company Mosaica Education. Smith has been documenting the bumpy transition ever since. The latest update comes from Mosaica CEO Mike Connelly, who tells Smith his company has poured millions into improving Muskegon Heights schools, but the district and the state have not come through on repayments.

Our colleague Lindsey Smith has been doing some dogged reporting about what's going on in the school district in Muskegon Heights. Over the summer, the district's emergency manager laid off every employee and hired a private company to effectively run the district as one big charter. Three months into the new system, Lindsey reports that a quarter of teachers have quit and students say the learning environment is chaotic.