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Detroit charter fights to maintain diversity as school gets whiter, wealthier

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Charter schools are public schools, which means they’re supposed to educate any kid that walks in the door.

But a new bill making its way through the Michigan legislature could make it so that charters can give enrollment preference to certain students.

Which ones? Well, the answer might surprise you. 

Welcome to the Boggs School

The James and Grace Lee Boggs School is a charter on the east side of Detroit in a mostly black neighborhood with lots of low-income families.

When Boggs opened four years ago, 30 students showed up on the first day, most of them kids from the neighborhood. Today, the school is much more diverse, and less than a third of the students at Boggs live nearby.

The women who started the Boggs school love the mix of racial, social and economic diversity they have in their school right now, and they want to preserve it.  

The students, too, love the mix of kids in their class. Aarya Jean, a second grader, says she likes "when it's not just all mostly black people, or all mostly white people. I like it when it's like some black people, some white people, some mixed people because I like it when it's different."

Her friend and classmate, Athena, agrees. "You get to know different people from different places, and it's just really important to me so I learn more about their culture."

One of the youngest kids in the class, six-year old Eli, doesn't seem to notice the differences among his classmates, at least not by race or class. "Not everyone likes the same food," he says matter-of-factly. "Some people pack their lunch, some people don't."

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Eli (left), Warnell and their teacher hang out on the big blue carpet.

Co-founder and principal Julia Putnam says "it's important for kids to be exposed to diverse experiences, diverse people. It broadens their horizons. It expands their prior knowledge when they’re reading text or confronting new content." 

Putnam says the mission of the Boggs School is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who learn from and give back to the community and neighborhood. The school has become increasingly popular among more wealthy, white families in and around Detroit who believe in its social justice mission. 

But the very thing that is so appealing to many of those families—the school's diverse student population—is nearing a tipping point.

There's a good chance that when the new school year starts up in the fall, there won't be enough seats available at Boggs for all the kids who want to go there. That means the Boggs staff will have to use a lottery to assign spots. Putnam and her colleagues worry that the very students they started the school for, mostly black, low-income kids from the neighborhood, will be edged out.

Amanda Rosman is one of the school's co-founders and its executive director. She says the challenge "is figuring out how to maintain the balance that we feel is really great right now, and not become a school that becomes a choice for people who have other options at the expense of our neighbors."

When a charter school wants to be a neighborhood school

In theory, charter schools are just like traditional public schools in that they're supposed to educate any and all students that walk through their doors. But there is one important caveat: traditional public schools have to draw students from the specific neighborhood or community in which they're located; charters have no such geographic boundaries or catchment areas. So while a charter like the Boggs school may see itself as a traditional "neighborhood school,"  by law it can't act like one and give enrollment preference to kids who live nearby.

But Stephanie Chang, a state representative from Detroit, wants to change that.

"The challenge is figuring out how to maintain the balance that we feel is really great right now, and not become a school that becomes a choice for people who have other options at the expense of our neighbors."

Chang introduced a bill in Lansing last month that would allow charters in high-poverty neighborhoods to give "geographic preference" to kids who live in the neighborhood. She specifically drafted the bill with the Boggs school in mind. (Chang had a hand in recruiting the first group of students ever to attend the school back in 2013 when she was working on her master's degree in social work at the University of Michigan.)

The way the bill is currently written, charters would have to be located in neighborhoods where at least 50% of the students who reside there qualify for free or reduced lunch, but Chang says she's in the process of raising it to 70%That would mean a charter could only give geographic enrollment priority if it's in a neighborhood where 70% of the residents quality for free or reduced lunch. "If this was a higher-income neighborhood, it wouldn't apply," says Chang.

The bill, if passed, would be completely voluntary. Charters could opt in and out of using geographic preference as they see fit.

Which charters would opt in?

"I think very few," says Alicia Urbain, vice president of governmental and legal affairs for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA). "I can only think of two schools."

In addition to the Boggs school, she points to the Charlton Heston Academy in Roscommon County's St. Helen. The K-12 charter opened up after the local district closed the town's traditional public school. It's got a good reputation, and superintendent David Patterson says students come from as far away as 35 miles to go there. The school has to use a lottery system to deal with enrollment, which has left some St. Helen kids without a seat at their own local school. "We have a couple on the waiting list right now," says Patterson. He says he's in favor of Chang's bill because it would allow him to give preference to the students who live in St. Helen, the very students the charter school was specifically built for. 

Erica Frankenberg is a professor and co-founder of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State University. She says she can see how, from a legislative perspective, this geographic preference bill would "be a really tempting solution" to help give some low-income kids in certain areas access to a better school, but she says it doesn't get at the much bigger underlying issue:

"There aren’t enough seats in high-quality schools, and so what we need are more seats in high quality schools and ultimately, a larger conversation about how to best serve the students of this region."

So why wouldn't more charters opt in?

Well, given the correlation between poverty and low-test scores, there’s not much incentive for charters to opt in to something like this, considering that test scores can make or break a school these days.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Most schools in Detroit are highly segregated, but the Boggs school has a mix of racial, social and ethnic diversity. The charter's founders want to preserve the mix and ensure kids in the neighborhood have seats.

But Boggs principal Julia Putnam says they will opt in despite the fact that they're considered a "priority school" and have some of the lowest test scores in the state. The state could close the school if they don’t get those test scores up over the next few years.

"It’s just more evidence of the testing culture and what it does," says Putnam. "It's incentivizing or tempting schools to push out kids who are poor because it really hurts their scores." Rather than push those kids out, Putnam wants to welcome them in.

After all, that is the mission of public education.

The Michigan House of Representatives will discuss Stephanie Chang's Geographic Preference bill (HB 4327) at this week's education committee meeting on Thursday, April 20 at 9 a.m.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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