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This is an extraordinary story, which I hope you will read to the end. It was published by Chalkbeat.
A group of concerned leaders in Detroit, including some retired educators, decided to open a charter school. They won the endorsement of the city’s leading philanthropies. They won a federal grant from the Charter Schools Program.
The school struggled from the beginning. It struggled initially to attract students, because it was competing with so many other charters for the same students. It took in students from a closing charter, who were far behind. It searched for an educational management company, which drew off a large share of its income.
It housed its students in a closed elementary school, where there was far more space than the charter could use.
There was no shortage of potential authorizers. The sponsors were turned down by one, then found another.
Efforts to regulate charter schools in Michigan have run into fierce political headwinds, in large part because of DeVos and her family, who have used their considerable fortune to support a free market education system that allows charter schools to open wherever they believe they’ll succeed.
DeVos and her allies have been so successful in blocking efforts to regulate charter schools in Michigan that when the founders of Delta Prep began looking for permission to open back in 2012, they had no shortage of options. They could pick from roughly eight colleges and school districts that were empowered to authorize charter schools, some of which would provide more oversight than others. When it finally opened in 2014, Delta Prep was one of more than a dozen schools that opened in Detroit and began competing for the same students.
The problems multiplied. Low enrollment. Discipline problems. A rotating cast of principals, year after year.
Delta officials had promised that “90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.” But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity.
Officials said they would boost student achievement by borrowing from the playbook of a New York-based education nonprofit. Their goal: “85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.”
But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math, compared with 13.2 percent in Detroit’s troubled main district. Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English, compared with 37 percent in the district.
Delta Prep had promised that “100% of graduates will be accepted to college.” But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduate data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college. Just six students — 10 percent of that first graduating class — went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.
If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire. When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic. North said her assistant principal’s hand was broken during an encounter with a student, and that she regularly contacted the police about student behavior.
The year before she arrived — and the year after the influx of students from recently closed schools — Delta Prep had slapped more than half of its students with out-of-school suspensions, resulting in nearly 1,000 missed days of school.
“In 15 years of education, it was the most stressful position I’ve ever had,” North said. “I worked in south central Los Angeles, and Delta was still my most stressful situation.”
North started at the school in March 2017, after the previous principal resigned and an interim principal decided not to take the job. She says she found tutors for students, brought consistency to a patchwork curriculum, even drove to students’ houses on test day to make sure they took Michigan’s standardized exam. But she left that June following disagreement with the management company that she declined to discuss.
She was not the only administrator unable to cut it at the school. Within a few years of its hopeful start, Delta Prep had become another Detroit school desperate to find the rare principal capable of quarterbacking a long-shot school turnaround. It had five principals in less than five years of operation…
In Detroit’s crowded education landscape, Delta Prep kept falling short of its 400-student target, creating a financial situation so bleak that students lacked textbooks and other basic supplies.
When officials from Ferris State came to check in on the school, they noted that only one-third of its budget was spent on instruction, while far too much went to the management company and other operating costs. Delta Prep’s reserve fund, set aside to protect the school against unforeseen problems, dipped to $217 in 2017-18.
Twenty-two days after the start of school in the fall of 2018, Delta Prep closed its doors, to the shock of students and parents, who suddenly had to find a new school.
In the business world, closings are not uncommon. In the charter world, school closings are not uncommon. Anyone who thinks it is easy to run and manage a school should read this story and think again.
Customers can find another place to shop when a store goes out of business. When a school closes, children, parents, teachers, and families are disrupted.