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Weeks after a Detroit school was evicted, a charter operator is wooing families back

Families arrive home after a trip to the east side of Detroit for a conversation with charter operator Ralph Bland about the future of a school building in their southwest Detroit neighborhood.
Families arrive home after a trip to the east side of Detroit for a conversation with charter operator Ralph Bland about the future of a school building in their southwest Detroit neighborhood.
Koby Levin

Parents were left with a lot of questions when Southwest Detroit Community School was abruptly evicted. Near the top of the list: What would happen to the almost-new school building in their neighborhood?

They still don’t have an answer, but they have a good guess.

As parents mourn the loss of a school that they helped start, many are convinced that a prominent Detroit charter operator, New Paradigm for Education, is quietly planning to take over the school building. Obstacles remain — New Paradigm would have to buy or lease the building, win a charter contract, recruit parents, and hire teachers and administrators in the next two months.

But the news is bringing cautious optimism and further turmoil to a community that has struggled for years to improve its troubled school. Following years of high teacher turnover and poor academic results, some parents have already enrolled their children elsewhere. But others feel deeply attached to the building, and have been eager to hear about any plans for a new school there.

“It’s like reopening a wound that was just on the way to being healed, said Jennifer Bahns, a former teacher at the school who now plans to teach in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, about rumors that a new school could open in the building.

The rapid string of changes at the school underscores Detroit’s unusual lack of policy around school openings and closings. There is nothing stopping schools in the city from shutting down without warning, then opening somewhere else without considering whether that neighborhood needs a school.

Bahns has warned parents that they shouldn’t expect stability in the same building: “None of the teachers will stay,” she said. “None of the materials will stay. It will be run by an entirely new entity.”

Still, Mandy Rodriguez wanted to hear more.

Three gleaming vans pulled up in front of her house on Friday morning, just a block away from the building where her children had attended the school since it opened six years ago.

Accompanied by close to 10 mothers and their children, she was whisked to the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school on the other side of the city. They were met in the parking lot by Ralph Bland, the leader of New Paradigm, a local charter network with six schools known for its high test scores, strict discipline, and champion basketball teams.

Rodriguez was not planning to send her children to this school on the east side of Detroit. She saw the trip as a chance to learn more about Bland’s plans for her neighborhood. Recruiters for New Paradigm had hinted to her that they would take over the school. A flyer printed in Spanish — the language of many parents at the school — promised music classes and bilingual staff at a “school in your neighborhood.”

“My students’ parents have told me that they’ve been meeting with New Paradigm for Education about moving into this school,” said Amanda Brunette, a former teacher at the school.

During the visit, Bland told the parents that he would move forward if he could recruit enough families to attend, Rodriguez said. School funding in Michigan is based largely on the number of students each building enrolls. Bland’s only other school in southwest Detroit, New Paradigm College Prep Academy, is tiny, with only 80 students.

“They just need to see how many people want to stay,” Rodriguez said, speaking in her yard after the trip.

She’d like to be among them. The uniforms struck her as professional, she said. The orderliness of the classrooms impressed her, and she felt reassured by Bland’s promises to provide extra services for students whose families speak Spanish at home.

“They’re strict,” she said. “Not quite like boot camp, but they keep order.”

At the same time, Rodriguez is hedging her bets. Her children are already enrolled in three other schools in southwest Detroit.

“I told him, if you don’t keep your promises, the parents will leave in a snap of the fingers,” she said of Bland. “There are other schools here.”

Maira Franco, another former parent at Southwest Detroit Community School who attended Bland’s tour on Friday, also sounded a cautious note.

“There have been too many promises,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

Unrelenting administrative turnover hobbled Southwest Detroit Community School for much of its existence. But it ultimately buckled under the financial strain of its lease agreement with the building’s owner, an investment fund backed by tennis star Andre Agassi.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Charter Schools, said the cost of the property would be challenging for most charter school operators. “What’s going to change about the cost structure to allow someone to deal with that?” he asked.

Bland is likely among a minority of operators in Michigan who could afford to buy the building. Charter schools in Michigan don’t get public funding to buy facilities, but Bland has been a magnet for grants from the federal government and local philanthropies.

Erica Robertson, vice president of the Detroit Children’s Fund, was present on Friday when parents arrived for the tour. Her organization, a nonprofit, has pumped millions of dollars into Bland’s schools because of their academic performance.

A Chalkbeat reporter attempted to join the tour but was turned away. Robertson explained that it was a “private tour.”

Robertson and Bland did not immediately respond to requests for interviews. Bland’s company had not purchased the building as of June 14, according to county land records, although it could have signed a lease on the property.

In order to start a school at the Southwest Detroit Community School site, Bland would need the support of an authorizer — one of the public universities that approve and oversee charter schools in Michigan.

None has materialized so far, but Rodriguez suspects it will be Grand Valley State University, which authorized the Southwest Detroit Community School.

Bland “said they would have to go through Grand Valley,” she said.

Rob Kimball, head of the university’s charter schools office, didn’t deny it.

“I can confirm that GVSU has not received an application for a new charter school or the expansion of an existing charter school at that site — New Paradigm or otherwise,” he said in an emailed statement.

Representatives from three large authorizers in Detroit — Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, and the Detroit Public Schools Community District — said they had no plans to authorize a school in the building.

Quisenberry said an authorizer ought to determine whether the school was needed in the first place. They aren’t required to do so by law. Enrollment dipped sharply at Southwest Detroit Community School last year. The school is located in a neighborhood with “mid-low” need for new K-8 schools, according to a 2017 study by IFF, a nonprofit.

Nate Walker, a Detroit-based organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, said he’s worried that teachers and community members aren’t being consulted about the latest changes at the school.

“If this is about convincing parents to enroll in a school that’s going to open there in a month and a half, is that really a better option for those families than going to well-established quality schools that already exist in the neighborhood?”

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