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Shawn Leonard was named a top charter school principal in Michigan in 2013.

Shawn Leonard was named a top charter school principal in Michigan in 2013.

Q&A: This charter school leader says his company’s new school will ‘be better’ than the neighboring district

Several new charter schools will open their doors this fall in metro Detroit. Why?

After all, Michigan has been losing students for nearly two decades, and many districts have struggled financially, pushing some to close schools.

Some education leaders argue that Michigan needs fewer schools, and that charters should stop expanding. Shawn Leonard, director of quality for National Heritage Academies in Michigan and Georgia, argues the opposite.

He says more public schools are needed — particularly new charter schools that will produce better academic outcomes than the neighboring traditional schools.

National Heritage Academies, one of the largest for-profit charter operators in the U.S., with more than 80 schools in nine states, has been taking that approach for a quarter century.

The results have been promising, but mixed. One widely cited study found that its schools produced improved student test scores in math, though not in other subjects. Higher-income students benefited the most from attending the network’s schools.

Regardless, the company is still expanding. The latest addition is Westfield Charter Academy, a K-12 school set to open this fall in Redford, Michigan, west of Detroit. The school will be the company’s 50th in the state.

Westfield will operate on two campuses within a mile of each other in Redford, one serving students in grades K-6 and the other serving students in grades 7-12. The high school will only serve grades 7-9 at first, but there are plans to expand year-by-year.

We spoke with Leonard to find out more about the school, and to ask why he plans to open a new building in a neighborhood that already has lots of them. Researchers have found that charter schools hurt nearby traditional districts financially.

His answer, in short: “When we open up a school, our goal is to be better than the schools in the area.”

Drawing on his own experience as a student in Detroit, Leonard believes his work helps give students educational opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Why is NHA opening a school in Redford?

We have a team that does a lot of research around the academic performance of schools within certain areas to help with determining if there’s a demand or need for a new school.

We began to do research with families in Redford to see to see if there would be some interest or demand, mostly through surveys.

We don’t open schools in every area that we research. This happened to be an area where we saw a need.

How many students can you attract in a neighborhood that already has almost 10 schools?

We think we’ll have enrollment between 500 and 550 students, which is pretty much on par with what we were projecting. We had strong demand in our parent information meeting meeting. And we’ve had quite a few applications. But at the end of the day, we know that what matters is the first day of school. We’re working very hard to keep our parents engaged.

At the end of the day, we’ve had 800 applications.

Has it been a challenge to hire teachers?

It is a challenge to find a high quality teacher, especially when you’re hiring an entire school.

We’re looking for teachers who are willing to be accountable for student learning, and who are willing to grow. 

We’re probably looking at a staff of about 30, not including our support staff. We’ve been working on this opening for more than a year.

How do you respond when folks tell you you’re hurting Redford schools financially by opening a new charter there?

I graduated from Detroit Redford. At the time, Detroit Redford wasn’t considered a great option. When I graduated high school, I think there may have been 35 or 40 high schools in Detroit. There were only three that were considered high performing: Cass, King, and Renaissance. The only way you got into those schools was through a test in middle school. If you didn’t get a high enough score on that test, and you had to go to the other 37 low performing schools, what were your chances of having a high quality education 9-12 grade?

Back then, there were no other options. My family had to send me to Redford.

I distinctly remember my first English class in college [at Northwood University] my freshman year. I turned in a paper, and at the end of class one day my professor Carol Messing released the class and asked me to stay back. She said, ‘Hey, I had a chance to read your paper. What high school did you go to?’

I told her with pride, I graduated from Detroit Reford. She said, ‘Well, I have something to tell you, and this is going to be hard to hear. Detroit Redford did not prepare you for college. This paper that you just submitted is not college writing. Now, fortunately for you, I’m your professor, and I’m going to help you. But I needed to let you know that if this is the type of work that Redford was expecting from you, you’re not ready for college.’

For the next year I spent time after class with her, working on writing.

If I didn’t have Carol Messing, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today. 

So I think it’s important that families are provided an option. I know that there are high performing district public schools, and that there are high performing charter public schools, and I know there is the opposite.

At the end of the day, the goal is to produce the best results. Whichever group can do that, that’s fine.

Is National Heritage Academies planning to open any other schools?

I don’t think Westfield is going to be our final NHA school. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a strategic plan to open five schools in the next five years, or 10 schools in the next 10 years. We want to be sure that we’re being the best we can for the families we serve now.