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The Detroit district considers reauthorizing two charter schools to allow them time to transition — or improve

The future of two struggling Detroit charter schools is in the hands of the Detroit school board. 

District officials are considering extending contracts for the Barack Obama Leadership Academy and David Ellis Academy, but only for two years. The short extension, officials say, will give the schools time to show the kind of academic improvement that might warrant a longer contract, or to secure a different authorizer.

The renewal process comes as the district in recent years has been evaluating whether it should be in the business of overseeing charter schools.  

Both schools serve students in grades K-8. 

If the district doesn’t extend the contracts, the schools would likely have to close and that could rattle the families that have long relied on the schools. The district is trying to avoid that scenario, which has played out frequently in Detroit with some charter schools shutting down early in a school year.

“The reality is that the children that attend these schools — their education could be in question in the future,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “That’s something we need to be sensitive to.”

Vitti had originally recommended one-year contract extensions. But during school board committee meetings Friday and Monday, the recommendation was amended to two years. That happened after some board members raised concerns about whether one year was enough time for the schools. 

“I have concerns about the transition that is experienced when schools close or when they have to search for another authorizer,” Sonya Mays, the board’s treasurer, said during the Friday meeting. “Is a year enough for the students and the parents so we don’t inadvertently cause some poorly thought out transition?” 

The Obama school, formerly known as Timbuktu Academy, is one of the oldest charter schools in Michigan. The school’s focus on African-centric education has been a big draw to parents. But it has struggled academically.

Bernard Parker, the school’s co-founder, said he’d hoped the district would extend the contract by five years.

“Two years is not quite what we wanted, but I do understand their position,” he said.

The district evaluates the charter schools it authorizes on a number of factors, including academic achievement. The charters are then compared with neighborhood district schools within two miles, the district’s highest performing application school, and the district’s overall performance. 

Despite academic improvement in the last year, the Obama school fell short.

Only about 3% of the Obama students were proficient in math and English language arts on last year’s M-STEP exam. The district average was 10.4%. Both are well below the state average. 

At David Ellis Academy, officials are actively seeking a new authorizer, said Theresa Ellis-Liddell, founder of the school and CEO of its management company. The company manages another school — David Ellis Academy West — in Redford Township. That school is authorized by Bay Mills Community College. 

“We have been in talks with an authorizer willing to authorize the Academy.  We feel very confident that the process with a new authorizer will be a seamless transition,” Ellis-Liddell said. 

The school already is being actively monitored by the Michigan Department of Education through a partnership agreement, a turnaround effort by the state to assist Michigan’s  lowest achieving public schools. 

Under the Ellis Academy agreement, the school must meet certain academic benchmarks and teachers must receive continuous professional development. Other agencies named in the agreement, including the Detroit district and Wayne County’s intermediate school district, must provide services and resources to help the school meet these goals. 

Ellis-Liddell said the school met its 18-month academic goals outlined in the partnership agreement. When the agreement expires in 2021, she said she’s confident the school will be released from state oversight. 

At the Ellis school, 12% of the students were proficient in both math and English language arts — outperforming three out of the four district schools located within a two-mile radius, and exceeding the district average.

The Detroit district currently authorizes six charter schools — Capstone Academy Charter School, MacDowell Preparatory Academy, Pathways Academy, and Rutherford Winans Academy are the others. Their contracts expire in 2022. 

In Michigan, an authorizer receives 3% of the state aid for each of the charter schools it authorizes. The Detroit district receives about $150,000 for the Obama and Ellis schools. 

Vitti has said the district wants to transition away from authorizing charter schools.  He argues overseeing them is counterintuitive to the district’s main objective of increasing enrollment in the schools it runs directly. 

The proposals won’t go up for a full board vote until the charter schools submit their academic improvement plans to the district. The district also plans to help the schools draft letters to send to parents about the schools’ status. 

Parker said he isn’t a big fan of charter authorizers who aren’t in touch with the communities that surround the schools, but they are currently exploring other options. He is hoping Obama Leadership Academy will be with the district beyond the two-year extension.

“I hope DPS will continue to authorize it. We’ve been with DPS for 22 years,” he said. “That’s my home.”