School Choice is Helping Families in Detroit

From the outside, Detroit looks bleak. Many residents are stuck in cycles of poverty and dependency  which can be difficult to break. In at least one key way, the deck has been stacked against them in trying to break free: education. Traditionally, a child’s educational opportunities are limited by their zip code. If a child lives in a rough area, they will attend a local school which will not prepare them for the future in the ways that might be available in another school district. In Detroit, test scores are falling, the deficit is growing, and children are bearing the brunt of this at the expense of their futures.

In Detroit, school choice is giving people a way out. More than 50,000 kids K-12 are taking part in the charter school program, giving inner-city students access to a high-quality education that would not otherwise be within reach. Among these charter schools are the seven in the University Prep Academy (UPA) system. These schools provide K-12 education, either focused on traditional curriculum or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), depending on the campus.

Nearly all of the students at these schools (95%) are african american with 80%-85% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. For many of these students, they will be the first in their family to attend college, excelling beyond past generations and creating better opportunities for those in the future. Diversity at UPA is on the rise as the reputation of the schools begins to attract the notice of suburban parents who work in Detroit. These schools offer open enrollment, and have space for students to learn and grow in a supportive environment.

While charter schools have incredible things to offer, many forget that they are still public and, therefore, restrained by government regulations. In some cases, this puts charter schools at a disadvantage. They receive fewer Title One dollars and are funded about 15% lower than public schools, according to UPA’s Chief External Relations Officer, Margaret Trimer-Hartley. “Regulation is choking us just like it’s choking everybody else,” she said, “we need to protect what makes charter schools special, and it’s getting scary.” Not only do charter schools have to follow all state and federal regulations, they also have to answer to charter school authorizers, which adds another layer of bureaucracy. Too attract students and families, charter schools “need to innovate in the box,” as they are not able to get waivers on guidelines more easily than any other school. “I am driven to educate to the marketplace,” she said, emphasizing the importance of educating parents and the community on what UPA schools have to offer.

This outreach is done by Kija Gray, Director of Parent and Community Engagement. As a liaison between parents and the schools, she works to empower and collaborate with parents as “it is critical to every child’s success for parents to become part of the educational process.” With a background as a grassroots parent organizer, Gray understands the importance of having parents engaged and involved. “Education does not happen in a vacuum,” she said “UPA’s commitment to making sure parents are part of critical decision making is revolutionary.” This commitment to having all hands on deck is echoed by UPA high school principal Jennifer Spencer. She said “teachers are dedicated and go the extra mile to communicate and ensure the success of their students. Most students work hard to reach their goals and make significant growth in three years. Parents are engaged in their children’s academic and social growth. They are actively involved in school activities, parent organizations, and whatever else is asked of them from the school.” With all of these pieces working together, students succeed.

Kimberly Llorens, an elementary school principal with UPA sees these relationships bearing fruit. “The most rewarding part of being a principal at UPA,” she said, “is getting to know the students and their families…as part of a kindergarten through twelfth system, I have the opportunity to continue checking in on my students from that first year.” Educators and administrators at UPA have found that parents who are “present, supportive, and willing to learn (are) a direct predictor of student success.” To this end, they provide coaching and self-improvement opportunities for parents as well as children to ensure that needs will be met at home, not just in the classroom. This is one of the many reasons that parents choose UPA for their children.

Charles McIntosh is one of these parents. He enrolled his two daughters, aged 9 and 8, in a UPA elementary school after hearing about the schools from a neighbor and fellow parent. “Like most parents,” he said, “I want the best education for my children and I have found that to be the situation at UPA.” Previously with a public school in Detroit, McIntosh wasn’t unhappy with the education his daughters were receiving but, he said, “there was no hint of a school culture being implemented.” Violence, poor behavior, and a campus in disrepair were part of everyday life for students at this school, and “the lack of administrative leadership to this day creates a dark veil of friction and frustration that results in apathy.” He got involved with the school by attending meetings, joining committees, and attending workshops to make the school a better place. Stonewalled by inept leadership, he was attracted to “the mission of providing a rigorous education in a safe and nurturing environment consistently apparent at (UPA).” The McIntosh family plans to keep their daughters in the school until college because of this culture which extends into high school as well.

With two sons (aged 17 and 13) at a UPA high school, Michelle Tilley was not looking for a change in schools until she  happened to meet Trimer-Hartley. They connected instantly, as  “(Trimer-Hartley’s) passion, her vision, and all the positives she was offering,” made it clear that a UPA school was best for the Tilley family. It has been a sacrifice, as Tilley and her sons now have to get up earlier in the morning to commute to school and her sons do not have the same opportunities for after-school team sports which they enjoyed. Tilley said “it has been a sacrifice for both boys, but we have seen it as worth the effort and sacrifice for the teachers, education, and vision.”

Llorens believes that the vision of schools like UPA “will definitely shape the future of Detroit.” Detroit isn’t the just blighted city on the news, it is these kids with a better shot than their parents had. “I walk into our building each day,” said Llorens, “and I know that are students are the real Detroit.” She said that students are filled with hope about their futures, which is something that has been long absent in urban Detroit. “There is nothing quite like walking into a school building each morning,” she said, “It’s a powerful experience and, whenever someone is a part of that experience, it can’t help but motivate them to believe in the power of education.”