How to Close a Failing School

Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Hulett
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Gary Robichaux’s charter management organization will take over two failing schools in New Orleans. (photo by Jennifer Guerra)

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No matter how many education reforms are in place, it’s inevitable that some schools won’t succeed – whether it’s failing to make adequate progress with student test scores or failing to have their finances in order. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Hulett take a look at what happens when a school fails as part of our series, Rebuilding Detroit Schools.

Gary Robichaux and two of his colleagues are hunched over a laptop. They’re fiddling around with a design program, trying to make a new banner. Robichaux owns a charter management company called ReNew and they just announced that they will take over two traditional failing schools in New Orleans.

“We’re actually designing a sign to put on the side of the building to let them know where to call to enroll for our new charter school for next year.”

What Robichaux and company are doing is pretty typical in New Orleans: Having charter schools come in and take over failing traditional schools. In this case, they got more than $2.5 million from private foundations to do it. But what happens when it’s the charter school that’s failing?

Neerav Kingsald says “it’s very difficult, and it’s actually been a huge Achilles heel so to speak in the charter movement.”

Kingsland is with New Schools for New Orleans, an organization that helps develop new charter schools. He says the city is trying to get better at closing failing charter schools; so far, only one charter in the city has been shut down since Hurricane Katrina.

“The school was in its third year of existence, technically it had a five year charter so it could have fought to stay open for two more years. And the Board of the Directors of that charter school did something very noble and courageous in some respects: They handed back voluntarily their charter to the state.”

A similar story is playing out in Detroit at a charter school called Colin Powell Academy. But the people there aren’t going away quietly.

Here’s what’s going on.

In Michigan, you’ve got universities holding the charters of most schools. School districts and community colleges can also authorize charters, but universities are the biggest players. And the biggest of them is Central Michigan University. They hold Colin Powell’s charter. But CMU is revoking it after the school year wraps up. Jim Goenner is the director of the Center for Charter Schools at CMU.

They’d been on probation for several years. And we came to a point where we said: We’ve talked about corrective action plans, we’ve had a lot of promises, but they’re not being able to be sustained in a quality, sustainable manner that’s going to make a difference for kids and for the taxpayers’ dollars, and that we can longer continue justifying authorizing this academy.”

Goenner says the school’s been plagued with money problems. It’s had 10 administrators in 15 years. And the school failed to out-perform Detroit Public Schools on the 2008 state standardized test. So as of July First, CMU will no longer authorize Colin Powell. In theory that means the school notifies the parents about what’s going on, and then there’s a process for shutting everything down. Teachers have to find new jobs, and the school’s assets get auctioned off.

But Phyllis Noda, Colin Powell’s executive director, says the school is “being cut down in our adolescence.” She says Colin Powell is on a path to turn things around. The school’s test scores from 2009 show significant improvement over 2008. The scores are up an average of 21 percent across all the grades and subjects. So Noda says she’s not ready to give her students’ names over to competing charter schools who might want to pick them up.

We are trying to package our proposal to a local district to consider us, and if we have no students to offer, then we might as well close our doors.”

Noda says about 100 students have already left the school since finding out Colin Powell might close next year.

But not Shania Pearson’s kids. She has four of them at Colin Powell, and she hopes to keep them there.

“I love how you can just come to the school, and they can see you and be like: oh, you’re here to pick up Hasan, and they can name your kids personal, just by face,” explains Pearson.

Most parents at Colin Powell think the school is doing a good job. And they feel like it’s safer than the traditional public schools in the DPS system. The school’s administrator is trying to get a suburban school district to authorize them, and she hopes they’ll be able to stay open.

But if a school really is in terrible shape, can they just reopen under a new authorizer without fixing the problems? Gary Naeyaert heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, that’s the group that represents charter schools, and he says no:

“Well it’s the uniform opinion of the charter school movement that schools that do not make the grade, schools that do not make good things happen for children, shouldn’t be operational.”

Now, another authorizer could decide that Colin Powell deserves another chance. It does happen. But until then, teachers and students are in limbo. Some parents said they’ll probably send their kids to a DPS school if Colin Powell closes. But the closest elementary to Colin Powell – it’s actually just down the street – looks like it won’t be an option. It’s on the list of schools the district wants to close next year. We’ll take a look at that school tomorrow.

But first, we’re going to talk about money with Western Michigan University professor of education, Gary Miron.

A report from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University shows that, after the hurricane, the federal government gave $196 million in federal grants to reopen schools in New Orleans. So those are one-time funds. What happens when those dry up?

“That’s a big question for a lot of people who are looking at this reform: Is it sustainable and so forth? I’m a little bit concerned about that. I think we shouldn’t overplay that amount though again because after [Hurricane Katrina] there’s been an incredible need for infrastructure. And yet not only have we got those federal sources of monies that have come into the district, but we have an enormous influx of private monies, especially from large foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the Walton Foundation and some others that are promoting a charter school agenda.”

Does the money follow when you start saying charter, charter, charter? Do these national foundations pour money into whatever district?

“I think Detroit would be an attractive target for them to promote these ideas,” says Miron, “and I think Detroit would be successful if they push that model to bring in private resources. The question is for how long and whether it will stay.”

With regards to money, are there any advantages one type of school has over another?

“In terms of planning, charter schools have an advantage because they can limit the number of students and so they can plan for that efficiently. Charter schools also have advantages because they tend to serve fewer high cost students like students with special needs, children that are classified as English Language Learners. And in terms of programs, many charter schools tend to serve lower elementary or middle schools where it’s less costly per pupil. The big advantage of the traditional public schools…is economies of scale,” says Miron. “They can use their resources more efficiently, especially when it comes to administration. Our research has shown charters are less sufficient when it comes to administration and part of that is because you have single administrators and there are fewer students per administrators in a charter school relative to a school district.”

To hear other stories in the series “Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities” and see related photos, videos and information, click here.

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