Kyle Brown, center, teacher at Cornerstone Charter Health High School, helps students Jameria McKinley and Jarel Perryman with their work. The Detroit school is focused on preparing students for careers in health care. Many charter schools offer programs not available in traditional schools. (Kathy Tian)
At a school in Farmington Hills, kindergarteners spend the first half of their day learning core curriculum disciplines: Math, social studies, science. But each afternoon, they split up into two groups — those learning Mandarin Chinese and those learning Spanish. They then spend three hours immersed in either language.
"Our students learn to read, write and calculate in more than one language, and they do it every single day," Principal Rosalie Cohen said.
Faxon Language Immersion Academy, which opened in Farmington Hills in September 2012, is just one of hundreds of charter schools in Michigan. Charter schools — officially called public school academies — can be created in a variety of ways, but are free to attend, unlike private schools.
Charter schools often strive to offer a new or alternative approach to education, in addition to simply providing another option for where to send one's children. At Faxon Academy, that approach is to make students fluent in one or two foreign languages by the time they head off to college.
Detroit's Cornerstone Charter Health High School, which opened in August 2012, is another school that is purposefully educating students in a different way.
"We are as unique as they come," Cornerstone Principal Michael Griffie said.
Cornerstone focuses on preparing its students for careers in the health care industry. The school has a partnership with the Detroit Medical Center, which allows students real-world opportunities before they get their high school diploma, Griffie said.
Charter academies aim to offer something different among the thousands of Michigan public schools. Because the schools are often built from scratch, their organizers have the opportunity to answer communities' needs and offer ways of educating students that are creative and innovative.
Michigan has more than 275 charter schools and quite a few have just opened in the last year or two, according to Michigan Department of Education data.
Any group that develops a plan for a charter school has to have the school authorized before it can open. In Michigan, there are three kinds of official authorizers: Public universities, intermediate or public school districts and community colleges.
In December 2011, the state's cap on the number of charter schools that could be authorized was lifted. Before that time, only 150 charter schools could be authorized by public universities, which authorize the majority of charter schools in Michigan.
Since the cap was lifted, Michigan has seen a proliferation of charter schools open, said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Michigan ranks fourth in the country for its number of charter schools, Van Beek said, and it is unusual for a state to not place caps on the number of charter school authorizers or how many schools each authorizing group could approve.
"Having multiple authorizers allows for more (charter) growth in Michigan, and it allows for experimentation, which is what part of the charter concept is about — to try new things," Van Beek said.
Several authorizers dominate the state's charter school creation. The top three authorizers are Central Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Bay Mills Community College.
Bay Mills, located in Brimley, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula near Sault Ste. Marie, is the state's first fully accredited, tribally controlled community college.
Patrick Shannon, director of the Bay Mills Charter School Office, said the college began authorizing charter schools in 2001 after recognizing unpreparedness among students entering the college.
In the last two years, Bay Mills has opened 49 and closed six charter schools, Shannon said. Like many other charter school initiatives, Bay Mills set out to fill a specific niche when authorizing charter schools around the state.
"Our mission is different," Shannon said. "Our mission is to provide a meaningful public education to urban, rural, minority and poor students. We're willing to work with alternative kids much more than others are."
Seventy percent of the students in charter schools Bay Mills has authorized are minorities, Shannon said, noting that Bay Mills is the only minority college in the United States that is authorizing charter schools.
A '13th year'
Another community college that recently entered the charter school game is Jackson Community College. In January, the school voted to authorize Jackson Preparatory and Early College, a charter school that will be open to sixth- through 12th-graders and could open this coming fall.
JPEC found a way to offer something different to potential students. Those wishing to get their associate's degree from Jackson Community College will be able to do so with the completion of a "13th grade," said Cindy Allen, Jackson Community College vice president of administration.
"The thing that is so incredibly cool about this is that [after grade 13], students could leave with an associate's degree under their belt and it won't cost them a nickel," Allen said.
JPEC was created because a group of parents who were not satisfied with the traditional public schools in the Jackson area approached the community college with their proposal, Allen said. After lots of research and discussion, the college decided to authorize the school.
"We're a community college, so we're trying to figure out what's in the best interest of everyone," Allen said, noting that some supporters of traditional public schools in Jackson County said they were worried JPEC would pull the best students out of their districts.
"We're not trying to cherry pick," she said. "It's first come, first serve."
At Cornerstone Health High School, where students are being prepared for health care careers, they are learning through a curriculum model that Griffie said is new to the education world. The concept, called blended learning, allows students to complete the basics of any given lesson on their own on a computer. Then, depending on what level of supplemental educating they need on the subject, they are broken into groups, where what they learned on their own is expounded upon.
"Schools have spent billions on technology and it hasn't moved the needle much because it's just improving the tools," said Tom Willis, CEO of Cornerstone Charter Schools. "Blended learning has tools to change how we deliver learning. We have to make sure the kids are actually learning and not moving on until they're ready. It's not about software or computers."
College enrollment easy
Some Michigan charter schools have been offering alternative, forward-thinking education for years.
Advanced Technology Academy in Dearborn encourages students in their last two years of high school to enroll in college classes at the same time, so they enter college with a significant number of credits under their belt, said Steve Quinlan, the school's director of institutional advancement.
The school will soon be opening a campus in Livonia, where students in grades 10-12 will be concurrently enrolled in college classes.
Michigan can expect to see more charter schools opening in the next few years as more parents look for alternative ways to educate their children.
"With innovation, there can be bumps in the road," Willis said. "It's a constant process of improvement."