September 2, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Teachers, students get acclimated at new Livonia charter school

Livonia— Melting first-day jitters into smiles, sorting school supplies into tidy bins and learning new names were among the rites of passage for students at Grand River Academy, a new charter school where elementary students entered a newly renovated building Tuesday morning.

As much as teachers want to get right into academics, the reality of the first day of school is getting down the basics, educators say.

“We started with an assembly in the gym, where everyone got to meet the teachers,” first-grade teacher Kristine Barnes said. “Then on to the basics: how to behave, how to listen, the name game, bathroom break emergencies. The atmosphere is exciting and positive. The smiles will make you melt.”

The charter school, operated by National Heritage Academies, serves kindergartners through fifth-graders and plans to add a grade level per year for three years. It draws students from Farmington Hills, Redford Township and Detroit.

The school, with 429 students, has 28 classrooms, a media center, dedicated parent room, 5,500-square-foot gymnasium and an outdoor playground.

Grand River Academy Principal Alan Harper said parents tell him their primary concerns are school safety and academic structure.

“The other thing that is really powerful is school choice — the opportunity to make a selection for the school that best fits your family,” Harper said.

Charter schools have grown steadily over the past two decades in Michigan. There are 302 charter schools in Michigan this fall and charter school officials estimated about 145,000 charter school students attended class Tuesday.

As charters expand, state education officials say they need to do more to monitor that growth. Last month, state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan warned 11 of Michigan’s 40 charter school authorizers they could lose their ability to charter additional schools.

Flanagan said the authorizers fall short in providing effective oversight of their charter schools, which rank in the bottom 10 percent academically.

Harper said he wants parents to know his school is being held accountable by the school’s management company, its board and its university authorizer, Grand Valley State University. “I’m accountable to so many people right now.... We are following Michigan’s requirements,” he said.

Parent Sonja Laneir of Detroit said she chose Grand River Academy for her son, Nekoda Wright, a kindergartner, for its secure environment and encouraging words from the teachers and staff.

“I chose this school because they have one-on-one with students. I think a charter school is better than the public school,” Laneir said.

Mark Twain School for Scholars Elementary and Middle School principal Linda Whitaker gets hugs from students as she greets them outside on the first day of school in Detroit on Tuesday. / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News