Six new charter schools open in Michigan, offer students 'a different way of learning'

Myesha Johnson
The Detroit News

Tuesday wasn't just the first day of school for sixth-grader Larry Mccune Jr. of Redford.

It was also the first day of school ever at Mccune's school, Explore Academy, a new charter school in Livonia.

Yashica Mccune, Larry's mother, said she wanted her son to have a better education this school year and "something different" as he transitioned from elementary to middle school, so she searched outside of their Redford neighborhood to look for schools.

Yashica McCune takes a photo of her son, Larry McCune Jr. before dropping him off at Explore Academy in Livonia. Larry is an incoming sixth grade student.

"I like what Explore Academy is doing here. They're giving kids a different way of learning because all kids don't learn the same — and I'm excited," Mccune, 42, said after dropping off Larry Tuesday morning. 

Explore is one of six new charter schools that have opened their doors this school year in Michigan. The schools are located in Detroit, Ypsilanti, Warren, Livonia and Muskegon, and have potential to cover all grade levels as enrollment grows. 

Eric Pate, who is the principal at Explore Academy, part of a network of college preparatory charter schools with locations in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces, thinks families were excited for the first day at the new school.

"That's the beauty of it — (it's) an opportunity for folks to get a different experience with education," Pate said.

Pate, a graduate of Detroit's Pershing High School  who taught in Metro Detroit before coming to Livonia as the academy's principal, knows what it's like to teach a class of more than 40 students so he is looking forward to the smaller class sizes at Explore.

The school  is starting with less than 30 students in sixth through eighth grade but plans to add one grade level each year. And the student to teacher ratio will be 15 to 1 in each class with the exception of gym.

It forces teachers to "differentiate their instruction and model a lesson that caters to the student," he said.

Explore Academy Principal Eric Pate, left, talks with his staff, left left, Social Studies teacher Patrick McKinnie, Science teacher Gayle Lindo, Math teacher Gustavo Vasquez, English teacher Jodie Boehlke (hidden), and office manager Iris Cannon before the start of the school day, Tuesday, Sept., 6, 2022, in Livonia.

All told, Michigan has 296 charter schools in Michigan this fall. Four charters also closed, mostly due to declining enrollment.

"Recent polling tells us that not only do parents and voters overwhelmingly favor charter schools, but that they also strongly believe there should be more options for parents," said Dan Quisenberry, president of Michigan's Charter School Association, in a press release. "Charter schools only open when and where there is a need for more school options." 

Located on the site of a former telecommunications company, Livonia's Explore Academy has multiple office spaces that now serve as classrooms. The building is three stories high with white brick walls and carpet in its interior, awaiting office furniture, art and other renovations that will come as the school expands to serve grades 6-12. 

"It's clean, it's brand new, I think the students are going to enjoy this," said Pate. "When they feel like they're in a place that is conducive to learning, they're going to be willing to give more, they're going to want to come to school."

Sandy Smith, 42, and her daughter were looking for "something new and different" this school year, especially after Smith's daughter had four different math teachers atDavid Ellis Academy for sixth grade last year.

"It was quite difficult to continue to catch on to the next teacher and the way that they taught," Smith, of Detroit, said.

Explore Academy Principal Eric Pate fist bumps incoming 8th grade student Kazyia Forrest at the start of the school day, Tuesday in Livonia.

Pate says he's looking forward to the class of 2027 which would be the school's first graduating class.

"We're going to change the way education has been done because for too long we've been taking this square peg and putting in round holes, especially after the pandemic where students lost two years of learning," Pate said.

Both Explore Academy and Pittsfield Acres Academy, a new charter school in Ypsilanti, are giving students personal Chromebooks to use at school.

Pittsfield started school last week for kindergarten through fourth grade, offering students technology, arts, engineering, and Arabic, in addition to its core classes. 

"We're excited to be one of the schools that can offer that," Crystal Baker, Pittsfield's principal, said. The charter school currently has 25 students enrolled and plans to grow when it offers students transportation next week.

"It takes a lot of trust for families to send their child to a brand new school that they're not sure is going to succeed," Baker said, adding that the school's administration did several forms of outreach to find its current students. 

"I know a lot of people are having a really hard time filling all the positions in their school. We were lucky enough to find some amazing teachers," Baker said. "They're still coming in every day with smiling faces and the parents seem happy."