The charter school movement turns 25

Dan Quisenberry

Tariq Muhammad of Detroit will be off to Harvard University in a few weeks, but the wheels for his trip to Cambridge were actually set in motion a quarter-century ago.

Tariq is a charter school graduate, having received his diploma from the Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA). Tariq is as gifted a scholar as we have in our state, and had his pick of any college in the country. He chose Harvard, where he’ll be studying human biology with aspirations to become a physician in the future.

For students in Detroit and Michigan’s other high-poverty urban centers, success stories like this are too few and far between. Were he not given the choice of the right school, Tariq’s journey might have been quite different.

But because he had the choice of a high-performing charter school like DEPSA, where college acceptance and academic excellence is the standard, Tariq was able to flourish. And as we celebrate Tariq’s academic success, a little history lesson is in order.

The nation’s first charter school legislation was signed into law 25 years ago in Minnesota (Michigan followed suit in 1994). To observe the 25th anniversary, thousands of charter school educators and advocates gathered in Nashville last week for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual conference.

We were there to celebrate the success that the charter school movement has enjoyed over the past quarter-century, and to look ahead with optimism and hope at what we need to do better over the next 25 years.

And with graduation season now wrapping up, it’s an appropriate time to look at some of Michigan’s charter school graduates from the Class of 2016.

In each case, these students found their success at a charter school. And in each case, their outcomes might have been much different had they not been given the option of choosing the right school. Each of these students illustrates what makes charter schools special.

Faith Steppes was the Valedictorian at Cornerstone Health + Technology High School in Detroit — an innovative school that uses a partnership with the Detroit Medical Center to give students a head start on a career in medicine. She will head to college to become an OBGYN or a neonatal intensive care nurse. Had she been at a traditional school, she never would have received that head start into the medical field.

Nastassja Chambers landed at Arbor Preparatory High School in Ypsilanti because her parents wanted her to attend a college-prep school. They made a great choice. Arbor Prep is ranked as one of the 10 best high schools in the state, and Chambers led the school to a state championship in basketball this year. Now she’s off to Wayne State on a full ride to study sports medicine.

West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids is a terrific school located at the airport in Grand Rapids. One of this year’s graduates was Grace Mahirwe, a refugee from Kenya. She came to the United States in 2012 not speaking a word of English, and her family settled in Grand Rapids.

She found a new home at WMAA, which has an English-as-a-second-language program designed specifically for students like Mahirwe. She earned her diploma, and now she’s going to college to study biomedical engineering. Other schools might have shied away from such a student or counseled her out, but at WMAA, she was embraced, loved — and educated.

We ended the year with 300 charter schools in Michigan, educating about 10 percent of all students in the state. Yes, there’s a lot of hard work that still needs to be done — and the charter school community is committed to doing that work. But before we put away the caps and gowns, it’s appropriate to celebrate and reflect on the success stories, too.

Dan Quisenberry is president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies.