Column: Charters can help parents’ dreams come true

Dan Quisenberry

As another exciting school year begins across the state, we’re reflecting on the fact that it’s been a spring and summer of great news for the charter school world — especially in Michigan. In late April, U.S. News and World Report released its highly respected rankings of the Best High Schools in America. The rankings showed that the top three high schools in Michigan were all charter schools, led by No. 1 Wellspring Preparatory High School in Grand Rapids. The top three high schools nationally were also charter schools.

In June, Stanford University’s CREDO Institute released a report that looked at the effect of various management companies on charter school performance. CREDO’s report showed phenomenal learning gains by students in charter schools managed by National Heritage Academies — a for-profit company that is Michigan’s largest charter school operator. Students in an NHA school gain an additional 80 days of learning in math and 63 days in reading every year, compared to a traditional public school student.

Then in July, a research study from Temple University showed that charter schools actually help nearby traditional public schools perform better. The study, which looked at the performance of charter schools and traditional public schools in New York City, had one reporter conclude, “traditional public schools should want to be as close as possible to multiple charter schools, and ideally share a building with one.”

To sum up what we’ve learned these past few months: The best high schools in Michigan are all charter schools. Students in charter schools are gaining several months of additional learning every year. And charter schools are helping traditional public schools get better.

We also know this: Parents appreciate the choice and opportunity charters provide. That was true when the first charter school opened in Michigan in 1994, and it’s even more true today. Parents want their kids in a great school — whatever type of school it happens to be.

Consider the story of a parent from Grand Rapids named Maria de la Paz-Solorza. Maria is a single mom who moved from Mexico to the United States in search of a better life for her children. Four years ago, when her son Ariel was starting high school, Maria was desperate to find the best possible school for him. She saw some children getting off the bus after school one day, and they all seemed happy. Maria learned that they all went to a charter school in Grand Rapids called Wellspring Prep. She wanted Ariel to have that same type of smile on his face at the end of the school day, so she decided to check it out. Maria speaks no English, so she was greatly relieved to learn that the principal at the time was fluent in Spanish. He answered all of Maria’s questions and she loved what she saw, so she enrolled Ariel.

Maria had big dreams for her son, and she knew that finding the right school for him was crucial. Nobody in the family had ever gone to college, and she wanted him to be the first. And Ariel wasn’t the type of student who would succeed in any environment. He needed a personalized approach and extra attention.

He got it at Wellspring Prep. He found a teaching staff that never gave up on him and gave him all the extra tutoring and support he needed. He took — and passed — three Advanced Placement classes. He was accepted at seven colleges and universities, and ended up earning a full-ride scholarship to Grand Rapids Community College. His plan is to graduate from there and then transfer to a four-year university to become a nurse.

Maria’s dreams are coming true — all because her son found the right school. She has the same dream that every parent has, and as a state, we need to work every day to make that happen.

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