Charters learn technology sells

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The debate over what makes the critical difference in improving Detroit’s schools—money or management—has grown fierce and more public than it’s been in decades. This year Michigan’s Republican-controlled state Legislature is expected to authorize either a state or mayoral takeover of the district’s 264 schools. And for the first time, the mayor of the predominantly African-American city, Dennis Archer, who typically opposes state decision making on Detroit, announced in December he would support such a measure.

Martin Luther King Academy in Mt. Clemens, Mich., is just 20 minutes away from Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, but the two are worlds apart when it comes to school technology.

At MLK Academy, students have free home computers, and parents receive free computer training. A technology director meets weekly with teachers to ensure they use technology to support their work. And every classroom has Internet access.

At MLK High School, a well-known Detroit magnet school, few teachers use technology with their classes. Out of five computer labs, only one is used regularly for instruction. The rest simply sit, malfunctioning or unused. There are no parent workshops.

What accounts for the difference in the schools? For years, the simple answer would have been: MLK Academy is suburban and better financed while MLK High School is situated in one of America’s poorest school districts. Increasingly, fewer parents and leaders are willing to accept that as the whole story.

The debate over what makes the critical difference in improving Detroit’s schools—money or management—has grown fierce and more public than it’s been in decades. This year Michigan’s Republican-controlled state Legislature is expected to authorize either a state or mayoral takeover of the district’s 264 schools. And for the first time, the mayor of the predominantly African-American city, Dennis Archer, who typically opposes state decision making on Detroit, announced in December he would support such a measure.

Nowhere, though, is dissatisfaction with the city’s schools more apparent than in the decision of a number of Detroit parents to enroll their children in independently run charter schools. Michigan has more than 125 such schools, and the number is expected to increase if Gov. John Engler lifts the state’s limit on charter schools in 1999, as he has promised. (The state currently allows 150 charter schools.)

The state leads the United States in for-profit Edison Project schools, with 16 of 51 nationwide. There are years-long waiting lists to get into such schools, including the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first Edison school in Detroit. For the 1998-99 school year, 1,100 families applied for 120 student openings.

Part of parents’ frustration is the inequity among Detroit’s public schools. Some schools, such as the Dewey Urban Education Center in the city’s destitute Cass Corridor, have some of the country’s most progressive curriculums and most ambitious technology programs. Dewey has come from having no public address system or fax machines in the early 1990s to being one of the district’s lighthouse schools today. It has a full-time technology teacher and resource person, elective classes, training for all teachers and a curriculum-rooted program that few Michigan schools have attained.

Most schools, however, aren’t nearly as advanced. Richard Quick, a computer applications teacher at Detroit’s MLK High, says he tries to avoid showing parents the school’s technology program at open houses. Like many Detroit schools, MLK lacks a corporate partner to pay for new equipment. So its labs wait in limbo, with wires dangling out of dust-covered computers, for reform that might make technology a priority. The school has no computers in its regular classrooms.

“I think we’re pretty typical in Detroit,” Quick says. “There are a lot of schools ahead of us, but a lot more behind.”

On a chilly Tuesday morning at Detroit’s Farwell Middle School, Alicia Meriweather is trying to wake up her 24 seventh-graders with science experiments they’ll remember forever.

First she burns paper, then a marshmallow. Later she sets a chunk of steel wool on fire. Each time, she barks: “Write down what you see!” Her mission: To teach the difference between physical and chemical properties, and, eventually, for her students to develop hypotheses on their own.

Shadowing the students’ desks is Deborah Peek Brown, a veteran Detroit science teacher on leave from her classes to implement what’s considered among the best new science-technology curriculums nationwide.

Later, the students will head down the hallway to Farwell’s Macintosh-IBM lab, where they’ll build computer models on a program designed for the curriculum, do research on the Internet and write their reports. Meriweather and another participating teacher, Pam Williams, say the technology catches students’ interest more than anything else they have tried.

After that, Brown will talk with Meriweather and Williams about how the curriculum’s working in their classrooms. She’ll provide a listening ear (“How did the Word Wizard worksheet go?”) and assist with problem solving, today offering to find acid for an upcoming experiment. More than anything else, she connects the teachers to an outside support network to help them change their practice.

Teachers want training

“Teaching is one of those professions that once you’re certified, you’re alone,” says Meriweather during her lunch-break discussion with Brown. “With this program, you’re not just the Lone Ranger.”

Such support and training are critical issues in Detroit and across Michigan. In a 1997 DPS survey, schools reported teacher training to be their No. 1 need if they were to implement technology in their classrooms. Similarly, a survey of one-third of Michigan’s schools asked teachers, “What kinds of staff development do you need?” In both 1994 and 1996, technology was No. 1.

“If they’ve listed it as No. 1 for a second time in a row, then you know it hasn’t been addressed,” says Leah Meyer Austin, program director at the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., which conducted the survey.

False start

Indeed, when Detroit began to implement a new technology plan in 1995—the plan is now being revised— the district’s Web site heralded the start of the most ambitious training program in its history. Free classes on basic computer training and Internet skills were held nightly for any teacher interested, says Mike Flint, who taught some of the classes and helped develop the district’s technology system. The program had a three- to four-week waiting list.

About two years ago, however, the program was cut. A change in administrators occurred at the same time. The changes were made under the district’s move toward site-based management, which has shifted the responsibility— and the funding—for such programs to the school level, says Assistant Supt. Juanita Clay Chambers. “You don’t find a lot of funds anymore at the central level.”

Traditionally, the city’s magnet schools have attracted the best of the city’s resources. In many cases, that still holds true. At Bates Academy, a K-8 magnet school that enrolls the children of many of Detroit’s power brokers, parents have donated IBM computers to any teacher who has wanted one.

The school has so many donated computers of various ages—new G3 Macs, recent Macs, and older Apples— that at least a dozen sit unused in the computer applications classroom.

According to the 1997 survey, though, many non-magnet schools also are far ahead in access and curriculum use. A better predictor of a school’s progress is its personal and business connections. Western International High School on Detroit’s poor southwest side, for instance, was able to obtain several computers through a parent who worked at New Detroit, a city school reform organization, says Lois Murphy, Western’s technology teacher of 11 years.

Tech-savvy, determined principals also make or break a technology program. And in schools lacking technology leadership, outside foundations and reform groups have fostered change.

Before 1998, for example, only students in language arts classes had access to computers at Farwell Middle School. But when teachers began to work with the University of Michigan’s science reform curriculum last year, DPS wired the school for Internet access to support that curriculum, and Farwell’s principal opened the computer lab to students outside the language arts.

MLK High hasn’t succeeded in finding a corporate white knight and has suffered, even though it boasts some of Detroit’s best secondary magnet programs. Teachers, parents and students have formed a technology committee to lobby the district for funding. But while MLK has a $5 million technology plan, it still hasn’t received district funding or support. And without it, Quick is skeptical MLK will change in tightly controlled and centralized Detroit, despite the move toward site-based management.

“The district’s got to make it [technology] a priority,” Quick says. “There’s not an across-the-curriculum approach.”

Neither is there accountability for implementing technology programs. No one in the schools is responsible for mandating technology use or integration, much less for caring for the equipment itself. Chambers says establishing better district curriculum guidelines is what drives school change. And she offers a 1998 curriculum book the size of a telephone directory that includes technology-integration guidelines as proof the district is moving on such reform.

“Technology is part of achieving excellence,” she said in a December interview. “That’s a mandate.”

But with no training to teach educators how to use the guidelines and most teachers lacking access, major reform seems unlikely.

“Accountability is a major problem in every area,” says Robert Brown, project director for youth development for New Detroit, the city’s major school reform group. “You don’t have procedures, you don’t have standardized performance evaluations, you don’t have major training in place. … Until there’s a fundamental systemic restructuring, change is really not going to take place.”

Eager for change—and reluctant to wait for solutions to funding shortages and slow-moving bureaucracies— Michigan’s parents are turning to independently run charter schools where new curriculums, longer school hours and technology are easy to find.

In Michigan, the hotbeds for such schools are Rust Belt cities where job loss and urban flight have left districts scrambling for funds for decades. Pontiac, Flint, Lansing and Detroit, for example, now all have charter schools, including those run by the for-profit Edison Project, which expects to open five more schools in Michigan in the fall of 1999.

Technology sells in these districts. Last year, for example, Henry Ford Academy, Dearborn’s science- and technology-focused charter school, had almost 700 students apply for 100 spots. Ford Motor Company is its sponsoring institution.

Technology has “marketing hype,” says Tom Boudrot, director of technology for New York-based Edison Project, which now has 12,000 students nationwide. “It’s in the top five reasons parents come.”

Forget that the research doesn’t necessarily show that technology means improved student learning. Educators worry about such things, Boudrot says. Parents don’t.

“It’s like a car,” says Boudrot. “When people talk about their cars, they never talk about anything specific. It’s more about the aura of ownership.”

Technology also sells with school officials in urban communities that cannot afford to provide computer access, says Blanche Frasier, the former superintendent in Mt. Clemens and now Edison’s vice president of development, who pitches Edison to districts around the Midwest.

“When I tell people every child will have computer access both at school and at home, jaws drop,” Frasier says. “That’s really powerful, particularly in communities where few people have computers.”

Faced with funding struggles and desperate not to lose more students to private schools and wealthier suburbs, Mt. Clemens, in 1994, became the first district in the nation to open an Edison school, MLK Academy. The district, although only a fraction of Detroit’s size, is similar demographically: More than 45 percent of its 3,400 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Visit MLK and it’s clear funding is less a scramble than it is in other places. Every classroom has a new computer, and the media room has two dozen new Macs. A full-time technology curriculum coordinator and technology troubleshooter is also on-hand.

Edison poured about $750,000 into MLK’s technology program. For 600 students at the K-8 academy, that means about $1,300 per child. Edison can spend so much because as a for-profit company, it has private investors to cover up-front costs. Since its inception in 1991, it’s raised $161 million in venture capital. Its latest coup was a $25 million grant won from the founders of The Gap clothing store chain in 1998.

Such funding allows MLK to provide all teachers and students with up-to-date portable computers; free training for parents; staff to monitor the school’s Web page, online homework hotline, and parent bulletin boards; and the best new classroom software annually.

Outside resources also make a huge difference at Dearborn’s Ford Academy. Ford provides free training to teachers at the company’s nearby professional development academy, says Sandy Kesavan, the school’s technology coordinator. Once a month, a group of Ford engineers comes in and fixes any computer bugs.

Money, says Frasier, is not the only difference between charter schools and public schools, “but absolutely, it’s the No. 1 issue. It’s our advantage.”

It’s also the reason why many urban leaders previously opposed to privatizing schools suddenly support state Gov. Engler’s push for more charter schools.

“Public schools don’t have finances for technology,” says Rev. Jim Holley, the pastor of Detroit’s historic Little Rock Baptist Church and board president of Detroit’s first Edison school. “It’s not an indictment; it’s just the way things are.”

Many Detroiters who support charter schools also argue that the city’s schools could be doing more. “We’ve been working on reforming schools for so long, and it just isn’t working,” says Rev. Eddie Edwards of Detroit’s Joy of Jesus, one of several city churches organizing parents into a lobbying group for charter schools called the Detroit Partnership for Parental Choice. In Detroit, such churches have wielded considerable political clout.

For these parents, curriculum, finance reform and technology are their top concerns. “First they need to be literate, then they need to be computer literate,” Edwards said. “Unless we do something radical, we’ll never catch up.”