In Detroit, a Charter School Reflects Promise — and Challenges

Maurice Morton, the CEO of the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, says charter schools have had successes in Detroit.

Posted: 06/03/2013 09:29 AM EDT

REPORTING FROM DETROIT — The Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school here, is well known for its celebrated choir and its emphasis on technology. Test scores have exceeded those of children in the public schools and the school has been distinguished for its academic achievements.

Yet, Maurice G. Morton, the chief executive of the well-known charter school, says it still encounters all the problems that face any school seeking to educate children in Michigan’s largest city, a place that has been besieged with high unemployment and poverty rates.

A lawyer and former prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, Morton said the success the school has experienced is a result of the fact that leaders and administrators can tailor their work to meet the needs of students without having to answer to a huge school district bureaucracy.

“Being at a charter school allows us exercise a little more control,” Morton said, in an interview with BET.com. “We’re self-managed and self-run. As CEO, I run the school and our board oversees the operations. There’s no one else. We try to establish a family environment.”

The school has become well known for its famous choir, which has performed at a number of national venues, from the halftime show of Monday Night Football to the Today Show on NBC. The school also prides itself as a place where students use the latest in technology.

“We’re seeing reading scores here going up and math scores going up,” Morton said. “We’re able to tailor things to meet the immediate needs of the students. Are we where we want to be? No. But we’re doing well and getting better.”

Charter public schools in Detroit enroll about 47,000 students, the third-highest charter enrollment in the country following Los Angeles and New York City. That compares with about 67,000 students enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools, which is down from about 100,000 students just a decade ago.

According to a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, schoolchildren in Detroit’s charter schools are learning at a rate of three additional months of school compared with those in the Detroit Public Schools.

On average, students in Detroit’s charter schools have slightly higher test score results than students in the public school system. However, many here also say they that charter schools are not always consistent in providing higher-quality education, pointing out that only about half of the charter schools perform significantly higher than their counterpart public schools, according to research.

Still, the numbers reflect the historically troubled circumstances of the public school system, which is only now starting to rebound – albeit gradually – from plunging test scores and mountainous debt. Many parents have come to believe that charter schools offer an attractive educational option for their children.

Yet Morton makes it clear that despite a renowned choir and high marks for its technology curriculum, the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences faces all the challenges of public schools. Roughly 57 percent of Detroit’s school-aged students live in poverty and that has an overarching impact on the schools, whether charter or public. The students come from homes where incomes are minimal, where unemployment is common and where crime is rampant.

The Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences closed its high school in recent years, a reflection of chronic low performance.

“We have our issues, too” Morton said. “It’s tough when you have kids who are coming to school and they're hungry or they’re walking past dope houses or when they had a relative who was shot and killed the week prior or when their parents are unemployed.”

To assist with one of the most significant challenges, Morton said, the school provides as many as three meals a day for students.

“Often, when the children come here, learning is not a priority,” Morton said. “They often just want a meal. The kids have a lot to deal with. They are often scared when they come here because of the neighborhoods that have to go through. We try to make the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences an oasis away from all those issues.”

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(photo: Jonathan P. Hicks)

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