If there were no Trillium Academy, fewer students in the Taylor area would have the opportunity for instruction in the performing arts.
It is one of the school’s specialties. It also illustrates the value of Michigan’s charter school movement, now marking its 20th anniversary.
People forming charter schools can organize themselves around certain key components that they want in a school. That is the underlining principle for the concept: giving parents and students choices.
The state’s first nine charter schools opened in the fall of 1994.
Today, there are now 298 charter schools in the state educating more than 140,000 students — about 9 percent of the state’s school-age population.
Charter schools have particularly flourished in urban areas.
More than half the public school students in Detroit are now enrolled in charter schools, according to a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
That keeps Detroit second nationally among all cities, trailing only New Orleans, where 79 percent of students attend charter schools. Of the 100,255 public school students in Detroit, 51,083 were enrolled in charter schools, compared to 49,172 in traditional public schools.
It is hard to view charter schools as anything but a Godsend for the students and parents who make use of them. Their distinctives are alluring.
At Trillium, for instance, each student has his or her own educational plan, according to Superintendent Angela Romanowski. This approach has made the institution a “reward school” and it is in the top 5 percent in Michigan for its rate of student improvement.
Because it serves grades K-12, it is philosophically a one-room school house. Parents can send all of their children to the school.
Romanowski, who is in her 11th year at Trillium and originally worked in Monroe County’s Airport Community District as a Title 1 coordinator, said the family component is a special feature of the school. Parents, students and faculty members are all surveyed for input and teamwork is stressed.
Trillium has 695 students.
“It is hard to be much smaller if you are a high school,” Romanowski said.
Varsity basketball, softball, cross country and volleyball are offered, and the school partners with Gabriel Richard in Riverview for varsity football.
Three types of charter schools are allowed under Michigan law: 1) urban high school academies that can only be authorized by the state’s public universities; 2) schools of excellence that can replicate high-performing schools, function as a cyber school or base themselves on criteria that define superior academic performance; 3) strict discipline academies for the purposes of serving suspended, expelled or incarcerated young people.
The Michigan legislature last year lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can exist in the state.
“We are still implementing choice,” said Dan Quisinberry, who has been president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (charterschools.org) since 1997.
Quisinberry said that while parents have access to testing data so they can rate a school’s achievement level, “it ought to be more understandable.” He is encouraged by a proposed A to F school accountability proposal now before the Michigan legislature.
Attaining equitable funding for charter schools also has been “difficult,” Quisinberry said, since there is still a “significant difference” between state funding for charters and conventional public schools.
Student performance of charter schools has been debated, but Quisinberry has pointed out that noted that research by Stanford University’s CREDO Institute, released last year, shows that the average charter school student in Michigan gains an additional two months of learning every year in reading and math. In Detroit, the study showed, it’s an additional three months of learning every year.
To be sure, the movement has its critics, who today are focusing on what they call the undue influence of corporate interests in the movement. But as Quisinberry said recently, “The research shows that charter schools are fulfilling the promise that increased innovation and accountability will lead to greater achievement … That’s why so many parents are choosing charter schools. You can’t fool parents. They don’t care who runs the school, but they know when their child is in the right school.”
Clearly, charter schools are here to stay.