A kindergarten class wasn't in the plan when Walter French Academic opened in 1996.
The academy was Lansing's first fling into the new world of junior and senior high charter schools. Applicants typically were at least 11 years old, and computer literacy was preferred. After all, Walter French was billed as a high-tech alternative to Lansing's traditional public schools.
But today, 5-year-old frolic with crayons and counting beads. And the school this year dropped "Business and Technology" from its title. The changes have helped the school nearly erase a $3 million deficit caused by startup problems in 1996.
When schools close for the summer in a few weeks, Michigan's charter school industry completes its first five years. Many of those schools, including Walter French, have altered course since debuting as an alternative to traditional public districts…
But some parents say the schools wind up with the same problems as traditional districts. They view the schools as strapped for cash and faced with too many diverse needs to be as effective as promised.
"The concept is good, but I wonder if it's working," said Brenda Petite-el, a Lansing woman who recently pulled her son out of Walter French Academy. "It's not from a lack of effort. But there have been struggles."…
Walter French is a dramatic and somewhat extreme example. The school ran up a $3 million deficit mainly because of opening a week late in 1996. Key equipment had not arrived in time for the scheduled start of classes.
Enrollment plummeted from 650 on opening day to about 400 at the end of the school year. As students left, state financial aid vanished…
Walter French's initial mission was to have all its students geared toward computer technology and business applications. The school still has an internship program with General Motors Corp., and is developing programs to match students with their potential careers as early as seventh grade.
The school has 230 computers for its 600 students, and started a certification program for Microsoft technology in 1998-99. The program was suggested and largely run by the students -- a freedom 1999 Walter French graduate Paul Curtis doubts he would have had at a traditional school.
"Teachers didn't take us for granted," said Curtis, now a Spring Arbor College freshman. "It was a very trusting, open environment."
But just 56 percent of Walter French students took computer technology classes in 1998-99. Some students aren't interested in the subject; others are not academically prepared for it…
A former student launched a petition drive at the school in late February, protesting enforcement of the school's dress code and the school's limited extracurricular offerings. The letter, sent to the Lansing City Council in March, was signed by more than 70 students.
"I definitely think improvements are being made," said Noemi Delgado, a Walter French sophomore. "But there is too much emphasis on the dress code, and not enough on the extracurriculars."
School officials counter that charters don't have the money and weren't designed to offer as many extracurricular activities as traditional schools. They say most of the students didn't know what they were signing, and most didn't know the petition was headed for City Council.
But the incident, sparked by student defections and suspensions for fighting and dress-code violations, reflects that Walter French still has issues. Enrollment has fallen from 641 at the start of this school year to about 600 in April.
Some parents discover their children aren't any happier at charters than they were at traditional schools. Others grow resentful of the dress code or other disciplinary measures.
"Some parents can't hack it, and some kids can't hack it," said Magdalena Renderos, who has four children enrolled at Walter French. "You are going to have your problems like at any other school."…
Walter French Academy
After several years of poor performance and financial mismanagement, Walter French Academy's charter was revoked in July 2004 and the school was closed. State Senator Virg Bernero called Walter French Academy "the poster child for the abuse that is possible under the current [charter school] structure — or lack thereof."…
WALTER FRENCH REDEFINES MISSION -- GROWING PAINS EASE FOR LANSING ACADEMY: Area Charter school weathers changes in order to survive; May 7, 2000; Lansing State Journal