Kalamazoo Advantage Academy

KALAMAZOO -- The sign outside Kalamazoo Advantage Academy reads: "Enrolling for fall," along with a phone number.

But inside the two-story building at the corner of Burdick and South streets, the heart of Kalamazoo's downtown, staffers and students are bitterly mulling the shutdown of the decade-old charter school, which serves about 270 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Although summer school is in session for about 40 students, Advantage will not reopen this fall. Grand Valley State University has declined to renew the school's charter, and there's no other sponsor to be found.

GVSU maintains Advantage has long been a failing school, with faltering enrollment and low test scores, and says it is being a responsible charter authorizer in pulling the plug, now that its 10-year contract has expired.

But dig a little deeper and a more complicated story emerges, one that raises questions about GVSU's practices and procedures…

Advantage had its own data analysis done by Sharif Shakrani, co-director of MSU's Center for Education Policy. An expert in educational data, Shakrani is a former director of the design and analysis division of the National Center for Education Statistics and a deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board.

Shakrani's report said Advantage performed "significantly lower" than similar schools in 2005-06. But in the past two school years, he says, the Advantage students have shown much stronger results. His report highlights the strong academic growth among students who have been at Advantage for more than a year, and concludes the school is doing an "admirable job" with a very high-risk population.

"I'd keep (the school) open," Shakrani said this week. "My analysis indicates they're making significant progress. ... Usually you would close a school when it's regressing, but this school is getting better, not worse."

Ed Richardson, head of GVSU's Charter School Office, said his office has "carefully reviewed" the analysis by Shakrani.

"Nothing in them makes us think that our decision not to renew the contract was incorrect," Richardson said in an e-mailed statement.

Policy questions

In two other areas of contention by Advantage, GVSU's Charter School Office seems to have different policies and practices than other charter-school offices in Michigan.

For instance, after putting Advantage on notice in November 2006, GVSU did not establish specific academic goals or targets for the school to work on to keep their charter…

But he said the Advantage situation points out what he sees as the biggest problem in the charter-school movement: The failure to establish clear goals and then hold a school accountable for meeting those goals.

From his standpoint, Advantage wasn't held accountable for years. Now GVSU may be forcing accountablity -- but without clear goals, it gives the appearance of acting arbitrarily.

"I want these closures to work well," Miron said. "If they don't work well, what does that say to other authorizers who need to do the same thing?"

Outsiders also express surprise that GVSU's Charter School Office could let Advantage's contract expire without a vote by the GVSU Board of Trustees.

The other five charter school authorizers said such a decision would have to go before their board…

"Contracts have a beginning date and an end date for good reason," McLogan said. "Possession of a charter agreement is not an entitlement to perpetual operation."

Others say that philosophy can lead to disrupting the lives of charter-school students and employees with little or no explanation.

Because of the state's cap on the number of charter contracts, schools that lose their contracts have limited ability to find another authorizer, which means nonrenewal of a charter becomes, in effect, an order to close. And why would anybody would want to risk starting a charter school if authorizers can just walk away at the end of a three- or five- or seven-year contract?...

McLogan says GVSU dropped the contract because they don't want to continue sponsorship of a school they see as failing.

Huth says she wonders if there might be another motive. She speculates GVSU might want to grant charters to more middle-class academies, which tend to be larger than urban charters and have much better test scores.

She notes that GVSU receives about $225 per student from its schools as an administrative fee -- the GVSU Charter School Office generated more than $3 million in revenues last year among its 30 academies -- which means larger schools offer much more profit…

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