Celebration of charter schools reflects on past, embraces their future
Thirty years after the opening of the first charter public school in the nation, the Minnesota senator whose bill sparked their creation marveled at the way Grand Valley has propelled her idea forward.
A panel of charter public school educators and supporters joined former Minnesota Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge on October 12 at the Loosemore Auditorium on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus to celebrate the 30th anniversary of City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, welcoming students. The panel also discussed the impact of her bill, the effect of charter public schools on state educational systems and what their future holds.
Junge, a native of Detroit, said when her original bill was signed into law in Minnesota, the process required two authorizers — the local school district and the state’s board of education. The pushback from many school districts at the time meant few charter public schools opened.
It wasn’t until Michigan proposed granting authorization powers to higher education institutions that charter public schools began to gain momentum.
Grand Valley opened its first three charter schools in September 1995, and currently authorizes 79 charter schools, educating more than 34,500 students. Grand Valley will authorize its 80th charter school, the Gerald Dawkins Academy in Grand Rapids, in 2023.
In its most recent rankings, U.S. News and World Report placed Grand Valley-authorized charter schools among the top public schools in the state.
Three charter high schools — Black River Academy, West Michigan Aviation Academy and Canton Prep Academy — are among the top-50 Michigan high schools. Achieve Charter Academy in Canton ranked fifth among the state’s middle schools, according to the publication.
Junge said one reason for her visit back to her home state was to get a firsthand look at the work educators are doing in Grand Valley-authorized charter public schools.
“We are celebrating something that Michigan has that very few other states have, and that is a very robust higher education authorization program,” Junge said. “Grand Valley and others in the state have made that a success. I really wanted to come see that for myself, and I’m amazed at what Grand Valley is doing.”
Joining the discussion with Junge were: Kristin Beltzer, board president at PrepNet Virtual Academy, a public cyber school founded in 2020; Jase Bolger, commissioner for the Michigan Civil Service Commission and former Michigan House speaker from 2011-2014; and Danielle Jackson, CEO of Detroit 90/90 and University Prep Schools, one of the largest charter school networks in Michigan.
The panel recognized the two greatest strengths that charter public schools possess — providing educational opportunities for students and giving educators freedom to innovate in the classroom.
“What’s important is for teachers to have a level of autonomy,” Jackson said. “Whenever you have teachers at the table and have a say on the best way to move forward in the classroom, you’re going to get a better product.”
Bolger added: “Every kid has found their niche because that opportunity exists. We need to empower teachers to take charge and be innovative. I just hated hearing stories of teachers feeling shackled by the rules and regulations. We want them to be creative.”