June 12, 2013 - A second charter school is preparing to open in the Oxford area, but this one is backed by a 60-year reputation for educational excellence.
Kingsbury Country Day School, an independent private school in Addison Township, will officially close its doors June 30 and reopen July 1 as a charter school academy bearing the same name.
"When the governor lifted the cap (on the number) of charter schools (allowed in the state), we saw that as our best opportunity to continue to deliver the Kingsbury educational experience to a greater number of kids," explained Tom Mecsey, Kingsbury's head of school since June 2008. "There's a lot of enthusiasm that's been generated by this move."
Back in May, Kingsbury, located on a 125-acre campus at 5000 Hosner Rd., received the go-ahead to convert to a public charter school for the 2013-14 school year, effectively ending its 60-year run as a private educational institution and "opening a new chapter," as Mecsey put it, in the school's history.
A charter school is an independent public school that operates as its own school district governed by its own board.
Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) will serve as Kingsbury's charter authorizer. The university will enter into a charter contract with Kingsbury that outlines the school's guiding principles, governance structure and how it will be held accountable. Charter schools typically receive increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.
The SVSU Board of Control is expected to approve the charter contract at its Tuesday, June 18 meeting.
"We're officially unofficial," Mecsey said.
He explained that Kingsbury received a "green light" from the SVSU committee that okays charter schools.
"They were in full support of it," he said.
The state Department of Education was notified of Kingsbury's switch to public school status and it's currently listed as one of the charter schools scheduled to open this fall.
"(The committee) saw no reason to think that the university would reject their recommendation," Mecsey said.
Like other public schools, Kingsbury, as a charter school, will receive state funding on a per-pupil basis instead of charging tuition.
Mecsey believes this will allow more students to receive the private school experience without having to pay costly private school tuition.
"For the past three or four years, our focus has been (on) how do we make ourselves more affordable and how do we open our doors to a greater part of the community," he said.
As a result of the difficult economic times, Mecsey noted Kingsbury was dealing with a number of families who had to decide on an annual basis whether or not they could afford to continue sending their children to the school.
In an effort to increase enrollment, Kingsbury had lowered its tuition for the 2012-13 school year from $13,500 to $9,500 for first through eighth-graders and from $12,500 to $8,550 for kindergartners.
As a charter school, Kingsbury plans to enroll approximately 180 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This past year, Kingsbury only had 84 students enrolled.
"We see this as a growth opportunity for us, so there's a lot of enthusiasm," Mecsey said.
When the charter school begins serving students this September, it will consist of two kindergarten classes and one class per grade from first through eighth grade.
Class sizes will remain capped at 18 students per class so as to allow teachers to continue providing more personalized instruction.
"We wanted to be able to maintain the same kind of experience that we provide now," Mecsey said. "That includes individualized or differentiated instruction. We can do that best when we have small class sizes."
Having 18-student classes would constitute a significant increase over Kingsbury's current class sizes, which average about nine pupils. Some are larger, some are smaller.
"We're excited about the opportunity to have 18 kids in the classroom," Mecsey said. "It's been a while since we've had that luxury."
"Our parents are excited about it because they like the idea of the classrooms becoming more diverse," he continued. "They like the idea of their kids being exposed to a greater number of classmates. And they're excited about perpetuating the type of community that we have with our new families."
Over the next nine years, Kingsbury plans to increase its total enrollment to 360 students. One additional class of 18 students will be added each year, beginning with a second first-grade class in September 2014.
Kingsbury's junior kindergarten program for 4-year-olds will be discontinued.
"They won't charter a junior kindergarten program," Mecsey said.
As it did when it was a private school, Kingsbury expects to continue drawing students from Oakland, Lapeer, Macomb and Genesee counties.
Kingsbury plans to expand its facilities to accommodate student growth.
Currently, the school has more than 30,000 square feet of facilities, ranging from historic to modern. A nonprofit Kingsbury Foundation is in the process of being established and, as Mecsey explained, it's this "philanthropic group" that will retain ownership all the school buildings and land.
Any facility expansions will be accomplished through a partnership between the charter school and the Kingsbury Foundation, according to Mecsey. "When there comes a time for us to expand here, it will be in both our interest and their interest to work on that project," he said.
Mecsey indicated that Kingsbury will continue to offer a challenging curriculum that "blends traditional education with 21st century skill development."
That curriculum includes the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme, an environmental studies program and special classes, such as Spanish, that are available to students in all grade levels.
Most of Kingsbury's faculty and administration will remain the same under the charter school, however, a new board of directors will oversee the institution.
Dora Higbie, Christine Stephens, Chiara Buysse, Diane Haig and Robert Denany have all been recommended for appointment to this new board. Their appointments will be decided by the SVSU Board of Control at its June 18 meeting.
Founded in 1952 by Carlton Higbie, a successful financier and industrialist, and his wife, Annette, Kingsbury began with just 13 students when it opened its doors in September 1953. The Higbies purchased an abandoned schoolhouse for $350 and leased the land upon which is sat from Addison Township for $2 per year.
Dora Higbie, who's married to Steve Higbie, son of Carlton and Annette, is in "full support" of Kingsbury becoming a charter school, according to Mecsey.
Kingsbury will be the second charter school in the Oxford area.
The first was Deer Trail Academy, which is scheduled to open in September on the 320-acre Crossroads for Youth campus (930 E. Drahner Rd.) in Oxford Township.
Authorized by Central Michigan University in December 2012, Deer Trail Academy is a strict discipline academy (SDA).
As an SDA, it can only enroll students who've been expelled from other schools or are on long-term suspension; youth placed there by a court, county juvenile agency or the Department of Human Services; and special education students who would be best served by this type of institution.
Kingsbury will be one of almost 40 new charter schools expected to open in Michigan this September.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.