Source: Sherman Publications

Crossroads looks to open charter school

by CJ Carnacchio

October 31, 2012

Crossroads for Youth is in the process of attempting to establish an educational institution that Oxford’s never had before – a charter public school.

Dr. Janet McPeek, president of Crossroads for Youth, confirmed that the Central Michigan University (CMU) Board of Trustees approved the nonprofit agency’s charter application in September.

“The letter that we received (from CMU) gave us permission to move forward,” she said. “It’s not a commitment on their part to do anything.”

Founded in 1951 under the name Camp Oakland, Crossroads for Youth provides a supportive, positive environment in which troubled children and teenagers learn how to succeed in life. The nonprofit agency’s programs incorporate academics, vocational training, individual and family counseling, community service and adventure therapy.

Crossroads is in the process of selecting a volunteer board of directors to run the proposed charter school – which would be named Deerfield Academy – as well as developing and finalizing a charter contract that outlines every element of the school, from its curriculum and food services to defining expected student outcomes and how they would be measured.

“We wouldn’t run the school,” Mc Peek explained. “It wouldn’t be a part of Crossroads for Youth. It would be its own entity with its own (school) board.”

The board must have a minimum of five members, but no more than nine.

Once completed, the charter contract will be submitted to CMU in either late November or early December. CMU would then either approve or deny it in December.

If approved, the new charter school would open in September 2013.

“After that, we would anticipate moving to a year-round school,” McPeek said.

McPeek stressed that nothing is a done deal yet.

“It’s nothing imminent,” she said. “We’re in the process, but it doesn’t mean that will be the final decision . . . It’s not something that we want to make a final decision to jump into without really knowing (all the details).”

“It’s an astoundingly complicated process,” McPeek noted. “You can’t get the information (you need) until you get in the (charter) process. (CMU) can’t get information about us until (we) get into the process.”

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are independent public schools. Although funded by tax dollars, they operate free from many of the laws and regulations that govern and often restrain traditional public schools.

In exchange for this freedom, these schools are bound to the terms of a contract, or charter, that lays out the institution’s mission, academic goals, and how it will be held accountable. State laws define the parameters for charter contracts, which are overseen by a designated charter school authorizer, which can be a local school district, a related agency or even a university.

Crossroads is going through CMU, as opposed to the Oxford school district, because it’s the nation’s first and leading authorizer of charter public schools.

The university’s portfolio currently includes 59 charter schools, enrolling 30,000 students. That amounts to 25 percent of all charter public schools in Michigan.

“Central is the one that has the expertise,” McPeek said. “I don’t think Oxford has done any chartering of schools.”

Who would this school serve?

The type of charter school Crossroads is looking to establish is called a Strict Discipline Academy (SDA).

“It’s not a typical charter school,” McPeek noted. “It isn’t open to the general public. It’s not open to alternative (education) kids. It’s open to very specific populations. A kid from the community can’t just come and say, ‘I want to attend.’ They have to meet the eligibility requirements.”

Created under state law in 1999, SDAs function like other charter schools in most regards, however, they only enroll expelled students or youth placed there by a court, county juvenile agency or the Department of Human Services.

McPeek noted that students who are on a long-term suspension or exclusion from public schools have “become more and more of an issue with the zero tolerance” policies adopted by many districts.

CMU is the authorizer for one of the state’s 10 SDAs – Ace Academy in Wayne County.

If Deerfield Academy becomes a reality, it would primarily serve students in grades 6-12, but would be prepared to accommodate fifth-graders if necessary.

“(Crossroads for Youth) is licensed to serve kids 11 to 17,” McPeek said.

Separating from Oxford Schools

If Crossroads is successful in establishing a charter public school on its 320-acre campus, it would no longer require the educational services of Oxford Community Schools.

Oxford operates a school at Crossroads, which currently has approximately 50 students (grades 6-12) enrolled, according to McPeek. The school district provides staff, supplies and equipment for the school, but the building is owned and maintained by Crossroads.

Staffing for the Crossroads for Youth school consists of a principal, 5½ teachers, five tutorial assistants, a secretary and a social worker.

The Leader submitted questions to Oxford Schools concerning the potential impact of Crossroads separating from the district and forming a charter school for its students.

“At this point, the school district has nothing to report on the matter. If and/or when the situation changes, we will address it accordingly,” replied Communications Coordinator Linda Lewis in an e-mail.

Figures supplied by the school district show the Crossroads school is operating at a loss. During the 2011-12 year, the school had $1.285 million in revenue, yet its expenditures were $1.323 million. For the 2012-13 year, the school is projected to have $1.055 million in revenue, yet spend $1.07 million for its operations.

McPeek admitted to having “mixed feelings” about a move that basically amounts to breaking away from the school district.

“It’s been a really tough decision because the teachers who are on our campus are here because they want to be. They do a fantastic job,” she said. “It’s sad. You develop relationships and connections. We know the teachers and the teachers know us . . . It’s nothing personal and it’s nothing about quality.”

But in the end, Crossroads wanted to do what was best for both the school district and the kids it serves.

Right now, McPeek sees Crossroads students as negatively affecting the school district’s image.

“We are impacting in a way that we don’t want to be impacting,” she said. “We’ve tried really hard to never be a negative for the community or the school system. But with (the changes to) the rules (governing public education made at the state and federal levels), it gets to be next to impossible.”

For example, the Crossroads for Youth school did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the 2011-12 school year and that had to be published as part of the district’s annual report, which is a public document.

According to the Michigan Department of Education website, AYP “is a cornerstone of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. In Michigan, it measures year-to-year student achievement on the Michigan Education Assessment Program for elementary and middle schools, or the Michigan Merit Examination for high schools. Other indicators, such as the number of students who participate in the assessments and graduation rate for high schools, are also considered in the calculation.”

The reason cited in the school district’s 2011-12 annual report as to why Crossroads did not make AYP was “AYP based on one student who has attended three consecutive counts.”

“When a student attends a school for three consecutive student count periods (October, February, October), that student’s performance on the MEAP/MME begin to “Count” toward the calculation of Annual Yearly Progress for that building,” Lewis explained. “Crossroads, historically, has a transient student population as it is made up of mostly court-placed students. Last year was the first year we had a student attend Crossroads for three count periods (a year and a half) to where that student’s scores counted toward AYP for that school. This student was the only student who had been there that length of time, so the entire school’s AYP designation became based on the performance of this one child.”

“There was a time when our kids were not included when the district was measured for things like their AYPs,” McPeek noted. “They were basically exempted so they could serve our kids without it, on paper, causing any challenges for the school district. That has changed over the last couple of years. There used to be an exemption, so our (test) scores, in effect, didn’t count against (the district), but now they do. It’s all just lumped together.”

McPeek explained that Crossroads students “typically make about two years (worth of educational) progress in six months here because” the Oxford teachers “do a fabulous job of teaching the kids.”

“But that doesn’t reflect on AYPs if (students are) four or five years behind when (they) come here,” she said. “That’s been an issue.”

Having Crossroads school not make AYP hurts the district from a public relations standpoint when residents see it in the newspaper, according to McPeek.

“Even though mathematically it’s not a big impact, it’s still an impact,” she said. “People hear that and read that.”

McPeek indicated that it was Crossroads’ idea to pursue the charter school path; it was not pushed to do so by the school district.

If Crossroads’ charter application is denied by CMU in December, McPeek confirmed that Oxford would continue operating the existing school on campus.

“We would go back to doing what we’ve been doing, which is trying to find a way to hold (the school district) harmless (concerning Crossroads students) on things like the AYPs,” McPeek said.

Benefits to Crossroads students

As for Crossroads students, becoming a charter school would benefit them in a number of ways. Instead of attending a small school that’s a fraction of a large district, the students would be enrolled at an independent school “exclusively designed” for them with all resources being devoted to educating them and meeting their unique needs.

“We are such a tiny percentage of what Oxford does,” McPeek said. “There’s a limitation to the amount of resources that they can offer us. Oxford’s in the business of educating kids in the Oxford community. That’s their priority. I understand that and that’s what it should be.”

A charter school would also offer Crossroads students some flexibility when it comes to things such as marking periods and earning credits.

“Our kids come and go,” McPeek said. “We might have somebody placed in October and we might have somebody that leaves the first week in November, so our placements don’t line up with traditional marking periods. It really impairs their ability to get (course) credit.”

Prior to the changes in requirements concerning public schools, Crossroads “used to have a lot more latitude around the rules” concerning such things. But not so anymore and “there’s nothing the school can do about it.”

“The rules are the rules,” McPeek said.

But with a charter school that’s “designed for this population, the day you come in, your marking period begins.”

“It really enhances their ability to get credits,” McPeek said.

A charter school would also have “a lot more latitude” in the curriculum that’s taught. McPeek said the students would still be subject to state testing in areas like reading, writing, math, science and social studies, but beyond those traditional subjects, the charter school’s curriculum could integrate other subjects that are “really important for our population and offer credit for it.”

Examples include character education, social skills development and environmental education, the latter of which could involve studying things unique to the Crossroads campus such as the wind turbine that helps meet its electricity needs or the five different ecosystems contained on its 320 acres.

A charter school would have “a lot of opportunity for flexibility” as to how the school day is structured in order to meet students’ individual needs as opposed to everyone strictly following the traditional six-period day that starts at a certain time and ends at a certain time.

“We can modify start times and say for us, it works to start at 9 a.m. For us, it works to take an hour-and-a-half at lunch instead of 30 minutes,” McPeek said. “We might have some students who are going to be there so many hours a day and then they’re going to be off-campus working. Then they’ll be doing some on-line learning in the evening that will be supervised by one of our staff.”