Analysis: What the new, $35 million charter school means for Flint

FLINT, Michigan — The newly announced Flint Cultural Center Academy will rank as one of the largest-ever educational investments in the city of Flint—and the second school being built in as many years for a community that had gone generations without seeing such investments.
 
Dignitaries and community leaders broke ground on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, for the new public charter school being built on the campus of the Flint Cultural Center off Robert T. Longway Boulevard near downtown Flint. With up to $35 million committed by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, it is one of the largest school developments the city has ever seen.

The Flint Cultural Center Academy is planned to open in fall 2019 with 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Enrollment will expand annually to eventually house up to 650 K-8 students by 2022.
 
Construction is beginning just six months after doors opened at Educare, an early childhood school for 220 children between the age of two months and 5 years.
 
“This is more than just a groundbreaking ceremony. This is opportunity that is happening,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said.
 
Flint Cultural Center Academy will be intimately intertwined with the Cultural Center campus. The building will be directly connected to both the Flint Institute of Music and Sloan Museum—and students will spend at least 90 minutes a day at one of the Cultural Center institutions including the Flint Institute of Arts, Longway Planetarium, The Whiting, and Flint Public Library.
 
With art classes at the Flint Institute of Arts (the state’s second largest art museum), science at Longway Planetarium (the state’s largest planetarium) and researching papers at Flint Public Library, the Flint Cultural Center Academy is designed to take advantage of the Cultural Center assets and create an exciting educational environment, said Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation.
 
He called it “an experiential learning opportunity that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the region.”
 
Beyond the modern design of the school, the classrooms themselves are clustered around team spaces and the instructional areas also include an innovation center and breakout rooms.
 
Check out the floor plans and get additional details: What you need to know about the Flint Cultural Center Academy 

An 'incredible' investment

The Flint Cultural Center Academy comes on the heels of the opening of Educare Flint in December 2017, a $15 million building for which the Mott Foundation donated $11 million.
 
The Flint Cultural Center Academy more than doubles the budget for Educare, which is located on the campus of Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School.
 
The project is just shy of the $36 million spent to locate Powers Catholic High School in the former Michigan School for the Deaf building and build a new school for MSD in 2013. It is comparable to the $39 million planned expansion of Murchie Science Building on the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint. It even comes in higher than the massive, $30 million renovation of the Durant in 2010, but of course still pales in comparison to the $2 billion pumped by General Motors into the Flint Assembly Plant since 2011.
 
Adding in the $35 million pledged for the Flint Cultural Center Academy, the Mott Foundation’s total investment in what it calls “Revitalizing the Education Continuum” grants in the Flint area is more than $200 million in the last 10 years, according to a Mott Foundation database of grantmaking.
 
Buddy Moorehouse, vice president of communications for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, was openly awed by the "very unusual" amount of support being provided by the Mott Foundation.
 
“That’s incredible,” Moorehouse said. “This is significant because charter schools typically face a really tough road because they inherently don’t have access to money.”
 
Traditional public schools can ask voters to increase taxes to pay for construction costs, but bond issues are not an option for charter schools — which also operate differently than traditional public schools with elected school boards.
 
“The fact that the Mott Foundation is behind it certainly speaks volumes to what they see as the potential,” Moorehouse said.

When at full capacity, Flint Cultural Center Academy's enrollment will rank among the top 30 percent of charter schools in Michigan. It would rank as the fourth largest charter school with a location in Genesee County.

The International Academy of Flint is the largest with 1,030 K-12 students followed by Linden Charter Academy and Richfield Public School Academy with 766 and 656 students respectively, according to state of Michigan enrollment data for the 2017-18 school year.

Compared to traditional public schools in Genesee County, Flint Cultural Center Academy would have a larger enrollment than the entire Genesee School District and a larger K-8 population than Atherton, Beecher, Bentley, and Westwood Heights schools. 

A majority choice 

Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools created by the Michigan Legislature in 1993 to provide families with an alternative to traditional public schools. They also have been criticized as a drain on traditional schools and an assault on teachers unions. (Charter schools can unionize, but are less frequently than traditional public schools.)
 
Twenty-five years later, debate remains heated.
 
Today, there are about 300 charter schools in Michigan and children in Flint attend charter schools at the highest rate in the state. Nationwide, Flint is second only to New Orleans, where charter schools essentially replaced the traditional school system after Hurricane Katrina.
 
A study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimated that 55 percent of Flint children attend charter schools as of the 2016-17 academic year, the most recent data available.
 
Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, called Flint Cultural Center Academy “a great opportunity for kids in Genesee County.” He would not typically be considered a proponent of charter schools.
 
Supporters typically skew more conservative, but Ananich is leader of the Senate Democrats. He adamantly opposed school choice champion and Michigan native Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. He is born and raised in Flint, graduated from Flint schools, and was a teacher in Flint Community Schools before being elected to the Senate.
 
He also is a Flint father who sees Flint Community Schools continuing to struggle with low standardized test scores, graduation rates, and consistent leadership. He said his first choice was to have Flint Cultural Center Academy authorized through Flint Community Schools to keep it under the umbrella of the traditional school district, but the former Flint schools superintendent told him that the district didn’t have the capacity to do it.
 
“I’ve grappled a lot with it,” Ananich said. “I’m also a realist. It is the system we have now.”

Ananich said his official position is: "I support good charter schools." 
 
Flint school board president Diana Wright said in a statement to MLive that the school district continues to see "positive momentum"—citing the scheduled reopening of a school building in the fall. The former Scott Elementary School is reopening as a middle school for seventh- and eighth-grade students. Wright also noted renovations happening at Flint Southwestern Academy with funding from the Mott Foundation.
 
Flint Cultural Center Academy is chartered through Grand Valley State University, which has issued more charters in Michigan than any other entity.
 
“Grand Valley State University is honored to celebrate today’s groundbreaking event with the Flint community, and is excited to partner with an innovative school like Flint Cultural Center Academy,” Rob Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at GVSU, said in a statement to Flintside.

Read more articles by Marjory Raymer.

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