As an educator with nearly 40 years of experience in Michigan public schools and an additional six years leading a public charter, I’ve followed with great interest the swirl of predictions related to the future of America’s educational system.
Over the past several weeks, I have read and viewed media coverage and opinion pieces that have miscast President-Elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as a disconnected elitist, dead set on destroying our nation’s public schools.
I’ve also seen charter schools – including the academy that I lead – portrayed as pilfering competitors that have dragged local public schools to the brink of financial ruin while failing to educate our nation’s children.
I don’t believe either to be the case.
Our nation’s public schools do an excellent job for the majority of children. I saw this first-hand in each of the four public school districts where I worked. In fact, two of the high schools where I served as principal were named exemplary schools by both the Michigan and the U.S. Departments of Education. Children at these schools receive a top-quality education.
But, if I learned one thing as an educator, it’s that one size does not fit all kids. The neighborhood public school isn’t the right fit for every child.
That’s where charters play a role. Charter schools, when done well, provide an option for parents who seek an educational environment that isn’t necessarily provided by their traditional neighborhood public school. Charters are about choice, opportunity and inclusivity.
I have long known Betsy and her family to be among the top supporters of our local public schools, with the family collectively donating millions to Grand Rapids Public Schools and its Student Advancement Foundation.
But they are also strong proponents of school choice and charters.
That is why the DeVoses founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, an aviation- and engineering-focused charter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their driving conviction is that all children deserve a top-quality education of their choice. That is the message I heard loud and clear when they asked me to serve as CEO of the school.
When founding the academy in 2010, the DeVoses’ vision was to operate a school where children from all backgrounds and income levels would be challenged with a rigorous aviation and STEM education, could grow and would fit in. They charged me with building an educational culture where the expectation of excellence isn’t limited to academics – it extends to personal conduct and attitude. That expectation applies to our board of directors, administrators, staff, faculty and students.
Since 2010, West Michigan Aviation Academy enrollment has grown from 80 to over 600 students. We currently have a waiting list of over 100 kids. Currently, 28 percent of our students are female, and we are intentional in our efforts to attract more girls to our rigorous STEM program. Our diverse student body is reflective of the demographics of the rural and urban communities in the seven counties within the 50-mile radius we serve:
- 66% white; 14% black/African American; 13% Hispanic/Latino; 4% Asian
- As a tuition-free school with available public transportation, there are no financial barriers to attendance.
During the 2016 spring assessment cycle, our students outperformed most other local school districts in all subjects. The school ranked 7th in the county for SAT scores. In 2016. In 2016, 128 of our students sat for 210 AP exams, with 67 percent scoring 3 (qualified) or higher. This after just six years of operation.
While aviation and STEM are at the core of our unique curriculum, other things make this school the right choice for some students: a smaller student body, student uniforms and a required faculty professional dress code, a minimum of 70 percent to receive credit in any course (no D grades), a rigorous curriculum delivered in seven classes per day, an extended school day and academic year, both academic performance and “character” grades each semester, and one hundred hours of “community outreach” required to graduate.
This is not the right school for every child. We don’t try to be. But, we are the right choice for hundreds of kids who want to learn to fly, who like to tinker, who are looking for a good place to transition from a home school environment, or who were being bullied and simply needed a safe place to learn.
The point is, every child – no matter where they live, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, no matter their interests and aptitude – every child deserves the opportunity for a quality education. Sometimes the path to a quality education involves a choice.
Patrick J. Cwayna has nearly 40 years experience as an educator in Michigan. He currently serves and the CEO of the West Michigan Aviation Academy.