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Old Mission (Charter) School Could Be Unique Nationwide

May 17, 2017
Old Mission (Charter) School Could Be Unique Nationwide

The Old Mission Peninsula Education Foundation (OMPEF) has applied and been recommended for authorization to convert Old Mission Peninsula School into a charter school – with authorizer Grand Valley State University calling the group’s application unique among state and national schools.

OMPEF board members submitted a “Phase 1” application to GVSU to begin pursuing charter school status in April after closing on the $1.1 million purchase of Old Mission Peninsula School from Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS). Charter schools – as with traditional public schools – are funded by taxpayers though state and federal funding; they cannot charge tuition or be religious, and must open their doors to all students. They must also meet academic performance standards or risk losing their authorization.

But unlike with traditional public schools, charter schools do not have publicly elected school boards. They can be either for-profit or nonprofit, and choose to self-manage or contract with a management company. They also have greater flexibility with their curriculum. OMPEF President Allison O’Keefe says the last factor ultimately prompted the board’s decision to open a charter school.

“It’s about what this community said they wanted – it’s not about a negative or positive relationship with TCAPS,” says O’Keefe. “The community wants different start times. They want curriculum changes…and TCAPS said they couldn’t provide that. We have the opportunity to make our own school, and we can do anything, so we can meet all those pieces.”

OMPEF submitted a 40-50 page application detailing everything from proposed instructional models to admissions policies to staffing plans to operating budgets, according to Associate Vice President for Charter Schools Rob Kimball of GVSU, one of more than 40 universities and school districts approved to authorize charter schools in Michigan. Of an estimated 100 applications GVSU receives each year, says Kimball, only “10 percent of those typically receive authorization.”

But Kimball says the GVSU application review committee was “impressed by (OMPEF’s) application” and invited the group for Phase 2: an in-depth, in-person interview that included a “deep dive” into Old Mission’s proposed budget, curriculum and other issues. “We’ll look at things like, ‘OK, can this succeed with half or a quarter of the proposed (number of) students?’” says Kimball. “That’s where we see a lot of applications fail.”

But OMPEF’s “comprehensive” answers won committee approval, according to Kimball, particularly on the curriculum front. OMPEF board members shared their plans to focus on EL Education, an interdisciplinary curriculum model formed out of a partnership between Outward Bound and Harvard. “We’ve been a leading advocate of EL for Michigan schools for a long time, so that allayed a number of our concerns,” Kimball says.

Barring any major issues during the committee’s final “due diligence” check now underway, the group is recommending Old Mission Peninsula School for charter authorization at GVSU’s board of trustees meeting in July. Kimball says such recommendations are nearly always approved. If Old Mission receives its authorization, the school will end its 2017-18 school year as a TCAPS school – but start its 2018-19 school year as a charter school.

“Old Mission is by far the only situation that’s ever occurred like this in Michigan,” says Kimball, “where you have a traditional school coming offline one day and a charter school coming online basically the next day.” Kimball says a national authorizer contact recently told him there “may have been only one other (school like this) in the country.”

While obtaining authorization would be a major step forward for OMPEF in its pursuit of opening a charter school, the group still faces several hurdles. OMPEF has set a self-imposed fundraising goal of $2 million by January to cover initial start-up costs, including the hiring and training of administrators and teaching staff. “Our goal is to hire leadership this fall and teachers in January, so that will be a big piece with all the training and professional development before July 1 (2018),” says O’Keefe – the date at which TCAPS officially vacates Old Mission and OMPEF takes over, giving the board two months to convert the school.

OMPEF plans to start as a K-6 facility, though it might pursue seventh and eight grades in the future. The group is working with a contract daycare provider to provide a “birth to pre-K piece,” says O’Keefe. Old Mission will operate as a nonprofit, with the goal of being “completely self-managed” – though O’Keefe acknowledges “we may need to contract with someone (for management) the first year or so.”

Old Mission’s first-year budget targets an enrollment of at least 100 students. “To be clear, 100 students will not be sustainable in the long term,” says O’Keefe. “But we’re confident we can start with a minimum at that level. That’s where the foundation comes in.” O’Keefe notes that as a nonprofit, the foundation can sustain Old Mission until the school “becomes self-sustaining.” Old Mission’s first per-pupil funding allowance from the state of Michigan is set to kick in in October 2018.

In the meantime, OMPEF board members are planning to host monthly fundraising events this summer – including an August 12 fundraiser at the Old Mission Lighthouse park – and are embarking on “living room tours," offering sit-downs with interested parents and families to discuss the school’s plans in detail. “There is a lot of misinformation out there because of the negative financial implications that have been in the media locally and nationally (around charter schools),” says O’Keefe. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep people informed.”


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