Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Charter #1: Ann Arbor Learning Community

I promised I'd start looking at Washtenaw County's charter schools, and I'm starting alphabetically, which brings us to:

Ann Arbor Learning Community is a non-profit public K-8 school that opened in the fall of 1998, and is located at 3980 Research Park Drive in Ann Arbor, MI. Find them online at
In AALC's fall 2010 (unaudited) student count they had 270 students, but they believe they have space to grow to 320 students in their current site. That number--270--has been fairly steady for a couple of years, and it appears there is a waitlist so maybe they are not trying to grow. There are many more students in the K-5 years than in the middle school years.  Their "Dean" is Ticheal Jones. (Using terms like "dean" is one way that charter schools try to appear more like private schools than public schools.) I like that their web site is uncluttered and easy to navigate.

In Michigan, charter schools need to have an institution of higher learning that holds the school's charter. In AALC's case, that is Eastern Michigan University, which has re-authorized their charter through 2013. The EMU Board of Regents appoints their board members, who are:

Jason Johnson, President
Valerie Mates, Vice-President
Simon Whitelocke, Treasurer
Mary Packard, Secretary
Joe Capuano, Member
Ted Layher, Member

(I cannot tell if these are mostly parents, or mostly local people.)

The school sees themselves as part of the progressive education movement, and their classrooms are multi-grade--like Ann Arbor Open (an AAPS school), Summers-Knoll (private) and Honey Creek Charter School, all of which also seem themselves as part of progressive education. According to the AALC web site, this is their philosophy:
Ann Arbor Learning Community is committed to the rigorous development of student intellect, curiosity and cooperation with a focus on helping students value themselves, their peers and their community. A safe and nurturing environment supports the social and emotional development of children, which is fundamental for effective student learning. Our learning community – made up of students, teachers, staff and families working together -- affirms and supports a variety of learning styles and believes that students require multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of concepts. Student’s understanding of how they learn empowers them. In our pursuit we promote participatory learning that is experiential, student-centered, developmentally based and individualized to student’s particular learning styles and strengths.
The EMU Reauthorization Resolution (3/20/2008) notes that:
The Ann Arbor Learning Community provides a student-centered, integrated curriculum. Its strong, basic core curriculum consists of language arts, mathematics, science and social studies supported by a stimulating, hands-on thematic approach of environmental education.
As the authorizer, EMU is the fiscal agent but
As fiscal agent, the University Board assumes no responsibility for the financial condition of the Academy. The University Board is not liable for any debt or liability incuned by or on behalf of the Academy Board, or for any expenditure approved by or on behalf of the Academy Board.
In its role as authorizer and fiscal agent, EMU gets 3% of of the state school aid. EMU gets the aid, and then forwards the other 97% within 10 days of receipt.
Does AALC rent or own their building? They rent. Right now they pay close to $40,000/month for the building (around 26,000 sf) and their lease goes through 2015.
How do they hire teachers? They work through a for-profit educational administration company, CS Partners LLC, and they pay them 3% of their per-pupil allowance from the state.
What kind of calendar do they follow? Currently, they are on the WISD's Common Calendar that the other school districts use.
Read the Charter and the Reauthorization Agreement
I learned those facts because their charter is on file with EMU, and you can read the whole thing here.
You can also read the re-authorization agreement that the EMU Board of Regents passed. Their charter has been renewed until June 30, 2013.
On, AALC's 2010 MEAP passing scores were pretty good: 96% 3d grade math, 81% 3d grade reading. (In comparison, here are two nearby Ann Arbor Public Schools: Lawton--97% and 99%; Pittsfield 84% and 88%.)
In 2009, 5% of the students qualified for Free or Reduced Price Lunch (13% Lawton; 47% Pittsfield), and the school was not nearly as diverse as our two comparison schools of Lawton and Pittsfield.
  • White 78% (Lawton 57%; Pittsfield 47%)
  • African American 14% (Lawton 10%; Pittsfield 18%)
  • Asian 6% (Lawton 34%; Pittsfield 12%)
  • Hispanic 2%(Lawton 2%; Pittsfield 12%)
  • Native American less than 1% (the same for all of them)
Also on, AALC got a 6 out of 10 rating, and community reviews give them a 3 out of 5. The reviews are a mixed bag (which is true of lots of schools)--they imply that there has been a significant amount of turnover in teaching/administrative staff over the past few years; that some kids love it and learn a lot and others don't do well academically; and that the teachers are uneven in terms of the strength of their teaching.

The reviews state that many of the board members are parents. (I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. I definitely prefer a locally-"owned" charter model than one that is controlled from far away.) What does concern me is that only the past three months of minutes are available on the web site, and no supporting documentation (say, for example, proposed budgets) appear to be available. In addition, the latest information says that "the board is meeting on April 21," which has obviously passed. There is no notice posted for a May or June meeting. The AALC is subject to the Open Meetings Act so they should be posting their meeting notices.

From their January 2011 minutes, I understand that they did a survey of parents asking how parents found AALC, what they like and don't like, and this is the summary:
1. Why they chose AALC: Top reason "community;" second reason "better option than local public school."
2. How they heard about AALC: Word of mouth.
3. What they like: mixed responses: small classes, teachers having a voice.
4. How can we improve? The summary response here was "most were not new things." I'd say that's rather unhelpful information to the casual reader! I'd hope that the board got better information.

(I've heard that there is a fair amount of turnover among students there as they hit the intermediate and middle grades, and I wonder if that is true, and if so, is it related to "how can we improve?")

The EMU Reauthorization Resolution notes that AALC continues to have students do well on the MEAP; meet Adequate Yearly Progress on the No Child Left Behind Act, and was recognized in the 2006-2007 year by the Michigan Association for Public School Academies for "Closing the Gap" in the area of Outstanding Academic Achievement.

Please feel free to share your experiences with the school in the comments section.


  1. There's just a lot of turnover at that school.

  2. Wow. 5% free and reduced rate lunch compared with 47%. Another statistic that would be helpful is % of special education students.

  3. Anon1--Turnover of teachers or students? Or both?

    Anon2--Special education #s look pretty similar to Ann Arbor's, with about 12.5% of the students having a designation (Ann Arbor 12.6%), although I can't tell anything about severity from that.

  4. Most of the kids from my Ypsilanti Depot Town neighborhood go to Ann Arbor Learning Community. As you indicate, reports are that the elementary school is pretty good-small class sizes- but the middle school is more chaotic.

    You mention that the AALC does not have the supporting documents, i.e., proposed budgets on their site. This is one of my pet peeves about the Ypsi Public Schools. They don't include the packet of information that accompanies an agenda, so you can't find out what is going on without going to the meeting.

  5. Students turn over very fast there. I believe the year my kid was there about a third of the class didn't come back, yet, they had a wait list. The school is not obliged to follow or publish those numbers. They should.
    Read for a reviews. They are accurate.
    There are some good teachers there, but the approach is not integrated in the school. I would strongly say don't send your kid there.

  6. You should really compare it to Bryant-Pattengill,that's the home neighborhood to the charter. Those are different than Lawton or Pittsfield.

  7. Charters don't have home neighborhoods--but feel free to do comparisons yourself (with lots of schools) at I tried to pick two schools that were relatively close but represented different types of neighborhoods.
    One caution about using MEAP scores is that in schools with a lot of turnover they don't necessarily assess what is learned at that school but what was learned before.
    And NONE of the schools (of any district) publish turnover numbers--they are very low in some schools and very high in others.

  8. Yeah,but think about it, people go and have an experience at a school, and that's what charters claim, well if you don't like it, vote with your feet.
    I think high turnover is an important number to watch. I think family income is important also to watch, which correlates with school success. The public school officials can't publicly comment on what's going on when the kids come out of the charters, but there is low accountability in charters, and you can tell that when that when the kids come out.

  9. I have heard that bright, mainstream learners do well there but kids who have challenges do not. Duh. Bright mainstream learners do well just about anywhere!

  10. I'm a middle school student at Ann Arbor Learning Community, and I love it. The teachers are very friendly and helpful, and very well educated. I do admit that some of the students don't life it here, but many of them do. Also, I would like to say a thank you to one of my science teachers, Mr. Meadow, who has sparked my love of botany.

  11. As a parent of a student at AALC who previously spent 2 years in an Ann Arbor Public School, I am very, very pleased with AALC. I haven't found the turnover in students to be any higher than my sons previous school because so many families are moving out of state. I also found lower teacher turnover than his previous school thanks to the union-district upheaval. The education is much more individualized with students able to mve amongst classrooms for appropriately leveled math and much more vaired reading and spelling levels. As for the 5% reduced lunch rate, because AALC students all bring their own lunch, and this date is collected from requests for free/reduced lunch, the 5% does not seem an accurate accounting. The school requests that the forms are completed so that they can also receive appropriate state funding, but it is likely underreported in our school. The school is VERY diverse and a comfortable home for all types of families.

  12. I have some additional thoughts about Ann Arbor Learning Community in this post:

  13. Wow Ruth, I wonder what the agenda is here!? I have children at AALC and one in AAPS and I work at AAPS and I have to say you seem to have rather biased opinions about Charter schools in general that color your perspective. Charters are about school choice for parents. AALC is doing well despite roughly $2500 less per pupil in funding from the state. Additionally, there are no bond issues to support capital outlay, technology, infrastructure, etc. Close to 95% of Charter school expenses come directly from state per pupil funding.

    To say that Charters are not accountable is false. They are accountable to the state/federal government through NCLB just like all publicly funded schools. Additionally, they are accountable to their chartering agency, in this case EMU and if they want to keep their census, they are accountable to their children. This is a group that without schools of choice, traditional public schools/districts have not had to be accountable to.

    Initially, AALC as is true of many alternative settings, had a high percentage of special needs students. This number has leveled out, as is also true of most alternative education settings not dedicated to special needs kids.

    Further student turnover is not terribly surprising given the changing picture of the MI economy. Many charters do not provide transportation, and parents must get their children to school. Additionally, there are frequently no hot lunch programs, so parents have to send lunches daily. As families become more restricted by their economic situations, they are not always able to manage these increased parental demands.

    As for staff turnover, across it's history, the total turnover is not significant. The difference between charters and traditional districts is that because teachers are at-will employees, they are subject to "merit-based" situations rather than tenure and unions. As for the more recent news articles regarding staffing, as is frequently the case, there is more to the story than has reported. Of course if this is your trusted source...

  14. I doubt that student turnover is as benign as the previous poster thinks. It was quite high not too long ago, the staff at AALC shrugs, and says, well that means it is just not a good fit. C'est la vie.Charters do not have good accountability. What's enforced at the charter? How is it enforced? There's very little transparency there. You can't say there's accountability, it has to be proven.
    AALC is not particularly good with special needs, though it tolerates them, and that lends itself to much worse trouble, since there's no active, coordinated effort to manage them. Where was Wendy Nagle's trained parapros, the behavior consultant, OT, PT, speech and school psychologists to keep her from "altercating" with a tough kid. No where, because it doesn't exist there. And that only happens because accountability is poor.
    Staff turnover is meh, there, but the Dean position has been volatile. Ticheal has stayed the longest, and when she tried to straighten some things out, she was not backed up and run out of town.

  15. I find it very interesting that anonymous has remained 'unaccountable' to the community conversation by remaining anonymous. Where are the stats to back up your claims?