Analysis

Website Calls Detroit Charter School ‘Struggling,’ Silent On Failing District Schools Nearby

Charter scored a ‘C’ on income-adjusted school ratings, but its conventional competitors got an ‘F’

The news site Chalkbeat Detroit recently characterized a charter school called the Timbuktu Academy as a “struggling Detroit school.” The school was in the news because it is changing its name to the Barack Obama Leadership Academy.

All 436 of Timbuktu Academy’s 2018-19 students were designated as “economically disadvantaged,” since they were eligible for state and federal meal subsidies or other social welfare benefits. Chalkbeat called the school’s needs “extreme” and suggested it might be closed. To support its claims, the nonprofit website said that Timbuktu students’ proficiency levels on state tests fall below the statewide average.

But when the state of Michigan compares and rates different schools, it does not consider the socioeconomic status of students they serve. Schools serving the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit are considered alongside those in the wealthiest suburban communities, without regard to the different starting points and obstacles of their student bodies.

Children from low-income households tend to face greater challenges when compared to those living in more affluent families. Other things being equal, this difference shows up in higher state assessment scores at schools serving more affluent communities, and lower scores for those in poorer ones.

While the state of Michigan’s school assessments do not control for students’ socioeconomic status, a school performance rating developed by Mackinac Center for Public Policy does do so. The Mackinac Center school report card compares schools’ academic progress against other schools that serve students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

In this apple-to-apple comparison, students at Timbuktu Academy outperform their peers attending the nearest conventional Detroit district schools.

Timbuktu Academy enrolls K-8 students and earned a “C” grade on the latest Mackinac Center report card. The two closest Detroit Public School Community District schools – Hutchinson Elementary and East English Village Preparatory Academy — both received an “F” on the most recent report card.

The Mackinac Center’s report card has based its methodology on a 2006 University of Arkansas study.