Success on the Frontlines: Detroit Charter Schools Reconnect Homeless Youth

Tina Kelley
July 29, 2010

Charter schools by definition come in all shapes and sizes, based on their founders and the varieties of students they want to serve. But one group of charter schools in Detroit is particularly unusual -- it is run by Covenant House, a privately-funded agency serving homeless children, and the schools operate out of homeless shelters.

Covenant House Life Skills Centers work with students who have dropped out of or been expelled from the Detroit Public Schools. On average, students at the three schools are two to four years behind in school, but more than 400 young people have gotten their high school diplomas there in the past five years.
The Center for Education Reform, a non-profit group in Washington, DC, that tracks charter schools in a national database, has contact with eight schools that target homeless young people. The Covenant House Life Skills Centers and the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver, CO, appear to be the only ones operated through a homeless shelter.

Last month, an Urban Institute study found a dearth of information about the long-term success rates of various school programs for homeless children.

While the charter school movement has been criticized for taking the most motivated students and families away from the public school system, and for not taking on more challenging students, the Life Skills Centers actually help the Detroit Public Schools by taking on young people the system has been unable to reach.  

“This is sort of like a last chance for some of them,” said Fannie Owens, a teacher at the Central Life Skills Center, located in the main Covenant House shelter – there are two other centers on the east and southwest sides of Detroit. “We take them at age 16. In a regular high school that’s eleventh grade, but some of our kids might just have credit for ninth grade.”
Back on Track

Veronica Torres, 17, finished eighth grade with good grades before her life went into a spiral. She ran away from home and could not go to school because the police were looking for her. Eventually, she turned herself in and came back home. Her first daughter was born almost two years ago.  When her second daughter was born six months ago, she felt discouraged as she saw her dream of going to college and becoming a social worker started to fade.

“At that point I didn’t think I was going to be able to go back to school or have any time for myself,” she said.

Now, Veronica is on track to graduate on time from high school. She attends the Covenant House Life Skills Center Southwest, and likes how she can work at her own pace, for four hours or eight hours a day, depending on her schedule. She’s earning straight As and taking a weekly parenting class.

“They help you out and give you one-on-one help,” she said of the school’s staff. “It’s real good.”

The Covenant House schools have also helped young people catch up quickly if they are behind their grade levels by several high school credits, so they can return to their home schools and graduate with their friends. Doing that effectively ushers the most motivated students out of the schools quickly, taking away the cream of their own crop, but administrators do not worry about the effects of this. The schools exist to work with “only the kids nobody else wanted to deal with,” said Stan Childress, director of educational services for Covenant House Michigan. 

Working with a Challenging - and Challenged - Population

OWENSAbout 30 percent of the students have been involved in the criminal justice system, and a quarter are parents themselves. Each school provides a team to work with students on their social and emotional needs, with counseling, a family liaison, and a psychologist.

Four-hour sessions are available in the morning and/or afternoon, so students can still work or take care of family members while getting their education. Students can complete much of their work online and earn credits as quickly as one every six or eight weeks (22 are required for graduation). And the academic year lasts from July 19 to June 30, to cram in more opportunities for learning.

The schools opened five years ago, after Covenant House Michigan saw that 90 percent of its residents were high school dropouts, many of whom were still interested in getting a diploma.

“In the midst of the greatest downturn in Michigan’s economy since the Great Depression, we recognized it was going to take more from us to get our kids across the bridge from despair to opportunity, from homelessness to hope,” said Kevin M. Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International. “We built a ladder in the form of our charter schools exclusively for young people who have been expelled from or dropped out of the Detroit Public Schools. This is a huge game-changer in the lives of kids in Detroit, and is making possible for them futures of hope and promise that not very long ago seemed almost impossible to imagine.”

The schools reach the whole city -- only about five percent of the students at the three Life Skills Centers are residents of the Covenant House shelter, Mr. Childress said.

Measuring Success Carefully

The programs are not without their problems, of course. The schools have yet to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress required under No Child Left Behind, with students most recently scoring below the 30th percentile in math.

While the schools do not want to be exempted from the federal and state criteria for success, Mr. Childress wishes his schools could be ranked based on how much progress individual students make in short periods of time. States look at lists of incoming freshman and make calculations based on which ones graduate four years later, but CHLSCs have a much more fluid student body.

“We start out with a population in June that may be 45 percent different in January,” said Mr. Childress, who is 60. “It’s a big revolving door. Some of the same kids we have in July are gone in January but back in April.

“Give us another way to show our value to society, because we have 406 kids who graduated, who might otherwise be on the welfare roles or in prisons.”

While many Detroit charter schools recently lost their charters, the school district recently reauthorized the Covenant House schools for another five years, with permission to work with a larger population—up to 500 students per school, from 350 now.

Two messages left with both the Detroit Public Schools charter school liaison and the district’s press office were not immediately returned.

The Numbers - and the Stories Behind Them

 Currently, almost 60 percent of the schools’ graduates go on to some kind of formal, post-secondary training, either college, community college, trade schools or certificate-granting programs, Mr. Childress said.

Compare that with the averages for the city’s schools overall: 58 percent of public school students and 78 percent of charter students graduate from high school in four years, and of those, less than a quarter enroll in college. Only a tiny percentage of Detroit's high school students are prepared for college-level coursework, according to a March 2010 report called Taking Ownership by Excellent Schools Detroit.

Ms. Owens, 58, has seen a young man who had been shot in the head persevere with his studies; he graduated in January. And she has given pep talks to young people who were about to throw in the towel, then buckled down and graduated.

“Some of them come here angry,” she said. “They’ve been betrayed, they’re non-trusting, and some of them are immature. But I’ve seen some of them blossom into responsible adults, and become kind-hearted, in just a million ways.”

Mr. Childress said the schools try to move past whatever motivated the young people to drop out in the first place – bullying, feeling in danger, difficult relationships with teachers or parents, not having the right clothes to wear.

“They find that we really walk the talk on absolute respect and unconditional love,” he said. “They feel that when they come trough the door. We ask the staff we’re hiring, ‘Do you love kids? Can you work with a kid who’s far, far behind in academic performance, and respect that child?’ That’s the critical criteria we’re looking for in staffing these buildings.”

Tina Kelley is a reporter on the staff of Covenant House, where she is co-writing a book of profiles of homeless teenagers. She worked as a reporter at The New York Times for ten years, and also worked at the Seattle Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

Full disclosure: as noted above, the author of this article is a journalist currently on the staff of Covenant House New York; all data in this story has been checked for accuracy.