Summer vacation is just getting started, but educators in mid-Michigan are already thinking about next fall. In August, the first charter school ever built in East Lansing will open its doors. Cole Academy East is an expansion site for a charter school that’s been operating in nearby Lansing for decades.
There’s a big white building with dark square windows and blue horizontal trim on Coleman Road in East Lansing. At least, that’s where Google says it is.
Geographically, that’s correct. Cole Academy East lies on the northern fringe of East Lansing. It’s in Clinton County, sandwiched between DeWitt and Bath Townships.
Its superintendent, Brian Shaughnessy, sees the location a little differently.
“We’re not in East Lansing, we’re not in Lansing, we’re not in Bath, we’re not in DeWitt Township...but we’re in all those things,” he says.
What Shaughnessy means is that the new charter school he’s opening in August will be independent of every nearby school district, yet accessible to every nearby family.
The original Cole Academy opened in Lansing in 1995. Students of color make up about 60 percent of its enrollment. Cole students do take the M-STEP, the state standardized test. But they also take another assessment known as the MAP. It’s a test administered by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a private, non-profit educational consulting company. Shaughnessy says Cole's MAP test scores show early reading and math scores are on par with local public elementary schools.
Now, Cole Academy is bringing his business model to East Lansing. But will this traditionally blue community embrace what’s often painted as a traditionally red concept?
Sarah Reckhow is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.
“Our study, other studies bear out this fact that people who are more liberal tend to be less supportive of charter schools,” she says.
Reckhow co-wrote a 2014 study that gauged public perceptions of charter schools. She says the most polarizing responses centered around labor unions. Most charter teachers in Michigan are not unionized, a point conservatives herald and liberals condemn.
But Reckhow says the findings were different when the question turned to who actually runs charter schools.
“The majority of charter schools in the state have for-profit entities involved in operating them,” Reckhow explains. “We found not very much impact with that information.”
Brian Shaughnessy is quick to note that Cole Academy East is a non-profit. He wants to distance his school from the mainstream.
“You’re not going to find us standing on a podium promoting charter schools,” Shaughnessy asserts. “We want to be based on our own merit. We’re non-profit, we’re independent, we have our own board of directors...and we’re doing this for the kids.”
Cole Academy East is planning a six-year growth cycle. In 2018, the school will serve students in kindergarten through second grade. Third grade will begin in 2019. The plan is to keep adding grade levels and construct new wings all the way through eighth grade.
All that depends on Cole’s recruitment strategy.
Just down Coleman Road sits the Hawk Nest neighborhood. It straddles the Lansing and East Lansing school district boundary.
Megan Henriksen lives on the Lansing side, but she sends her son to a school of choice in Haslett.
She heard Cole’s sales pitch a year ago. But Henriksen didn’t see much stability in its philosophy of building one grade at a time.
“I didn’t want to take that gamble,” she says. “Then also, once you hit middle school, I don’t believe they have a middle school option or high school option; that he’d have a school he could continue from kindergarten to 12th grade.”
Brian Shaughnessy admits he’s not expecting an onslaught of East Lansing students in the first year. But he’s confident the numbers will come in time.
“This generation with children, they’re really concerned about sending their kids to a safe place that’s nearby that represents what all schools should have: a microcosm of their community,” Shaughnessy says.
“That’s what this is going to be.”
Cole Academy East expects about 120 students when it opens on August 27. But an upcoming public works project could give those numbers a big boost. The state is planning to extend Coleman Road from just west of the school to the other side of US-127.
It’s hoped the project will spur more development in mid-Michigan...and with it, more access to a growing community in which Cole Academy East wants to put down roots.