By Ashleigh Costello

MUSKEGON, Mich. – The great thing about charter schools is that if they fail, they can be closed.

raisehandThree Oaks Public School Academy in Muskegon, Michigan was definitely failing three years ago, and the college that authorizes the school was ready to pull the plug.

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But Three Oaks officials decided that failure was not the legacy they cared to leave behind. So they came up with a turnaround plan, worked hard to implement it and greatly improved the school’s academic performance.

Now the K-5 school has a new eight-year lease on life from its authorizer, as well as state recognition for its accomplishments.

“We were one of those schools that actually got the letter that said we will be closing your school in June, and this was in March.  It was really surprising because we had such great teachers,” Principal Monecia Vasbinder told EAGnews. “We really had to come to terms with the culture of our school and we found that we didn’t have a culture of discipline, we didn’t have a culture of high expectations.”

That problem has obviously been corrected.

Last year, Three Oaks was identified as a Reward School for high performance on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) by the Michigan Department of Education.  The state also included the school on a list of those “beating the odds” for helping “high risk” students achieve at elevated levels.

“The poor teachers here, you talk about working on eight cylinders all the time, they’re always going and always going, and finally it was like oh, okay it’s making a difference and it’s being recognized,” Vasbinder said.

“I mean, we knew it. We knew it inside, but there is just something special about being recognized from the community, from the state, from the outside. So that was a really good feeling.”

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Instilling a culture of high expectations

Three Oaks Public School Academy first opened its doors in 2003 with an eight-year contract from Bay Mills Community College. As the school’s authorizer, the college allows Three Oaks to operate as a charter school in the state.

In 2008, Three Oaks merged with TriValley Academy, another local charter school. Student enrollment ballooned to 437 kids, violating Three Oak’s charter limit of 300 students. When student achievement began to plummet, Bay Mills threatened to close the school.

In 2009, just two percent of fifth-graders at Three Oaks were proficient in math and only 18 percent read at grade level.  None of the students tested were proficient in science.

“We looked at our report cards and compared them to our MEAP scores and we were like, ‘Wait a second, they’re getting A’s and B’s but they’re failing any type of MEAP assessment or standardized test,’’’ Vasbinder said. “So it’s like something’s not right, there’s not a correlation there.”

Vasbinder, who was a teacher at the time and became principal in 2011, called the warning from Bay Mills a “great wakeup call.”

School officials, along with the charter’s management company, Choice Schools Associates, took accountability for the floundering charter academy and devised a plan for improvement.

Luckily for Three Oaks, Bay Mills allowed the charter school to pursue the plan and keep its doors open.

The school immediately eliminated its middle school grades, and cut class sizes to no more than 25 students per classroom. The school also implemented afterschool and summer programs for students who may need additional support.

“Doing this whole revitalization, we realized that we needed to have high expectations and really look at what the kids were struggling in,” Vasbinder said. “So the teachers, we started our professional learning communities, I kind of devised the smart time concept, we used the Title I funds to get reading specialists, math specialists, and this is the first year for a science specialist.”

While Vasbinder said she believes underperforming charter schools should be given more time to improve, that time should not be unlimited.

“I think [there] has to be a planned, structured program,” said Vasbinder.

‘It takes the right kind of person’

Working at a charter school is different than teaching at a traditional public school. Charter schools typically have more flexibility in terms of how they operate. In return, they are held to higher levels of accountability.

In comparison to traditional public schools, charter schools place a great deal of emphasis on student data and teacher evaluations. Ineffective teachers are not afforded the privilege of hiding behind tenure.

Teachers at Three Oaks work on an annual contract. Those with less than three years’ experience are evaluated three times a year. Veteran teachers undergo evaluations twice a year.

“They know that it’s based on performance,” Vasbinder said. “It’s an environment for productivity. It really takes the right kind of person to work in a charter school, but also to work in a charter school in an urban area.”

Teaching in a charter school also requires a high level dedication and commitment, Vasbinder said.

“I hear so many times from people [at traditional public schools] say, ‘That’s not part of my job,’ ‘I can’t work those hours,’ or ‘Are we going to get paid for this?’ I think that it’s the culture of the school. Here, it’s all for one, one for all. That type of thing. Certain things don’t matter as much, or play such a role.”

In the end, it’s about putting students first and ensuring that they receive a quality education.

“What I believe in so strongly is that all of these kids here, no matter what, no matter what their zip code, no matter the circumstances, they can’t help the circumstances, but they do deserve to have the opportunity to go to a school that will value their education, that will hold them to certain standards and expect things from them,” Vasbinder said.