By Harold C. Ford
An array of Flint area nonprofit and political leaders gathered Tuesday on the campus of the Flint Cultural Center (FCC) to break ground for a new nonprofit charter school that will serve up to 650 students each school year in grades kindergarten through eighth.
Project planners expect the new school to open in time for the 2019-2020 school year. The Flint Cultural Center Academy will offer students the opportunity to take advantage of programs at nearby Cultural Center institutions—Flint Institute of Arts (FIA), Flint Institute of Music (FIM), Flint Public Library, Longway Planetarium, Sloan Museum, and The Whiting.
Todd Slisher, Sloan Museum and Longway Planetarium executive director, told the hundred or so persons gathered at the groundbreaking that FCC Academy students will spend 90 minutes of every school day at the FCC member institutions. “It’s an amazing set of resources that we have,” he said. After-school programs and summer camps will augment the daily schedule with “endless” possibilities, according to Slisher.
C.S. Mott Foundation commits $35 million
The Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation announced its commitment of $35 million “to cover the costs of designing, constructing, and outfitting the school, as well as making related improvements to the Cultural Center campus,” according to a press statement provided at the event.
The 78,000-square-foot school will house 37 classrooms, a gymnasium, cafeteria, and kitchen. Direct access to the FIM and Sloan by FCC Academy staff and students will be provided by an adjacent exhibit and learning space that features three multipurpose classrooms.
“It’s the next step in a comprehensive effort to strengthening the education continuum in Flint, from cradle, to college, to career,” said Ridgway White, Mott Foundation president. “The Mott Foundation believes that the Flint Cultural Center Academy will play an important role in this education continuum.”
The idea for the school first emerged in 2015, according to Mark Sinila, chief operating officer of the FCC Corporation which will help to coordinate the new school.
The Mott Foundation provided $2.9 million for the school’s planning and development. Flint-based THA Architects Engineers and E & L Construction Group, Inc. became the project’s design and construction partners.
Flint Community Schools reportedly turned down charter
According to State Senate Minority Leader and Flint resident Jim Ananich, Flint Community Schools, under the leadership of then-Superintendent Bilal Tawwab, turned down the chance to charter the school.
“When this project started, I asked if I could talk to the Flint Schools about chartering it because, under the law, public schools can charter as well,” Ananich said. “I talked to the superintendent (Tawwab) and they weren’t interested in it.”
Ananich, who represents Flint residents as part of Michigan Senate District 27, is a product of Flint schools and has a long history of supporting public education. He attended Pierce Elementary and Whittier Middle School before graduating from Flint Central. He taught at Flint Northern. His wife (Central HS), father (Northern HS), mother (Central HS) are all products of Flint Community Schools (FCS). His mother is a recent FCS retiree.
“He (Tawwab) said capacity-wise, they couldn’t handle it,” reported Ananich. “As a community person, I think it’s important to stabilize Flint schools. Flint would have been my preference (as a chartering agency).”
Ananich explained that, at that time, FCS was planning to knock down the abandoned Central and Whittier buildings and build a new middle/high school campus. [See past issues of EVM: March 2017; May 2017; March 2018] The thinking of some, according to Ananich, was that the students enrolled in the new FCC Academy would transfer, after 6th grade, to the new middle/high school at the start of their 7th grade year.
Flint Community Schools plans unclear while district loses students
Indeed, Tawwab indicated to EVM in a March 2017 interview that 2020 was the target date for the opening of a new, consolidated Flint high school at the old Flint Central site. But Tawwab was suddenly dismissed by the board of education in March 2018 with no explanation provided. And the public discussion of a new middle/high school campus for Flint is, at present, nowhere to be found.
All the while, Flint schools continue to lose students. Flint has fallen to the fourth largest public school district in Genesee County, trailing Grand Blanc, Davison, and Carman-Ainsworth. Of the approximate 15,000 school-age children in Flint, about 4,600 attend Flint’s public schools.
“It’s a mistake on the part of the Flint schools,” Ananich told EVM. “I still support the project (FCC Academy). Making sure we have this type of quality school here is the number one priority. I wished it would have gone through Flint.”
Instead, the school’s charter was approved by Grand Valley State (GVS). GVS is the authorizing body this fall for 76 charter schools with a combined population of 37,000 students, according to GVS representatives Don Cooper and Cindy Shinsky. They declined to comment on the role of charter schools in depleting student populations in public schools. “I prefer to focus on this event today,” Cooper told EVM.
“This is about putting kids first,” White told EVM when asked about the charter school status of FCC Academy. “Our commitment to the Flint Community Schools is still ongoing. We fund community education in all the Flint Community Schools.”
Phased enrollment strategy
Due to its charter status, FCC Academy enrollment is open to any appropriate-age student living in Michigan. A lottery system will be used on the occasion that there are more applicants than seats available. In its first year, the school is expected to enroll a total of 300 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. In its second year, 2020-2021, grade six will be added. Grade seven will be added in year three and grade eight in year four. By that time, the school expects to enroll a total of 650 students each academic year. Information about the application process to enroll a child will be available in early 2019.
EVM staff writer and retired 40-year educator Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.