PONTIAC, Mich. - In the sharp and sometimes bitter debate between state-sponsored public schools, on the one hand, and private, Christian, parochial, and home schools on the other, there is a typically overlooked middle ground. It is the province of the charter school movement. And perhaps nobody in America has done more to stake out a claim to that territory than J.C. Huizenga, a high-tech manufacturer from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ask Huizenga what the J.C. stands for, and he'll give you both a boyish grin and an obvious fib: "Joe Cool," he says. But John Charles Huizenga is pulling your leg, ever so briefly and ever so politely. Huizenga is very good at making friends-but those who know him best will tell you that he does it not with glad-handing glibness, but with the grit of reality. So when you start exploring the friendships this man is forming day in and day out, you find yourself marveling at both their number and their substance.
For starters, there are the 29,327 boys and girls who were students this past year in the 51 charter schools that have been launched by National Heritage Academies (NHA), the for-profit corporation Huizenga founded in 1995. More than 30 of the schools are in Michigan. There are smaller (but growing) numbers in Ohio, Indiana, New York, and North Carolina.
Then there are the more than approximately 55,000 parents of those 29,327 students.
(For now, we won't count the 13,000 boys and girls who have already graduated from NHA schools and have gone on, better prepared than they would have been otherwise, for their high-school studies. Nor will we count their satisfied parents.)
We will count as Huizenga's friends the more than 2,100 faculty and staff people at those 51 schools, and another 120 staffers at NHA's sleek headquarters in an office park just two miles from the Gerald Ford International Airport in southeast Grand Rapids.
We might well count as friends the taxpayers in all the districts served by Huizenga's schools. Their annual tax obligations would be higher if those NHA schools weren't providing all facilities and buildings without any public millage. In addition, because they are for-profit operations, NHA schools have actually paid well over $75 million in sales taxes, property taxes, and miscellaneous other taxes in the jurisdictions where they operate.
To be sure, the state of Michigan-with its open legal climate-has not been altogether unfriendly to Huizenga and his National Heritage Academies. While some states have put roadblock after roadblock in the path of the charter school movement, Michigan (with no thanks to the big teachers unions) has at least offered a context for a fair test of the charter school concept.
Charter schools, in contrast to typical private schools, enjoy the enormous benefit of getting state and local funding for operating costs while enduring only minimal control and oversight by state educational bureaucracies. NHA schools in Michigan, for example, receive approximately $7,000 in public funds for each student they enroll-a figure intended to be somewhat analogous to what public schools get for each student they enroll.
A big difference is that charter schools have to cover building and facility costs out of that same base. Meanwhile, NHA schools, after satisfying some basic state requirements, get broad freedom to establish their own educational blueprints. They get some freedom in hiring teachers. They get to set strict behavioral standards. And they get to establish their own budgetary priorities.
Students in charter schools are still tested every year to ensure that no overly entrepreneurial educators simply take the money and run. At least with NHA schools, there's nothing to worry about. In independent testing this past year, NHA students tend regularly to average 1.3 years of academic progress in reading, language, and math while the average student nationwide is making only a single 1.0 year of progress.
And in spite of the accusations of critics, NHA doesn't achieve that 30 percent advantage just by skimming off gifted students. The NHA clientele regularly includes significant numbers of families looking for help with problems the traditional public schools haven't been able to solve. The average new student comes to NHA at the 25th percentile and improves to the 65th percentile by the fifth year. NHA students grow more than their peers in 24 of 24 categories. NHA claims it does especially well in helping overcome achievement gaps with African-American, Hispanic, and female students.
One reason NHA and other charter schools do so well is that they regularly attract teachers and administrators who are lovingly devoted to the students-yet all but burned out in the public school sector. Such was the case with April Butler, who is now principal of NHA's Walton Academy in Pontiac, Mich. Butler comes from a family of public school educators; her late husband actually has a public school in Charlotte, N.C., named in memory of his service. "I was at the end," she told WORLD. "I was ready to say goodbye to education. And then I heard about NHA, and I decided I had to take a look."
That look proved pretty disruptive for April Butler. It meant leaving her native North Carolina and moving to Michigan. It meant taking on not just winter weather, but a whole new culture in a region where the anguish of the ailing auto industry was exacting its toll on tens of thousands of families. It meant learning the tools, and helping develop new ones, for relating to the parents in those families-keeping in mind that every last one of them was at Walton Academy by choice. If the families weren't happy with her product, they could leave.
But keep in mind that April Butler's boss is a man focused on forming friendships wherever he can. That's why every NHA school has a "parents room," a place where they are invited to meet, volunteer (there are numerous parent committees), or simply relax. It's why every NHA family gets a weekly newsletter from the school. It's why every NHA parent has instant online access to a child's academic progress via NHA's AtSchool website.
Huizenga isn't afraid to tell you that not every NHA school is yet performing the way it should. "Quality is critical," he says, "and so we're slowing down our growth a little for a year or two so we can make sure we're living up to the promises we made to these families." Only two new NHA schools were set to open their doors this fall. That brings the total to 53.
Huizenga grew up in explicitly Christian schools-and supports them personally. "Christian education is for both now and eternity," he says bluntly. "The best our schools can do is for this lifetime." So the NHA gambit is a bold exercise in common grace.
But it is also a thoughtful exercise. The NHA educational philosophy knows it can't get involved in explicitly religious expression. Teachers know what they can say and can't say. A 1998 lawsuit against NHA, supported by the ACLU, went overboard trying to silence NHA teachers. But the suit fizzled in court. "That cost us $150,000," Huizenga says, smiling. "It may be the best $150,000 we ever spent."
So in the student assembly during a recent visit to Walton Academy here in Pontiac, the "moral word" of the month may have sounded "religious" to some. "What's our word for today?" principal Butler yelled into the microphone. "SELF-CONTROL," roared 654 students. The next month the word might be "justice"; later still, it might be "fortitude."
"It's hard for folks to object when we call these the classic Greek virtues, which they are," says Huizenga.
NHA teachers earn slightly less, on average, than what their counterparts in Michigan public schools get. And in one sense, they may work harder to get even that. In another sense, their working conditions are immeasurably better-if for no other reason than that they are working with families who very much want what the schools are offering. NHA facilities tend to be new, spacious, bright, clean, well-equipped, and in good repair.
But mostly, NHA offers teachers a context of accountability. "We expect them to be accountable to us," says Huizenga, "but especially to the students' parents and family. If educational reform is going to happen in this country, it has to happen from the parents' perspective. And then we as a school also have to be accountable to those teachers, to give them everything they need to do their job well."
He made it sound like building lasting friendships with his employees was just as important to the boss as building them with customers.
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