Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards
K-12 Education

On purpose. In power.

I met with Detroit’s five Black charter network leaders. The grouping was purposeful.

For those unfamiliar with Detroit’s unique education landscape, public charter schools serve nearly half of the city’s school population. More than 8,700 students are educated in schools led by these Black charter network leaders.

I’ve mentioned they’re Black a few times. On purpose.

It makes sense that in a majority Black city there would be an abundance of Black leaders heading up organizations. And there are. But data shows they receive fewer resources for their organizations and less investment in their personal development. Even our own grantmaking data tells us this. Of our 2019-2021 grant funding, 40% went to organizations and efforts led by Black leaders. To some, that might seem like a solid percentage given Michigan’s racial makeup (13.5% Black). However, The Skillman Foundation is place-based; we work within a single geography, the city of Detroit, and our mission is to serve the children and youth here. In Detroit, more than 78% of the population is Black.

You may ask: Why does it matter? Can’t white people do good work, too? There are many White folks who are, to their core, dedicated to racial justice and service to the community. And yes, Detroit is their home too. Nearly 100,000 Detroit residents are White. That’s close to 15% of the population.

And what about people who reside outside of the city? They are important allies and should be welcome too. Candidly, many of us at The Skillman Foundation live outside the city. That’s why listening sessions like this are so imperative. We follow the voice of Detroit children and those who work in direct service to them.  

The point is to be aware of how and where resources are being allocated to ensure that the people most proximate, in terms of lived experience, are leading.

It’s worth stating again: these five charter leaders—Ralph Bland, founder & president of New Paradigm for Education; Danielle Jackson, CEO of Detroit 90/90, University Prep Schools; Maurice Morton, CEO of Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences; Erica Robertson, CEO of Promise Schools; and Alice Thompson, manager of Hope Academy—head up 21 schools that educate more than 8,700 students.  

They came together, in power, to talk about the joys and the challenges they live.

Charter schools are public schools

“Somehow people think charters don’t have rules and regulations… We are a public school. We care about kids.”

These charter leaders discussed the historic and continued divide between Detroit’s public charter sector and its traditional public school district, hinging on an idea that charter schools are not public schools. These charter schools receive state funding—though often less than traditional districts—and operate as nonprofits to ensure the funds serve students by providing safe and welcoming environments and high-quality teachers and curriculum.

These educators lamented that the divide comes at the expense of children, saying this popular, deceptive narrative scares off support from the media and all funding sources, from government to business to philanthropy.

They believe policy change and public perception will not change until this narrative can be replaced with one that reflects the truth of their missions, ethics, and operations. For that to happen, they need people and platforms willing to share their story.

Overlooked and inequitably funded

“We’re overlooked when it comes to funding, but we’re called on when someone needs a voice or a vote.”

These leaders shared examples of when they were asked to sit at a table or stand at a podium to represent the voice of charters to call for action on an issue. But when funding and supports came through, it didn’t extend to charters.

A common reason they’ve heard for being left out is that their school network serves fewer children than Detroit Public Schools Community District (Michigan’s largest school district). To this they ask: Is volume the right measurement? What about our impact? How can we scale to serve more youth in absence of fair and equitable funding?

Another example of salt in the wound they lifted is fanfare around national organizations and solutions activated in Detroit that proclaims the city should be proud that it was able to attract outside partnerships. To this they asked: Should Detroit also—more so—be proud of its existing high-performing schools and leaders?  

These five Black Detroit charter leaders know their kids, their parents, their community, and their calling. And yet, they find that the bar to receive recognition and funding is set much higher for them. “Black leaders have had to jump through more hoops to receive funding than our White counterparts,” said one leader. “We have to prove ourselves more so…. and even then, we still receive less.”

The roles of poverty and race can’t be underestimated

“Race and poverty play a huge role. That is not acknowledged enough.”

You can’t understand education in Detroit without understanding how poverty and race play lead roles.

As one of the leaders said, “Poverty in Detroit goes three to four lines deeper that than poverty line.” It takes more funding, more connections to resources outside of what schools can provide, and a different approach to teach children whose basic needs are not being met. Deep poverty is all consuming. It takes beyond one caring adult, seven hours a day, and five days a week, to support 25 children who need more than multiplication tables.

And race. Race is always part of the equation in a Black city. To neglect that is to neglect its people, its literal lifeblood. Racial inequities and harm are not history, they persist strongly today.

Here to serve children

“It should be a birthright to receive a quality education from teachers who believe in you.”

Make no mistake: these five leaders work in service of children. They talked glowingly of their students, their kids. And they fiercely advocate for them, calling for more teachers, professional development, and youth supports.

Funding Black educators is important. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.

Community leadership—and youth leadership—has been a priority investment for The Skillman Foundation throughout our history. We believe in supporting the development and activities of leaders who are from the community, on the frontlines, with answers formulated by lived experiences.

Last year, we set out to explicitly fund Black educators as part of our dedication to community leadership. The Principal Wellness Professional Development Community was the first initiative we sponsored, with others in the works.

Our next grant to support Black educators: we will provide these five charter leaders with a planning grant to help support their endeavors to advocate and to coordinate across their network for the greatest student and organizational success. More to come on these leaders as they stand in power, for Detroit kids.

Angelique Power

Angelique Power is the president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation.

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