Education
8:00 am
Fri January 4, 2013

Many Muskegon Heights students dig the charter company’s curriculum: “It’s fun.”

This story is the third in a four-part series about how things are going so far in Michigan's first fully privatized public school district. Find part one here, part two here and part four here.

The decision to convert the Muskegon Heights Public School district into a charter school district was a financial one. But the officials who run the new system hope to improve academics too.

From the outside, Edgewood Elementary School looks and sounds the same as any other year.

But this year, Mosaica Education, the charter company that’s running the school, hopes a new curriculum, longer school day and year round classes will improve student success.

5th grader Nia Merriweather has been going to school at Edgewood Elementary for years. I asked her how things are going so far this year, now that a charter school company is running her school.

“I think it is ok. I, like, care about who’s running it because what if one day, like, somebody who don’t know how to handle schools try to run it? I would care 'cause it would affect me too,” Merriweather said.

She's engaged at school. The Muskegon Chronicle/MLive.com featured Merriweather's recent anti-bullying effort a couple of weeks after I interviewed her for this story.

Merriweather “loves” school in general, before and now, she says. But when asked to pick her favorite part of this school year, in particular, she picked Paragon, Mosaica’s trademarked curriculum.

“It’s fun because we get to work with clay and all that,” Merriweather said. Many of the lessons have some sort of hands-on activity to pair with it.

Intro to Paragon, Mosaica Education’s trademark curriculum

Mosaica Education’s website (and a promotional video here) outlines Paragon like this:

In Paragon, students study history across continents, and gain a profound understanding of the manner in which many ideas develop at the same time in independent cultures unaware of the other’s breakthroughs. Through this, students develop a larger picture of history and the associated interrelationships. Rather than memorize names, dates, and events in isolation, students recall the sequential circumstances surrounding these events and remember more readily both factual information and conceptual relevance.

In a nutshell, I'd say Paragon is like social studies, but with a more worldly focus.

“Right now we’re studying Rome. Like the Roman Empire, how strong their army was. We learned about Julius Caesar and we learned about Cleopatra. I thought she was Egyptian but she’s Greek,” Merriweather informed me. She goes on for a little while about other things she’s learned in Paragon. Mosaica hosts special parent nights to show off all the Paragon material students make and learn in class.

After recess, I join a classroom of 3rd graders as they begin a Paragon lesson about Greek philosophers. Most students seem eager to participate throughout the discussion of “fascinating questions” such as “does the sun have an age?” and “why do zebras have stripes?” before coming up with their own fascinating questions. Then the class read a number of Greek epigrams from Homer, Euripides, Aristotle.

About an hour into the 90-minute long lesson at Edgewood Elementary, students at desks clustered together were noticeably more antsy; a number of them whispering among their groups, others climbing on their chairs. One student was removed for interrupting class.

Muskegon Heights Schools is paying $200,000 a year for Mosaica Education’s Paragon Curriculum.

Over the next five years, the for-profit charter school company will make at least $8.75 million in management and curriculum fees from Muskegon Heights schools. Like any school district, that money comes mainly from taxes that go into the state’s school aid fund, and in this district’s case, federal Title 1 funds.

Former teacher unsure of a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum

Almost every student I talked to said Paragon was a positive change since the charter school took over. It’s a change that wouldn’t have happened without Mosaica.

But not all the teachers like it.

Craig Oliver has been a social studies teacher for decades. He left his longtime teaching job to work in Muskegon Heights' new charter school district. But he quit by October. He was not a big fan of Paragon or Mosaica’s scheduled lessons throughout the day. 

“I compare it to the procedures at McDonalds. You only do things a certain way,” Oliver said. The desk arrangements, in clusters instead of rows, were required in each class, he said.

Oliver says he and other teachers got written warnings when they didn’t follow what he called a “strict schedule” with a certain number of minutes for math, science, and a certain starting time for Paragon.

“In all of my years of teaching it didn’t really matter if you taught math at 9 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Oliver said, “As long as you got the lesson done.”

“(Mosaica) wanted every school and every teacher to function like that, to do the job in a certain way so that – from their point of view they were guaranteeing a product. Having dealt with little human beings for 21 years, it doesn’t always work out like that. You need to build rapport and relationships,” Oliver said. That’s been tough considering the high staff turnover since the emergency manager took over in April.  

Oliver said students in his 3rd grade class had a hard time understanding a lot of the vocabulary in Paragon lessons (I’m thinking of “epigram” that tripped up the class I sat in) and that slowed things down.

Mosaica hopes to improve student achievement

The charter school company has plans to raise student achievement beginning this year. The head of Mosaica Education called this a “challenge” considering Muskegon Heights High School, Middle School and Edgewood Elementary are among the worst performing in Michigan.

State tests show practically no Muskegon Heights graduate has been considered “college ready” for years.

Mosaica’s tests show K-8 grade students have fallen between one and three grades behind. High school data will be available later this month. Mosaica wants to raise student achievement by 1.25 grade levels this year.

In the final part of our series on Monday, I’ll consider the next steps for Muskegon Heights schools and discuss how and if this could happen in other Michigan school districts.