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NEWS: In Pontiac, school choice in action

Detroit News

11/15/2013


When a visitor walks into Walton Charter Academy in Pontiac, the staff notices immediately. Safety is clearly a priority for this elementary and middle school. But the friendly, family atmosphere is just as evident.

Those are two of the reasons that Marie Saenz-Wright gives for spending nearly two hours a day driving her daughter, Ashly Rivera, to and from school. “It’s such a good school,” Saenz-Wright says. “It’s worth it in the long run.”

And even though Saenz-Wright and her husband have lived in Milford for several years, they are committed to keeping Ashly, 11, in the school where she started kindergarten. That means making this trek until the sixth-grader finishes middle school.

That’s a commitment, and it’s a testament to the power of school choice. In Michigan, a growing number of charter schools are giving families more options than ever before. And parents are having to learn about choosing what school best fits the needs of their children.

For Saenz-Wright, who owns her own photography business, that choice was obvious. She believes the culture at the school, as well as the quality of its academics are the perfect fit for Ashly. Saenz-Wright also values the moral focus at Walton. “The staff know you by name,” she says. “The teachers are amazing.”

She feels comfortable leaving her daughter at this place. And that peace of mind is priceless.

Ashly has plenty to say about her school, too. She enjoys her teachers and classmates. She likes that she feels at home when at school. “It’s not too big,” Ashly says. “I never feel out of place. It’s like a big family.”

She is also involved in tutoring other students and volunteering in the community.

Walton opened in 1999, and continues to attract more families. Its waiting list grows each year; this year more than 400 children are on the list, compared to about 200 five years ago. The majority of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, and the school population is largely split between black and Hispanic students. Saenz-Wright, who is Hispanic, says she appreciates the school’s diversity. Walton is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter management companies in Michigan.

The school has also consistently outperformed Pontiac public schools on standardized tests, and offers advanced classes for students like Ashly, who is a member of the Junior Honor Society. “It’s a very challenging school,” Saenz-Wright says.

While academics are important to Saenz-Wright, she says the quality of the staff is a top priority. “It’s the reason I keep my daughter here,” she says.

That’s a valuable perspective. Education experts often focus only on test scores when it comes to debating the performance of schools. And test scores are important. They are only part of the equation, however. Safety and a school’s environment are also key factors that motivate parents. Groups like Excellent Schools Detroit have started putting together comprehensive report cards that track academic results, as well as the culture of a school. That’s helpful information for families, and hopefully other communities around the state can put together similar resources.

In the end, no one knows what’s better for children than their parents — even if they aren’t education wonks.

Saenz-Wright and her husband have weighed the options and are confident with their choice, although it means many extra hours spent on the road.

“It’s worth the sacrifice,” she says. “I’ll do the best thing for my child.”

(313) 223-4610
ijacques@detroitnews.com
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