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Expanding educational opportunities

Tribal college authorized 37 charter schools over eight-year period

BRIMLEY, Mich. - A tribal community college in Brimley continues to expand its mission to include educational opportunities for thousands of minority youth across Michigan.

Bay Mills Community College, founded in 1984 by the Bay Mills Indian Community to address the postsecondary education needs of American Indians throughout the state, authorized 37 charter schools over the past eight years and counts more than 15,000 students enrolled in these charter schools.

The growth is attributed to a 2000 decision by Michigan lawmakers to allow tribally controlled colleges to authorize charter schools.

;'We're a big operation now,'' said Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools for BMCC. ''We're the first tribal college in the country to do this - a lot of people want to work with us.''

The charter schools, most of which educate students from kindergarten through middle school, range from the Bay Mills Ojibwe Charter School, down the street from the college, to schools 350 miles away in the Detroit area.

Many steps are completed before a student ever sets foot in a classroom. Once a charter school is planned, the college typically receives 30 - 50 applications from several interested organizations, said Stephanie Van Koevering, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers.

The college sifts through the applications and chooses a group it thinks has the best chance to succeed. The next objectives include securing a facility, setting goals, adopting a curriculum, setting a budget and hiring staff.

The entire process from start to finish takes between a year and 18 months, Van Koevering said. The college also retains the right to close a school if it does not meet its standards.

More than 51 percent of students enrolled in the college's charter schools are black, according to recent BMCC data. Many other minority students, including Hispanics, Asian-Americans and American Indians, are also enrolled in the schools.

''It's interesting because our school is worldly diverse,'' said Chris Thompson, executive principal of Fortis Academy in Ypsilanti. Thompson said his school benefits from the different cultures that are present in the area.

Students from as far away as South America, the Middle East and Romania learn standard Michigan curriculum at his K - 8 charter school, he said.

Thompson believes his school provides a valuable asset to underprivileged students, but charter schools have been a source of controversy in Michigan.

The Michigan Education Association filed a lawsuit against the state in 2005 that questioned the college's power to authorize charter schools outside tribal land and accused the college of circumventing a cap of 150 charter schools authorized by the universities within the state.

A lower court rejected the suit, and the case was dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2006.

Van Koevering contends that the college has been ''extraordinarily careful'' in authorizing charter schools and has worked directly with state universities, like Central Michigan University and Ferris State University.

The college also asked for advice from nonprofit organizations, she said.

''Bay Mills [Community College] is unique in statewide authority, but with scrutiny placed on them, they have managed growth and done a tremendous job,'' Van Koevering said. ''They want to focus on underserved populations and got into the business because they had Native American kids not being served very well by the traditional system.''

Karen Schulz, creative communications specialist for MEA, said her organization has no current plans to further challenge the state or the college regarding charter school expansion.

Continued growth is expected for the college's charter school operation despite a slowing state economy. There may even be an opportunity to open a new charter school in Lansing, the state's capital, Shannon said.

Thompson also projects increased enrollment within the charter schools. He said that 670 students currently attend his charter school, a growth of more than 200 students from when the school opened in 2004.

BMCC also continues to have solid enrollment numbers. About 550 students pursue associate degrees and complete certifications at the college, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The center reports that about 56 percent of the college's enrollment is American Indian or Alaska Native, and seven out of every 10 students are female.