A Grassroots School in Detroit Fosters “Living Ideas”

Educational inequality continues to be a concern across the state of Michigan. Those in communities with fewer resources, both rural and urban, struggle to access education that ignites a love of learning and prepares them for life. As many Detroit public schools fight to remain open and adopt reform needed to better serve their communities, another educational model is working to gain awareness, and inspire transformation to its community’s educational landscape.

Charlotte Mason Community School, located in the Woodbridge Community near Wayne State University, was founded in 2002 by a small group of primarily Detroit parents and educators. The association was formed around the teaching philosophies of Charlotte Mason, a British educator at the turn of the 20th century, who led a shift from utilitarian education of children to one of “living ideas.” Mason believed that the goal of education is the growth of a person and, as such, has greater purpose than passing an exam, job training or even college admission. Contrary to the thought of the day, she said that children are born whole persons with a great capacity for knowledge and the ability to form ideas. Therefore they must be offered a rich and broad curriculum, not considered merely vessels to be filled with information. A unique Detroit neighborhood school was formed by the association under this model.

Co-founder and longtime principal Evelyn Hoey says she was floored when introduced to the Charlotte Mason philosophy. “It was so contrary to my own educational experience,” she said. “It has great respect for children as individuals with gifts and abilities, teaching them in a way that compliments those gifts. The CM philosophy of education teaches the child and not the curriculum. It looks for ways the curriculum can support what is already in the child.”

This model, beginning in small class sizes of a 12:1 student-teacher ratio, offers firsthand exposure to ideas through great works of literature, historical biographies and poetry in the format of read aloud, silent reading and recitation. The CMCS curriculum includes weekly courses in composer and artist study, theater, music, art and handcrafts. Hands-on exploration is encouraged through field trips relating to science and outdoor nature study. Physical exercise and free play are valued in all grades.
In 2014, CMCS moved from its original home in Southwest Detroit to a new location in the heart of the city which offered more space for growing needs and easy access to the cultural center. Class field trips are taken several times a month to places such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Belle Isle, the Detroit Public Library, the Michigan Science Center, the Nature Center at U of M-Dearborn, Henry Ford Plants and Museums, the Wayne State University Bonstelle Theater and many other community focal points.

CMCS credits its ability to offer Detroit’s children a unique learning environment for over a dozen years to the generosity and commitment of individuals and small organizations who believe in its vision. This vision is that students would grow in a love for learning that extends beyond the classroom for their good and the good of their communities.

Classified as a private liberal arts school, CMCS receives no public dollars, and although it teaches from a Christian worldview, it is not sponsored by one church congregation, denomination or organization. According to board officers, tuition costs are kept as low as possible by the contributions of dedicated staff, committed volunteers, frugal budgeting, in-kind donations and an affordable rent space. The school has not raised its tuition of $7900 in several years. Although this cost of education may be considered affordable to those in the private school sector, CMCS recognizes that it is outside the means of most of its school families whose financial contribution ability, based on income level, averages closer to $2000. The Charlotte Mason Association of Detroit, which serves as the board of directors for the school, commits to work with and on behalf of Detroit families by seeking financial support through donor participation and fundraising efforts, striving to bridge the gap to make this education accessible to all.

Questions arise as to who supports this school with time and resources and why. CMCS says their donor community ranges throughout the city, surrounding suburbs and across the state; however, they would like to also engage larger corporate and foundation interest. Some contributors have family in the school, but many have simply connected with the CMCS mission in Detroit. Regular school volunteers include family members, alumni and community leaders.

Terry Oprea, president & CEO of Detroit’s Mort Crim Communications, Inc., describes his commitment of support: “CMCS has an entirely different academic and social model. It uses small classrooms and real world experience to accelerate team learning, eliminate predatory behavior, and move ALL students into excellence. I don’t see any other model like it in Michigan.”

Although much of the homeschooling community is familiar with the CM philosophy, CMCS is the only brick and mortar school in Southeast Michigan basing its curriculum solely around this teaching method. Its founders state that because of the quality of education, and its location in the city, the school remains racially and socioeconomically diverse. This urban setting provides a unique aspect to the curriculum not found in typical homeschooling groups.

CMCS volunteer Chad Shellabarger, director of YouthWorks-Detroit says. “I have been volunteering with CMCS for two years now and I continue to support the school because of their absolute desire to love, educate, and challenge children. Every staff member is committed and it is a pleasure to give my time to help them.”

Why do teachers love working at CMCS, though salary is not yet what can be made at other public and private institutions? Kindergarten teacher Sarah Berger describes her transition to this model. “At the public school I was at last year, I had 33 kindergarteners with no aide. They were only allowed one 20-minute recess per day. There was no free play and math and literature blocks were two hours each. I was exhausted and stressed. The students were exhausted and bored. I had to give them pretests and posttests and post the data.” She continues, “I couldn’t connect with or care for all 33 students on the level they needed, and there was no time for learning about appropriate social interactions or building good character. I began to think holistic education with happy, healthy teachers and students didn’t exist in America, let alone Detroit.”

She adds, “Because students at CMCS are allowed to explore their own interests and have time to play, they are more attentive during lessons. I have been able to learn alongside my students this year, and I have enjoyed the process of learning again for the first time in many years. I am supported by administration and able to let the children be children. I am healthier, happier and more engaged in teaching, so I am able to create a classroom environment that is happy and healthy, where the students are engaged in learning.”

According to the National Educational Association, 20 percent of teachers leave their profession within the first three years. This is closer to 50 percent in urban areas like Detroit. It also reports that nearly 50 percent of teachers feel considerable stress by the constant workload and time required for standardized testing and 42 percent felt too much emphasis on testing has a “negative impact” on the classroom. CMCS co founder Evelyn Hoey says that in her view, this is the greatest reason that the school has never sought financial refuge by applying for a charter. Second to this is the commitment to a faith based component. “Submitting to charter management company involves constant standardized testing. This takes so much time away from the child in the classroom and puts stress on both the student and teacher in narrow academic areas. It does not give the child a broad and rich education.”

In contrast to this, CMCS conducts evaluation through narration. According to the school, this involves the telling back in one’s own words of what has been read silently or out loud, and is used by teachers for every subject. Younger classes perform narrations orally while older students write detailed accounts. In comparison to rote memorization used in many schools, CMCS believes that this process allows the child greater comprehension of what they have studied, capturing and sharing it in a way that makes it their own. Although textbooks are used in older grades to support parts of math and science learning, most narration is a result of reading works of first hand sources with a passion for the subject. Teachers at CMCS express freedom in a this teaching style that allows them to evaluate each student and their needs individually.

What do students say about learning here? “I absolutely love the teachers! They care for you and listen to you and that means a lot to me. I feel free to say my opinion in a respectful way. I’m not worried about being criticized by a teacher,” said a CMCS eigth grade student. “It’s easy to learn when you are in a good place where everybody is kind,” said a CMCS second grade student.

Though its dedicated community of supporters has allowed CMCS to provide this education for thirteen years, going against the flow involves a constant financial challenge. CMCS is appealing to new corporate sponsors and long-term supporters to help meet an ambitious $100,000 goal for its current Walkathon Fundraiser. The 5K walk/run event will be held at Belle Isle on Saturday, May 6, 2017, and is currently raising funds at cmcswalk.dojiggy.com. All proceeds will provide scholarships for 96 percent of the student body at CMCS through the end of this school year. This is part of a larger “Strengthen and Grow” campaign the school has to continue supporting scholarships, increase ability to offer valued staff a just wage and keep up with building needs as the student body expands. More information about Charlotte Mason Community School can be found at charlottemasoncs.org.

Share it now!