Bay Mills' Bold Approach: Public School Academies Preserve Native Culture and Language with Commitment to Increasing Student Achievement

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It's a long, long way from Bay Mills Community College, near the shores of frigid Lake Superior, to Detroit. You can measure that distance in miles (about 350) or in drive time (roughly 5 1/2 hours) or in cultures (an American Indian-governed two-year college and a predominantly African-American, economically declining city).

But distance, time and demographics aside, the school and the city are united by Bay Mills' status as the nation's only tribally controlled college that authorizes quasi-public schools, known officially as public school academies. And it's the state's second-largest authorizer of charter schools.

What Allyn Cameron calls the college's "mission toward charter schools" began out of frustration as the small community college in Michigan's Upper Peninsula enrolled many high school graduates who did not have enough math or English skills to do college work.

"When we would get new students coming in, we were spending two, three sometimes four years to get them up to the level to take college-level courses. We found that disturbing," says Cameron, a longtime member of the college's board of regents and the communications director for the Bay Mills Indian Community in Brimley, Mich.

There was another motivation as well: the tribe's desire to re-establish its own school on the reservation for Native and White children, said Dr. Patrick Shannon, the college's director of charter schools.

"When the charter school law came along, the tribe saw an opportunity, not only to help Bay Mills, but also other tribes and other minority groups," Shannon said. "It's a unique relationship. Usually you don't see tribes working with state governments."

The college describes itself as committed to a "community-based and culturally diverse environment that supports and maintains the Anishinaabek culture and language" with a curriculum "designed to integrate traditional Native American values with higher education as a way of preparing students to assume responsible roles in their respective communities."

Its first two charter schools opened in 2001: the Arts & Technology Academy in Pontiac, an industrial suburb of Detroit; and the Bay County Public School Academy in Bay City, near Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.

Septembra Williams, the chief administrative officer at the Arts & Technology Academy, says her management company appreciated the college's commitment to increasing student achievement and diversity.

The academy's pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade student body of almost 400 is primarily Black and Hispanic. Most would otherwise attend public schools in the Pontiac district, where the state Department of Education ranks the high school among the state's 92 "persistently lowest achieving schools."

The miles between Pontiac and the college haven't been a problem, Williams says. Administrators from Bay Mills' charter schools look forward to descending on the campus for their annual October get-together, which includes ceremonies, presentations and other activities.

"I love the professional development and training they offer to the schools," says Williams. "They're very serious about how we educate our students."

Leaders of Bay Mills' charters also meet monthly with college staff, says Stephanie Marion, principal of Three Oaks Public School Academy in Muskegon. She adds that the college strives to keep charter administrators and leaders up to date on matters such as testing and U.S. Department of Education activities.

"I enjoy the relationship we have with Bay Mills and the staff. We're always abreast of any new developments," Marion says.

Three Oaks, a K-5 school, has about 290 students, most of whom are Black and impoverished.

In Michigan, charters can't charge tuition but receive per-capita state aid. They are independently managed, compete for students with traditional public schools and have smaller teacher-pupil ratios than public schools. …