A Small School Fosters Living Ideas within the Tumult of Detroit’s Educational Crisis

Two children playing a math game at Charlotte Mason School in Detroit courtesy Field-Gems-Photography-Detroit-Michigan-Wedding-Photographer-Family-Photographer
Students at Charlotte Mason School in Detroit courtesy Field Gems Photography Detroit Michigan

ABSTRACT - This project looks at Charlotte Mason Community School (CMCS), a small K-8 school in Detroit whose students are thriving under a unique educational approach. It will briefly examine the state of public education in the city and how it came to be in crisis. We will look at a philosophy of education used by this Detroit school and founded in England at the turn of the 20th century when education for the masses was primarily utilitarian. Connections can be made between then and now, when ideas are replaced by information and technology and a deep class divide exists in education quality, and has existed for quite some time, causing a social justice problem. We will ask ourselves, what is an education? and what is it for? and consider how education may be looked at differently in learning environments of all kind. Lastly, we will soberly look at the struggles small non-profit organizations such as CMCS may face refuting social and educational conformities.


Since the 1970s, education in Detroit has been downward spiraling due to a lack of resources, overgrown infrastructure, poor politics and a deep racial divide. What once served a population of 300,000 students utilizing 370 buildings across the city has collapsed by 84% from its peak enrollment in 1966 (Van Buren). The exodus of over one million people over the past six decades led to an insurmountable lack of funds for Detroit Public Schools in its current infrastructure. The new Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), the recipients of a $617 million dollar bailout by the State of Michigan, faces challenges of enrollment, a literary crisis and a massive teacher shortage as it looks to rebuild (WXYZ.com). Decades of sinking test scores and low graduation rates have led families living in the city to abandon the district for charter schools. Though charters in Detroit are second in the nation to enrollment, many have produced results equal or lower than public schools, many are run by for-profit companies (80% in Michigan) and continue to populate the city unchecked (Zernike). Over 200 school closings, overcrowded classrooms, deplorable buildings, lack of supplies, budget mismanagement, corruption and a general lack of public trust – this is what Detroit families, teachers and students have been struggling with for many years (Grover). The city has been ghettoized, from housing to jobs to education, leaving those with the least amount of resources faced with the greatest challenge to earn a living wage and receive a high quality education. In recent years, multiple efforts are being made across the city by non-profit groups both small and large to address community needs and ignite local commerce in the face of poverty, inequality and ineffectual government. Charlotte Mason Community School is a grassroots organization that desires to be an educational option for Detroit families needing and wanting something distinctly different for their children.

This disparity of education between races and classes in Metro Detroit harkens to inequalities existing between the working poor and those of the middle and upper class in many societies. Charlotte Mason was a radical British educator who lived from the end of the Industrial Revolution to just after World War I. She was disheartened by the gap in quality of education among classes and labored to revolutionize the standards of her day. At a time when most children were seen rather than heard and dismissed as less than persons, at a time when education for the masses was primarily utilitarian with a goal of training rather than thinking, Mason held starkly contrasting ideals. She believed that education is a science of relations, that its purpose lay in the growth of a person and its process should be continual, fitting a child for life, rather than for making a living (Mason 3). As an orphan herself, Ms. Mason claimed that an education such as this was an inalienable right to people of all classes and social standings, the least of these quite capable and worthy of understanding and formulating great ideas.

These were provocative notions in England at the turn of the 20th century, when the divide between rich and poor was vast, and there was little imagination on the part of society as a whole as to the purpose in a liberal arts education for those below the upper crust. Ms. Mason’s dignifying and unconventional objectives were virtually unheard of a century later in Detroit in the midst of its educational crisis. Many of the conventional teaching models used across the nation today rely heavily on constant standardized assessment and mass conformity. Like cars on Henry Ford’s assembly line, children often sit in overcrowded classrooms where they are filled with and tested on facts and information they have made limited connection to and have little reason to remember moving forward. This model lacks an emphasis on original ideas, on critical thought and a student’s own unique perspective, character development and wide range of interests and abilities.

Charlotte Mason Community School (CMCS), originally Ambleside Community School, opened in Southwest Detroit in 2002 and served 18 students its inaugural year. It was founded by the Charlotte Mason Association of Detroit (CMAD), a small group of local parents and educators with a vision to foster students in a love of learning that would extend beyond the classroom, for their good and the good of their communities. The Southwest Detroit neighborhood was an intentional choice where co-founders had grown up and were currently living and raising children. CMAD had then, as it does today, the objective to open several small, K-8 schools within the city as well as a Charlotte Mason Community High School. Through CMCS, the Association hoped to create a school that could serve as a successful model of the CM philosophy and encourage educators that components of the philosophy could be adopted into every type of classroom setting, private, public, charter, home and university for the greater good of learning. To address the layered problems of education both locally and nationally, CMAD proposed, as Mason did, the need to ask the questions, what is an education and what is it for?

Mason described education as a science of relations – with God, with man (including ourselves) and with the world around us. She stated that every child, born not merely with the potential to become a whole person but a whole person already, “comes into the world with a natural inclination for certain relations, and the task of parents and teachers is to put them in touch, so far as they can, with all relations proper to them, by setting before them a rich and broad curriculum” (School 75). It is the persons who have read and thought on many subjects who Mason believed would, with the necessary training, be able to pursue any career path, fulfilling their own life while serving society as well (School, 3). Under this model, CMCS lessons are short and varied with an emphasis on an array of liberal arts.

The CMCS model embraces Mason’s belief that a child should be educated as a whole person, not just his mind. In this, she says that education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline and a Life. In regards to atmosphere, she does “not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a “child environment” specially adapted and prepared (Philosophy, 94). Yet, a child learns best in the natural atmosphere of life, both at home and school, and does not need ideas and thoughts watered down to a “child’s level.” At home, a child can learn without intending to by each intimate moment of life that is neither contrived nor constructed. At school, Mason warns against teachings which are diluted and sweetened, and teachers who “may be as suave and condescending as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness which it is not easy for a child to overcome” (“Philosophy” 97). Instead, the atmosphere of learning should be dynamic and one of curiosity, the hunger-for-knowledge and chief instrument of all education. Prizes, places or marks should not be put in the way to stumble or paralyze curiosity (“Philosophy” 89), the thing that urges a child to dig for knowledge and seek after ideas for their own sake. CMCS does not administer letter grades as assessment. Because of small class sizes, teachers are intimately aware of a child’s progress and challenges and writes a detailed and thoughtful evaluation for parents and students at the end of each term concerning every subject.

As a discipline, by which Mason meant “the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully whether habits of mind or body” (“Philosophy” 99), CMCS holds the formation of habits, particularly those of attention, as paramount to a child acquiring a strong and lasting education. Mason would hold that memorization, so much of what is leaned on in modern schooling, actually weakens the power of attention, the proper activity of the mind. She says, “We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading” (“Philosophy” 13), meaning every reading should be thoughtful, and for the purpose of knowledge. CMCS finds that the expectation of narration encourages attention and for this reason, uses narration in every subject as its sole means of assessment.

Mason often speaks of the mind needing sustenance just as the body does. “Children have a natural appetite for knowledge which is informed with thought. They bring imagination, judgment, and the various so-called “faculties,” to bear upon a new idea pretty much as the gastric juices act upon a food ration” (“Philosophy” 10). Within the method of narration, all parts of the mind are called to action. It appreciates the student as a unique individual whose original perspective brings value to what is being studied. After one reading, one field trip, one term of study, students tell back in their own words what they have learned, young ones aloud and older grades through written word. New thoughts and ideas are taken in and assessed through the child’s own previous knowledge, understanding, vocabulary and experiences. By having to tell back what he has learned, the student makes the information their own. Mason states, “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself” (“Philosophy” 16). This continual asking of oneself, “What’s next?” while narrating, CMCS finds critical to the process of learning.

Education is a life at CMCS. The school model is based as well “on the premise that the mind concerns itself only with thoughts, imaginations, and reasoned arguments and does not assimilate the facts unless in combination with an informing idea. It is active, and wearies of much time spent in the passive attitude of a listener. It has a natural preference for literary form and an enormous curiosity that embraces a vast variety of subjects. Mason modeled the use of “living books” – books written by one author who knows and loves the subject well. The contemporary educational model is not built on the conception of ideas. Most textbooks are written and edited by several persons - desiccated, drained of ideas, and reduced to dry statements of fact. Also, much knowledge is presented through lecturing by teachers, which puts a child in a passive learning position and encourages inattention” (“Some Distinctives of the CMCS Model”).

In Mason’s time, as in ours, education was not for the poor what it was for the privileged. The working class were offered little more than vocational training and the desire for higher education was lofty and unnecessary. Education for girls was often limited to that of accomplishments such as music and sewing. Only the wealthy were taught in the areas of fine art, philosophy and literature. Today, those living in poor areas, both urban and rural, are unjustly deprived of a high quality education. CMCS is intentionally located in Detroit, intentionally created for Detroit children. In a city where the current education system is simply not working for many who live there, it is the desire of this organization to provide not what should be expected from our nation’s mass education model, but to offer something they believe to be infinitely more effective and rewarding.

The model of CMCS in Detroit addresses a culture that extends throughout the nation, in high performing schools as well. Our country’s institutions are academic and information driven, they spend mass amounts of time teaching to the test and hold the main responsibility of learning on the teacher, encouraging passive learners. The goal is to compete, to excel above others and many are identified as less than, both outside themselves and within, through this form of measurement. Class sizes are generally large, affording little time or possibility for individual attention. Urban students have little access with the natural world. Many have no outdoor recess, though it is shown to improve overall health and behavior as well as classroom attention (“The Crucial Role of Recess in School”). Much emphasis is placed on controlling student behavior instead of on thoughtful development of students’ inner resources. Heavy amounts of homework are given, interfering with the rest of a child’s life, primarily time with family. The arts are often cut as a cost-saving measure.

In contrast, CMCS educates the whole child – nurturing the spiritual, intellectual, social and physical life. As Mason suggests, “The children, not the teachers are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort” (“Philosophy”). Classroom sizes are approximately 12 students, each student working at his or her individual level. Written and oral narration are used to evaluate studies. Children do the work for the sake of knowledge, not for grades, accolades or placement. Outdoor recess happens twice a day, with all grades playing together. Outdoor education and gardening are integral elements of the curriculum. Minimal homework is given and children are expected to use the 6 ½ hrs. of school time well. The arts, which are proven to increase academic performance - music, handcrafts, drama, art, composer study, artist study, are a non-negotiable part of the CMCS curriculum (“CMCS Model Comparison”).

CMCS believes the word “community” to be a vital component of their name and strives to engage, benefit and serve the community they reside in. Local field trips are taken by classes weekly. School projects are relevant to the community at large. The following is an excerpt from a 3rd term kindergarten science evaluation: “We discussed how humans change and affect the environment in negative ways, and we brainstormed ways that we can reduce our impact or make positive changes. We came up with an issue to work on together, which was helping animals that had been hurt by trash. We found a local group called Wild Wings that cares for orphaned birds and then releases them into the wild. We raised money by picking up trash and recycling around the school, and we were able to foster Sky the robin, watching her progress from her arrival to her release. We also incubated chicken eggs and watched as chickens hatched!”

CMAD has hosted a Charlotte Mason Conference in Detroit and hopes to hold more. Local and out of town guests came for two days of workshops, seminars and discussion groups and included a range of CM enthusiasts, public school teachers and administrators as well as homeschooling parents.

Though the school receives no public dollars, and has no major backing organization, over 90% of its students receive scholarship assistance, which is focused on Detroit families exclusively. According to Principal Ann Pattie, “the average family at CMCS pays $2,000 per year, based on a sliding scale for tuition. For many families, this doesn’t come easy and is still a great sacrifice toward their child’s education. CMCS will never operate on a tuition basis due to the population it serves, so it must rely on private donations and other fundraising endeavors, with the hope of one day being endowed.” Teachers who work at CMCS are mission minded, currently earning approximately $25,000 a year, an amount below a living wage. Though, according to CMAD board members, increasing this wage is the first goal after sustainability, those teaching in the current climate find great joy and purpose in their work. Throughout the years, staff have dedicated daily time on a volunteer basis. It is namely by the community of Detroit for the community of Detroit that this educational opportunity exists.

CMCS is a faith based school, offering a Christian liberal arts education. Board and staff members who profess a Christian faith come from many different faith communities. The school reflects no denomination nor does it make any demands on its families and students to claim a Christian faith in order to attend. CMCS desires to “tangibly communicate the message that all people have dignity, purpose, and worth because they are created in God’s image through the provision of a rich and broad education in a warm and supportive school environment.” They desire to “proclaim the gospel in word and deed and believe that, as a school, they have a unique opportunity to do this.” They are passionate about “making this education accessible to all who desire it and through this school, hope to help care for the poor and marginalized in Detroit” (“Rationale for CMCS”).

It takes great faith to walk the journey of CMCS, according to staff and board. Some weeks it is unclear how payroll will be made. Some days the heat isn’t working in the building (good old’ Detroit!) and space heaters need to be brought in so classes can continue. Through every challenge and struggle, a way is found and meaningful education continues. CMCS students have been known to host lemonade stands and yard sales during the summer of their own accord to raise funds for their own classrooms. The school continues by the support of individuals who believe in its mission and want to partner to provide this rich education to students in Detroit. The 2017-2018 school year welcomed 74 students to CMCS, the most it has had to date. Growth is slow, as it needs to be, and sustainability is an ever reaching goal.

The community of Detroit is resilient. It is hardworking and resolute. So also is the Charlotte Mason Association of Detroit and its school. CMCS does not claim to have the ability to solve the educational crisis in the city. There will be no one right or quick answer to rebuild many years of disinvestment in Detroit’s children. As CMCS continues for those who value what it has to offer, so also is there hope in residents for a newly structured quality city-wide public school system. It will take multiple solutions by many parties to meet the needs of families in Detroit, and perseverance through time to see them through. CMCS is committed to respecting and educating the whole child and hopes to engage them to become change makers in the very community from which they are taught. Mason challenges, “The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? When he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him” (School 170-171)?


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---“CMCS Model Comparison.” Charlotte Mason Association of Detroit.

---“Rationale for CMCS.” Charlotte Mason Association of Detroit.

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