Renowned Performer, Pastor Sings Praises of Charter Schools

Published May 1, 2006

Marvin Winans, a Grammy-winning performer as well as a pastor, never expected to be involved in operating a school or promoting alternative public schools. But he is and he loves doing it.

Winans is a member of the world-famous Winans family, which includes three generations of performers. He attained celebrity status during the 1980s when his gospel quartet, the Winans–which included three of his six brothers–won six Grammy Awards.

Winans’ parents, David and Delores–professionally known as Mom and Pop Winans–have recorded several albums’ worth of gospel music. His brother BeBe and sister CeCe are recording stars in their own rights, with gospel and R&B hits. Sisters Angie and Debbie, the youngest members of the family, as well as some of Mom and Pop’s grandchildren, also have recorded albums. The three generations of the family have collected 31 Grammys.

It’s no surprise the Winans are sometimes called the First Family of Gospel Music: They are the gospel equivalent of the rock and roll Jackson family.

Starting a School

In addition to his music career, Marvin Winans founded a non-denominational Christian church in Detroit, called Perfecting Church, in 1989.

About 10 years ago, Perfecting Church was growing so rapidly the congregation bought a new building–one that previously had housed a private school. Winans never considered starting a school.

But an attorney friend, Lawrence Patrick, who knew Michigan had a passed a charter school law in December 1993, encouraged Winans to start a charter school.

In 1994, 13 charter schools sprouted up across Michigan–a number that multiplied through the end of the decade.

“I never felt the call to have a school,” Winans said of his reaction when Patrick first broached the idea with him. “I was a preacher and singer, not an educator.”

Designing a Program

Winans was not at all opposed to public schools–he himself was the product of Detroit Public Schools.

“Growing up in a family of 10, there was no money for parochial schools,” Winans explained.

But he also knew Detroit Public Schools had developed many problems over the years. In fact, Winans had moved his wife and two children out of the city to give them access to better schools. He believed people still living in the city needed more options.

The more Winans thought about it, the more he became attracted to the idea of a charter school. As a public school, it couldn’t charge tuition, but it could operate with a rigorous curriculum. And it could rent the facilities in Perfecting Church that previously had been used for the private school.

Operating the School

Winans and some supporters completed the application process to start a charter school, the Marvin L. Winans Academy of Performing Arts–which, as the name suggested, would have specific focuses on music and dance. In 1996, Saginaw Valley State University approved the application, and the school was born. Under Michigan law, colleges and universities, as well as local school districts, can authorize charter schools.

For the 1997-98 school year, Winans planned to have a maximum of 288 students in grades K-5, with two classes of 24 students in each grade. A private school operator who had advised Winans through the chartering process proposed including a $40,000 advertising budget, but Winans wasn’t interested.

“I told him to take out the $40,000,” Winans said, explaining Detroit residents were so desperate for good schools there was no need to advertise.

He was right: The school received more than 1,000 applications in its first few days.

Finding Success

“The applications came from all over the city and definitely not just from Perfecting Church members,” Winans said.

Under Michigan law, charter schools can’t give preferential treatment to any students when there are more applications than available seats. While he was pleased with the overwhelming response, Winans did have one worry: One of his nephews had applied, and he couldn’t guarantee him a spot at the school. However, his nephew was later selected to attend the school through a neutral lottery–something Winans said was good for family relations.

Winans’ nephew wasn’t the only one who was pleased to get in.

“As names were pulled, people screamed,” Winans explained. “They treated it like winning a contest.”

Growing Up

The school teaches more than performing arts: Students study all the appropriate college-prep courses, including reading, math, history, and science. Each year, they take the same state tests as all other Michigan students.

The performance training has paid off as well, as several graduates have attended the summer program at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, considered one of the best of its kind in the country. Actress Phylicia Rashad–better known as Claire Huxtable from the long-running TV series The Cosby Show–gave the Winans Academy’s first commencement speech, in 2005, and paid the tuition for students attending the dance academy. Allen is Rashad’s sister.

Finding teachers who wanted to be at the school was extremely important to Winans.

“We wanted teachers who weren’t just there to make a living,” Winans explained. “We also expect that parents will take ownership in the school,” said Winans.

Winning Awards

Since its inception, the school has grown significantly, adding an additional grade each year. Today, the school serves students from kindergarten to grade 12, now educating more than 800 students. But even as available seats have increased, Winans faces the same problem each year: more applications than the school can accommodate.

But that hasn’t affected the school’s performance. In 2005, the Winans Academy was one of three finalists, from more than 220 charter schools statewide, to receive the Michigan Association of Public School Academies School of Excellence Award.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

For more information …

More information about the Winans Academy is available on its Web site at