On August 18, just a few weeks before classes were set to begin at Ann Arbor’s Allen Elementary, a water main broke beneath the school resulting in serious damages that parents were told would take several months to repair. Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) Superintendent Jeanice Swift assured Allen families at the time that, in spite of the school’s temporary closing, she and her staff would find alternate arrangements for the several hundred students set to begin their school year in September. And, now, thanks to a 5 to 1 vote by the Ypsilanti Community School (YCS) Board of Education, it looks as though that temporary solution will entail bussing Allen students to Ypsilanti, to what we once knew as West Middle School (seen above), one of the half dozen or so public schools we’ve had to close over the past several years, as an increasing number of Ypsilanti families have chosen to move their children to charter schools and AAPS under the Michigan Department of Educations’s Schools of Choice program. [AAPS began accepting Schools of Choice students during the 2010-11 school year.]
According to a recent report by MLive, 671 students who live within YCS district boundaries attended Ann Arbor public schools last year. “YCS has struggled with a nearly 15 percent drop in its enrollment to 3,868 students over the past three school years,” the article said. Meanwhile, as the article went on to state, “AAPS has seen a nearly 4-percent increase in enrollment to 17,234 over that same timeframe.” And this, as you might imagine, has had an incredibly negative effect on Ypsilanti Community Schools. Not only have we lost those 671 students to Ann Arbor, but our district has lost the state funding associated with those 671 students. And it very well might get worse. In September, the AAPS Board of Education, as I understand it, is set to vote on a proposal that, if passed, would allow for Schools of Choice students to commute to and from their adopted Ann Arbor schools by way of AAPS busses. [Right now, Ypsilanti students, if they’re attending Ann Arbor schools, need to arrange for transportation to and from school themselves. Soon, however, depending on how the AAPS board votes, these students will be able to be dropped at designated bus stops at the Ann Arbor border by their families, and ride the busses along with other AAPS students, significantly lowering the bar for Ypsilanti families considering a change of district.]
It’s also worth noting that not all Ypsilanti children who apply for Schools of Choice are accepted. More often than not, I’ve been told, children dealing with the most serious issues, who require the most in-class support, are not chosen to participate, the result being that YCS is increasingly left with the students who cost the most to educate. [You can find the Schools of Choice criteria here.] It’s also worth noting, in the interest of fairness, that this Schools of Choice system isn’t just negatively affecting Ypsilanti. Accoring to numbers published by the Ann Arbor News, AAPS lost “about 6.9 percent of the public school-age children residing within the district’s boundaries” during the 2010-11 school year, as AAPS families chose to pursue other options, like sending their children to Saline or Milan schools.
Schools of Choice, to put it simply, is essentially a mechanism whereby parents who have the ability to navigate the application system and the wherewithal to provide daily transportation, can send their children to the best schools available, and school districts with greater resources can balance their budgets by pulling additional students from other districts, charters, and private schools. Sadly, according to Bridge Michigan, the long term results aren’t good. Most kids don’t’ stay in an out-of-home-district school for even three years, according to their analysis. “It’s not a program that kids make an academic career out of,” according to Joshua Cowen, associate professor at Michigan State University. “It’s a pattern really similar to general mobility within an urban district. It’s the same kids who are bouncing around.” So children of means essentially shuffle from school to school looking for the best programs at each grade level, as everyone else just accepts the hand they’ve been dealt.
So, with all of this as background, what’s happening right now at West Middle School, if you think about it, is really somewhat perverse. Not only did Ann Arbor, by opting into Schools of Choice, take a significant percentage of our students, thereby contributing toward the closing of several of our schools, but now they’re going to be coming back and taking over one of those very schools. So, it’s conceivable that, when school begins in September, we’ll have Ypsi kids educated in an YCS building, with all of the state money that’s been earmarked for their education going directly to AAPS, minus, I guess, whatever they’ll be paying in rent to YCS for the use of the building. And, to make matters worse, the teachers working in the building may very well be former YCS teachers who have likewise been poached away, which I’m told happens quite often. [Speaking of poaching, I’m told that members of the YCS board were concerned when this idea of renting West Middle School to AAPS was first discussed, that, if Allen were indeed to move in, people living in the immediate vicinity of the school might choose, under School of Choice, to move their children over. I’m told, however, that Superintendent Swift assured the YCS board that the School of Choice window had already closed for Allen, so the school would not be accepting any further transfers.]
For what it’s worth, I don’t suspect many Ypsilanti students are currently attending Allen, as most students who opt to participate in Schools of Choice are attracted to other, more in-demand AAPS schools, like A2 STEAM, Burns Park, Tappan, Huron, Skyline, and Carpenter, as opposed to a Title I school like Allen. [Carpenter is apparently popular with Ypsilantians as it’s the closest AAPS elementary school.] There may, however, be some… Regardless, it raises another interesting question. If Allen wasn’t one of the poorer of Ann Arbor Schools, would it be moving to Ypsilanti? If it were, say, Burns Park Elementary that had flooded, would the solution be to send those children to Ypsilanti? I suspect not. My guess is that, in that instance, members of the Ann Arbor community would have stepped up and rented a building for them somewhere in Ann Arbor, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.
With all of that said, I’m not against the idea of renting the school to AAPS. I agree with Ypsi Community Schools Superintendent Benjamin Edmondson, who said a few days ago, “This is about (the) kids.” As he pointed out out the time, “If we have a facility that’s available, it doesn’t make sense to me to sit there and say no.” With that said, though, the irony of it all still doesn’t sit well with me.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it here before, but, a year or two ago, in the wake of something I’d posted about the possibility of merging our two neighboring districts, I was invited out for coffee by some folks affiliated with the AAPS Board of Eduction. And, to their credit, they were incredibly open and honest with me. To sum it up succinctly, they told me that, as things stood now in Lansing, it would not make economic sense for them to merge with Ypsilanti, under any circumstances. [If we were to merge our districts, they told me, they would not only take in fewer dollars per student from the State than they do now, but they’d also inherit our district’s considerable debt, which, according to Superintendent Ben Edmondson, costs us approximately $2 million per year.] Furthermore, they said they would continue to accept Ypsilanti students, if it meant that they could keep from closing AAPS schools and firing teachers. They said they didn’t like the idea of poaching our students, but it was something they had to do to keep their district solvent in light of the funding realities established by Prop A in 1994. If they didn’t do this, they said, their district would start to contract and weaken. So, as much as they knew it was hurting us, they said they had no intention of stopping. Their hands, they said, were tied.
I should also add that I know the decision as to where one sends their child is an incredibly difficult and personal one. We all want our children to have the best opportunities possible for success, and I don’t necessarily blame the families of those 671 Ypsilanti students who have chosen to send their children to Ann Arbor schools in hopes of giving them a more positive educational experience. We can’t ignore, however, the effect it’s having on our community, as more and more of our students are heading west across 23 for their educations. Schools are the very foundation of a community, and we can’t afford to just sit by any longer, passively watching as ours are systematically dismantled.
And, it’s worth noting, this isn’t just about YCS. All public education in the state of Michigan is under fire. It’s just that, here in Ypsilanti, we’re further along the path to destruction than better funded, more fiscally stable districts like those in Ann Arbor. [For more on the Michigan assault on public education, click here.]
So, how, given all of this, do our neighboring districts better work with one another to stop this destructive cycle that we’re caught in, and start fighting together to change things in Lansing, so that we can provide quality educations for all students, and not just those with the wherewithal to jump from district to district? Instead of pursuing furtive efforts to increase student counts each year, what if we were to explore bold policy initiatives together? What would happen if the Ann Arbor Board of Education advocated, for instance, that the State of Michigan forgive some or all of YCS’s considerable debt, so that the district was on more of a level playing field when competing with surrounding districts and charters? Or what if we were to explore the possibility of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) stepping in and consolidating operations for all Washtenaw County schools? Would that help our schools become more fiscally stable, and how would it compare to Ann Arbor’s move to privatize services in order to save general funds? Or what if we formed a new parent group across the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti border to begin advocating for a more fair and equitable system of public education?
In a recent Facebook discussion on how we might move forward with a discussion on how districts might better work together to stop this destructive cycle, YCS board member Maria Sheler-Edwards had the following to say.
I can’t talk about this issue without recognizing some of the larger issues that are contributing to the decline of urban districts in general. First, charters are a continual drain on all of us. There are some good ones, but there are also some pretty lousy charters out there that just aren’t fulfilling their promises. It would help immensely if the state would reinstate the cap, and hold the ones that are open accountable. We also need to revisit Prop A. These are hard issues that we in YCS (or AAPS) just aren’t in the position to solve ourselves. But – if there were going to be a local conversation about a merger, it would need to be facilitated by a third party, as the ISD did for YPS and WR. Also, I’d go big and bring all 9 Washtenaw Co districts to the table for a discussion about shared services to start, or what 3 or 4 larger districts would look like. “Local control” is relative.
So, with all of that said, I’m wondering how we initiate a fair, open, honest dialogue about our school districts and how they work with one another, while, at the same time, pushing for state reform relative to the way our districts are financed and our charter schools are licensed. These are some of the most difficult problems we face as a community, but they could also have the greatest positive impact for all of us. As our friends in Ann Arbor have to realize, they can’t stay afloat forever by pushing Ypsilanti Community Schools further down. At some point, we’re going to have to work together to find a solution. Why not begin that conversation today at West Middle School?
One last thing to keep in mind… Let’s all remember that, according to a recent study by Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, the greater Ann Arbor region is the 8th most economically segregated metropolitan area in the United States. Like it or not, this isn’t just about our competing school districts trying to remain solvent. This is about race and class. And we need to acknowledge that. We also need to face the fact that these decisions that we make relative to education policy are not just driving inequality, but jeopardizing the future of our entire region.