Ypsi School Closings, part V

My friend Maria Cotera, as most of you readers probably know, was quite involved in the recent discussion over the closure of yet more Ypsilanti public schools. Maria, the parent of a daughter at Chapelle Elementary, not only questioned the assumptions on which the findings of the administration were based, but she, along with her husband Jason and others, organized a grassroots campaign to reconsider our alternatives, instead of just closing schools and laying off new teachers in order to save money in the short term. She launched the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance, and, through that organization, lobbied for a more thoughtful approach, which, instead of just accepting declining enrollments (and thus revenues), would seek to create great schools that could compete head-to-head with private and charter schools. And, while it looks as though the fight to save Chapelle has been lost, I don’t think Maria has any plans to stop her activity in this area. In evidence of that, I submit the following note, which she recently attempted to post to an AnnArbor.com thread about Ypsi school closings. (The AnnArbor.com editors removed it, stating that, “While we don’t have a stated limited on comments, we do, in general, ask that people find a way to express their opinion in 350 words or less.” When asked why that was the case, they responded, “The problem with overly long comments comes down to this: People won’t read them.”)

Some of your readers may already know that on Monday, March 22, the School Board voted, in a 5 to 2 majority, to approve the administration’s plan to close Chapelle Community School and East Middle School. While Jason and I are very disappointed that Chapelle did not survive this round of budget cuts, for us this has never been about one school. It has been about whether or not the philosophy/strategy of closing schools is the right choice for our district. We have seen that this strategy has not worked in Willow Run, and has caused significant problems for that district. Many Chapelle parents, and I suspect many Adams parents, are refugees from Willow Run (as is David Houle, our current CFO).

Why did we think that closing schools was a bad idea for the district as a whole? First, we knew that there was already the impression out there that Ypsi schools were either failing schools, or somehow in crisis. We knew this because many of our friends (those cherished “knowledge economy workers” that the district’s own DEP plan says they are trying to attract) chose to send their kids to private schools or out of district charters. They are not the only ones who feel this way, many people have lost faith in the ability of our public schools to provide a safe, creative, and nurturing environment to our children, and this is not just an “Ypsi” problem, but a national crisis. On the other hand, having chosen the public school route for our daughter, we also knew that Ypsi schools were great schools, and we felt that they were on solid ground to continue improving on educational quality. What we saw going on was basically an image problem, complicated by public disinvestment and disengagement in what goes on in our schools.

At Chapelle we became convinced that we could help turn that tide around, and to improve the profile of Ypsi Schools. Why did we think this? Because Chapelle was a very small school, with a very creative and open administration, and a huge amount of parent involvement. Moreover, there were already some amazing parent/teacher initiatives going on when we arrived, and we wanted to add to those. We thought that one way we could address community disinvestment in our schools was by bringing non-profits and community organizations into our schools to run programs. Some of these partnerships we were able to actually get up and running (like the Fly art workshop and the Dreamland puppet theater performance of a puppet show on Ypsi’s history), others were in the works (Growing Hope partnership to build greenhouses, Community Records partnership, Community Blogging workshop, STEP-UP mentorship programs with black sororities and fraternities). Our idea was to build community investment by building bridges between stakeholders in the community and our schools. Indeed, we saw what we might accomplish at Chapelle as a model for what could happen in schools across the district. In short, we approached our public school experience as a challenge to bring the community back into the schools, and make Ypsi schools the best schools in Southeastern Michigan. So yes we are disappointed that this could not happen, mostly because we feel that it would have benefited all Ypsi schools.

Some on the School Board argued that we had “no choice” – that a school had to close – and that Chapelle, being the smallest school, was the logical choice. We felt that this argument had one big flaw: it represented only one side of the strategy for dealing with our economic constraints. All business owners know that in tough economic times, one must address both inflows and outflows (income and costs). In our opinion, the district was pursuing a strategy that addressed one side of this business equation: the outflow (i.e. reducing costs), without doing a thing about the inflow (attracting new revenue through enrollments). The larger issue here is two conflicting approaches to dealing with economic constraints, one involves embracing the challenge and promoting the great things that are happening in our schools (with the goal of raising enrollments), and the other involves retreating, cutting away at our core mission (education) and consigning our district to a future of declining enrollments and “white flight.”

We never opposed any and all cuts, we simply asked that the district restructure their three-year cost cutting plan and postpone the closing of schools until year two or three, giving parents and administration time to promote the district and try to increase enrollments. We had a plan in place for a “recruit 100” campaign in partnership with local businesses who were willing to provide in-kind services at no cost to our district. 100 new students would mean roughly $750,000 in new revenue for our district. And we felt that we could build on the community momentum we had going at Chapelle, as well as the media attention around Michigan’s school funding crisis to create a community-wide campaign in support of Ypsi schools. We even formed the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance to bring community orgs, businesses, non-profits, parents, teachers, neighborhood associations, universities, churches, and other stakeholders together to discuss creative ways to address the crisis (see mission statement below).

In short, this was never about just one school, but about how we, as a community (parents, community orgs, non-profits, businesses, etc) could use this crisis to come together and re-articulate our commitment to public education as a public good that we should ALL care about (just like parks, roads, etc), not just those of us with children in the schools. When we articulated this vision to the administration and to the school board, we were largely ignored. True, Kira Berman actually listened to us, but she always did so with a sense of what was doable, and practical, tempering our “can-do” optimism with numbers and the harsh reality of what would happen if the State did not approve our revised DEP. She was, at least, an honorable and rational partner, which is all we can ask of our community representatives. That is why it was so painful to hear Ms. Devaney insult her in an open forum, calling her (and Fanta’s) reasoned defense of our strategy “naive.” Ms. Devaney also (misleadingly, I believe) discounted the many pages of research presented to her and to the board that did not concord with her rigid position on school closing. We spent many late night hours, after work, studying how the strategy of school closings has worked in other districts, some of which are comparable to ours, and in study after study, researchers have found that closing one or more schools results in a measurable reduction in educational quality for ALL students in the district? Why? There are numerous reasons: first, closing schools significantly diminishes the enthusiasm, investment and faith of parents, students, and community members in public education; second, closing schools results in overcrowding and large class sizes at remaining schools; third, because the schools that are usually on the chopping block are the poorest, most “diverse” schools, and they are usually combined with other schools that have similar demographics, closing schools can result in district-wide racial disparities.

In all our research we did NOT discover a single article that said that closing schools was good for children or that it increased the educational quality in a district. Moreover, we found a host of reputable studies that suggested that, in the long-run, the strategy of closing schools did not achieve the financial benefits that it was meant to achieve (some of this research appears on our site: SaveYpsiSchools.com). We shared this information with School Board members, and met with quite a few of them, including Trustee Bates a month ago, who suggested that Chapelle might remain open provisionally to see if we could raise enrollments across the district (this idea was NOT one that was dropped in the Board’s lap at the last minute by Fanta and Berman, as has been suggested by some of the comments on Ann Arbor.com). This is real research, not journalism or blogging (as Devaney suggested), and it doesn’t take a lengthy written statement to articulate what it means for our schools. As Kira Berman put it succinctly: “If it doesn’t save us money, and it doesn’t help kids, then we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Jason and I, and others made this point time and time again in meetings, blogs, and other fora. Anyone who states otherwise is simply mis-stating our position. As I’ve said before, I think the board’s decision is penny wise and pound foolish. To use the formulation of the administration: closing schools has many, many “cons” and very few “pros.” It increases class sizes in the remaining schools (as Superintendent Martin admitted in a meeting with us), it does not come close to resolving our financial problems (as Devaney admitted last Monday), and may even exacerbate them, it constricts any possibility for growth in our district, it hurts our public image, and it may well undermine our diversity goals by creating one school where all or most of the “at-risk” kids end-up (Adams). Moreover, because Ann Arbor has rejected closing schools as an option and is contemplating opening up grades 1 and 6 to school of choice, closing schools puts us at risk of losing even more kids at two key transitions: from kindergarten to elementary and elementary to middle school. So in the end, once again, Ann Arbor trumps Ypsilanti as the place to live if you want a high quality education for your child.

When we moved here, many, many people, said to us: “but what about the schools?” the implicit assumption being that Ypsi schools weren’t high quality schools. We were committed to changing this impression, and we still are, it’s just that the Board’s decision makes it so much harder. We are therefore saddened by what happened last Monday, not just because our daughter’s wonderful school will close, but because of what it says about our district’s vision, our leadership, and how we value our primary objective: providing a high quality, creative, and safe educational environment for Ypsilanti’s children.

Despite this, we remain committed to Ypsi’s public schools, and to the idea of public education more generally, because the public school classroom is a place where children from all walks of life can come together and learn from each other. To us, this is a deeply meaningful enterprise and central to the health of our democracy. We therefore ask that people who share this belief (whether or not they have children in the district) join us in our efforts to remake our schools into the kind of places that we can all become invested in.

The mission of the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance is to bring multiple stakeholders in the health of our schools together for a conversation on how we might make our schools the best places to learn in southeastern Michigan. In the short term, we are committed to advocating for the schools in the face of budget cuts and to offering sensible alternatives to school closures. We believe that the best way forward is to strengthen our schools, thereby increasing enrollments and enhancing our regional reputation. Many have noted that our school system—at the elementary, middle school, and high school level—lacks a coherent vision. The Ypsilanti Public School Alliance hopes to address this problem by bringing representatives from parents groups, teachers groups, staff groups, city and state officials, community organizations, neighborhood organizations, and non-profits together to bring creative ideas from inside and outside the world of public education to a conversation about re-imagining the future of public schooling in America. We hope that the process of “coming together” will also re-ignite interest in our public schools among the broader community (not just educational professionals or parents of school age children). We see this re-engagement as vital to the survival of our schools, and, conversely as vital to the survival of our communities, since the health of our schools is the most telling indicator of the health of our community.

And, for what it’s worth, I’d never complain about the length of a comment, if it were this focused, coherent and well reasoned.

[note: For background on this issue, check out parts I, II, III, and IV of this series, and the comments that accompany them.]

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  1. Hot Knuckle Lover
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, you lost me at: “a huge amount of parent.”

  2. Posted March 30, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Off-topic: if AnnArbor.com “do[es], in general, ask that people find a way to express their opinion in 350 words or less” then they DO have a stated limit on comments.

  3. Ernie
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    AnnArbor.com needs to close down for a month and figure out what it the hell they’re going to be, and how they want to interface with their readers. Rejecting responses to their articles that are more relevant than the articles themselves, is a recipe for disaster.

    What they’re giving us isn’t journalism. If it were, they wouldn’t be relying on the reporting of others to give us information about the recent terrorism arrests in our own backyard. It’s an embarrassment that we aren’t generating the content for the rest of the country on this. The reality is, AA.com, for the most part, relays the work of others. Yes, they occasionally print a good piece, but there certainly isn’t a push to break new ground and lead.

  4. Curt Waugh
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Maria, thank you for throwing all your creative energy behind this and trying to innovate (to THINK) our way out of this problem. One the one hand, I’m sorry that my child missed out on a chance to go to Chapelle. On the other hand, it seems like a hidden blessing that we didn’t have this rich environment you have been working so hard to create ripped away from us by the thoughtless “just close everything” approach taken by the Board and the administration.

    Thank you also for recognizing that Kira Berman made a good faith effort to work with you. I think she has been an excellent addition to the Board.

    At this point, our family will examine all its options. We’ll likely stay in Ypsi schools, but it’s hard not to yearn for something better. I’m sure folks will encourage everybody to pour their energies into our public schools, but look where that got Maria. It doesn’t exactly send a message of hope.

  5. Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Maria has it exactly right. I understand the tough place that the School Board is in right now, but that’s why they were elected – to make the tough policy decisions, not just to “support the administration” as I’ve heard said more than once by Board members.

    The decision to close Chappelle specifically was based on a flawed analysis, which focues primarily on the size and age of the school. For a number of reasons, including amount of parking and proximity to major roads, Chappelle is not the best building to “repurpose” for some other use than an elementary school. From a long-range planning perspective, Estabrook’s larger parcel and location on W. Cross St. makes it a far more marketable location for redevelopment or other uses.

    In the end, I personally believe that closing Chappelle will save the district very little, and may actually cost more long-term. Families have far more choices today for their children’s education than they did even when Fletcher and Ardis were closed. If the kids go out-of-district, they take the per-pupil funding with them that the district is counting on to mop up the red ink.

  6. Rob
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    My job takes me all around the greater Detroit Metro area, and I will on occasion, be in some of the toughest and blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, Highland Park, Inkster and such. One thing my coworkers and I have noticed that even in the roughest ‘hoods the best homes and properties were for the most part centered in and around the local elementary school, and sometimes the contrast from one street to the next is rather astounding. I am not saying a closed Chappelle automatically equates to its local housing stock becoming another 1980’s Beirut, such as a less stable Detroit area, but in time, that neighborhood will suffer too. Schools and small businesses really are an “anchor” to a vibrant area. As you may know, poor battered Detroit is closing something like another 45 schools after not so long ago doing something similar just a couple of years ago…. Take a trip to the “D” now, and find one of the schools that are slated to close, and then go back there in two years time, and see what the neighborhood looks like– If you see anything like I’ve witnessed, it won’t be for the better. Though a “dead” Chappelle won’t kill that area, it sure won’t help and if it stays closed and unused for any length of time, you just have to wonder when the first window will get broken, and the interior trashed by anti-social youths, as I’ve witnessed elsewhere. I know this concern is secondary to the quality of education the kids will receive in ever crowding schools, but it plays a part as well.

  7. webcrawler
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    It’s always sad when a school closes. I am a Willow Run parent and cried when Kettering was closed. Closing the school pushed families to send their kids out of district. I have yet to hear if this really saved the school district any money.

    I think it’s time Ypsi and Willow Run merge. I was once against this, but it seems this is the only way to make both districts viable.

  8. kjc
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    wow. this is just really depressing.

  9. Edward
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’d vote for Maria if she ran for the school board. It would be refreshing to have someone who was looking out for the kids for a change, instead of blindly supporting the administration.

  10. Posted April 5, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    AnnArbor.com has a new article up on the redistribution of kids in the wake of the Ypsi school closings. Here’s how it begins:

    The Ypsilanti school district has put in motion its plan to redistribute students from soon-to-close Chapelle Elementary and East Middle schools.

    The roughly 300 families at Chapelle are asked to turn in transfer forms by May 1 indicating which of the three remaining elementary schools they prefer attend. District officials said the forms are available at any of the schools’ offices and will be mailed to the students’ homes.

    Concerns have been raised that many of the students will want to attend Estabrook, which is the closest to Chapelle and already the most popular schools of choice building. Some parents have said there is no fair way to redistribute kids if they don’t get the building they prefer…

  11. Meta
    Posted April 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    There may be another chapter to all of this, having to do with our choice for the new High School principal.


  12. Posted April 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    So, what’s the story – that he gamed the system to bring a friend into the district and set him up in a high-paying job?

  13. Heidi
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Hey Hey! What a surprise:


  14. Shannon
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I’m a current student at Sarah Lawrence College, and I’m hoping to write an article about saving Chapelle Community School for my journalism class. The paper is due in two weeks, so if any of you are interested, please contact me as soon as possible. Thanks.

One Trackback

  1. […] ago that their daughter’s beloved neighborhood school, Chapelle Elementary, would be closed. They organized a group of concerned citizens under the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance banner, and they’ve been fighting ever since. And, with that as background, I’d like to share […]

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