Tonight, across town, there is an Ypsilanti Board of Education meeting taking place. Primarily, as I understand it, they will be discussing their new Deficit Elimination Plan, which calls for the closing of our remaining middle school, and the restructuring of our high school, which, if I’m not mistaken, has been mandated by law after several years of unmitigated failure. At this point, I’m not sure what can be done to dissuade the Board from the course that they’re on. I see that they’ve got some consultants coming into town tomorrow to walk people at the High School through the plan, which, according to the story I just read at AnnArbor.com, has already been approved by the Michigan Department of Education, so I think it’s pretty much a done deal. But, some people, like my friend Maria Cotera, and her husband Jason Wright, are still fighting. For those of you who don’t recall, Maria and Jason got incredibly involved in School Board politics when the administration announced about a year 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 this letter that I received from Maria last night.
January has rolled around, the Holidays have come and gone, and, its time, once again, for our favorite actuary, Mr. David Houle to determine the future of Public Schools in Ypsilanti Michigan. You may remember that last year at around this time, he delivered a Deficit Elimination Plan that called for deep cuts in our budget, slashing teachers, and closing two schools, East Middle (now home to the Administrative offices while the old administration building gets a complete overhaul, go figure) and Chapelle Elementary. You might also remember that for Jason and I, Chapelle was more than just a school. It was a thriving hub for the community in which families from all over Ypsi came together to create a sense of engagement and belonging. We loved it, and we still mourn its loss, especially since we saw in it a potential source of renewal of faith in our public schools.
We were told that “school reconfiguration” would result in lowered class sizes and an improvement in the educational quality in all of our schools, claims that we actively disputed to no avail. What was the result of all this “fiscal realism”? Estabrook is now an elementary school serving close to 600 students. Some third grade classes have 35 students in them. Adams Elementary, the school where a good portion of Chapelle kids ended up is overcrowded as well, serving children from kindergarten through 6th grade (as opposed to Estabrook and Erickson which serve 2nd-6th grade). It is the only school in our district without an enclosed playground forcing the littlest ones to play in a playground bounded by two very busy streets and within spitting distance of a party store. I’ve been told by reliable sources that 6th graders are often asked to help keep an eye on the kindergarteners, and that they may well be scheduling 6th grade and kindergarten recess at the same time for this reason. Moreover kids at Adams and Erickson get about 20 minutes of art once a week. I can’t see how this “district realignment” has resulted in an improvement in the educational quality of Ypsi schools.
We were also told by the administration that the sacrifice we made in giving up Chapelle and East would save the district from more draconian cuts, but this was either a lie or a case of magical thinking, because since that time we have experienced the disaster of bus consolidation (in which all of our beloved, trusted, and experienced bus drivers were let go and replaced by much lower paid newcomers, leading to a situation in which some of our children were arriving to school over an hour late, and others weren’t even getting picked up at all), and now the NEW Deficit Elimination Plan (DEP). The DEP just presented to the public (on the YPSD website) will be up for discussion and debate at the Board of Education Meeting on Monday, January 10. It includes many nasty cuts, but the worst of them are: 1) a plan to close the remaining middle school by 2013 and place 7th and 8th graders in the FAILING, about to be RESTRUCTURED high school, 2) a 12% paycut to cafeteria and janitorial staff, 3) cutting five more teachers, and a number of other unpleasant things. Never mind that the High School Restructuring plan that the district was required to submit to the State Board of Education (after Ypsi High filed to meet Annual Yearly Progress for the 5th year in a row) says nothing about bringing in 7th and 8th graders in 2013, the impact of such a move will be far-reaching and devastating. How many parents (especially the vaunted “knowledge workers” that the district always invokes when it speaks of YPSD’s “potential”) will allow their 12 year olds to go to a school that had nearly 2400 “disciplinary incidents” last year? Losing many of our kids at Middle School will render completely pointless the district’s strategy for keeping high school kids in district by offering “school choice” (in their recently established New Tech Academy, and the planned International Baccalaureate Program to be housed at the old West Middle School building), because once kids move to other districts or to private schools, they are not likely to return. We said it last year, and we will say it again, the district is acting like the only strategy they can employ in this period of tightening budgets is to cut essential services. But when cutting is achieved at the expense of educational quality and school safety, then students leave, and when students leave, so too does their revenue, which only exacerbates the problem. We will not cut our way to solvency or, more importantly excellence. We must be more imaginative than this, and we must stop letting actuaries determine the future of our schools.
update: It looks as though the board voted down the closing of the middle school. There’s more information in the comments section.