As you may know, there’s a movement afoot to merge the struggling school districts of Ypsilanti and Willow Run. The hope is, if we’re able to accomplish this, it may save us some money, by eliminating redundancy. Perhaps more importantly, though, it would demonstrate to the Republicans in Lansing that we’re willing to do whatever it takes in order to keep taxes low on the wealthy. We would, if we’re able to merge districts, not only likely qualify for temporary financial incentives made available by Governor Snyder, who very much wants to see consolidation across the state, but, the hope is, we’d also delay the assignment of an Emergency Financial Manager, empowered to break union contracts and dismantle what little infrastructure we still have left… Well, there was a public meeting about this a few days ago, and my friend Maria Cotera, who has written here several times in the past about the state of Ypsi’s schools, attended… Following is her report.
Dear friends of Ypsi Schools,
Some of you who could not attend Monday’s joint school Board meeting with Willow Run asked me to report back. I’m afraid there’s not much to say because not much actually happened. Apparently, the main point of the meeting was to pass a joint resolution to go forward with a process to design a workable consolidation plan and put that plan before the voters in each district at some point in the future. Superintendent Bates read a letter from Mike Flanagan, the superintendent of the state board of education, making some vague promises about an extension of our Deficit Elimination Plan and possible “funds” that might be available to us to help with the process of consolidation. Board member Andy Fanta noted that district stakeholders still had many questions about the plan and the process, and Kira Berman requested that language be added to the Resolution that called for the involvement of all “stakeholders” in each community (including parents) in the creation of a consolidation plan. Kira’s language was rephrased by Dorothy Stewart of the Willow Run School Board, whose language was adopted by both boards.The Resolution passed, and presumably there will be an election at some point in the future. Then there was time for “public comment” (three minutes per comment) on the issue, but neither Board Members nor the Administration were required to respond.
The public comment seemed to be divided roughly in half between those approving of consolidation, and those who had questions and expressed doubts. Georgina (who is on this list) made some very cogent remarks about how the meeting was a “missed opportunity” to present basic data on each school district that would allow us to form a better understanding of the strengths and challenges of each school community, and I agree. To my mind it was just another “dog and pony show”, except without the benefit of actually seeing either the “dog” or the “pony” in question.
I, and others on this list will be very familiar with this particular strategy of “community engagement.” In the fight to keep Chapelle and East Middle open, we encountered this strategy time and time again, with the Administration giving the public plenty of opportunities to vent, while never taking their opinions or ideas very seriously.
So what do I think of all this? Well, there was a lot of cheerleading by the powers that be (administrators, board members and school district and legislative officials) about how this is an opportunity to show visionary leadership and create a combined “cutting-edge” district that could be a model for other districts. The problem with this logic is that as far as I can tell, neither district has shown any “visionary leadership” thus far. Indeed, based on my experience with YPSD, I can pretty much predict that what we will have at the end of this process is a combined district that will fall into the same old models of “leadership” that got them into this mess in the first place. We can blame the State as much as we want (and they do deserve a considerable amount of blame for this mess), but the truth is that Ypsi is not just facing budget cuts at the state level, but also a fundamental lack of confidence in the direction of the district among its constituents that has lead to dropping enrollments. The District can blame this on a “perception problem” till they are blue in the face, but perceptions comes from SOMEWHERE.
So what do we do now? Here’s how I see it:
I think consolidation CAN bring some good, but only if we have visionary leadership at the top. We don’t currently have that visionary leadership, which means that a combined district will be the same old same old, but in a much larger, more challenged, form.
The problem with lack of vision at the top is that these are the very people who are tasked with coming up with a cutting edge curriculum and structure AND these are also the people who will negotiate with the legislators over concessions to the District. My prediction is that we will get neither a visionary district nor a commitment from the State to help us create a first class district.
THEREFORE, I think we, and other stakeholders, should take greater control of this process, both in terms of deciding what the new district will look like (curriculum, structure, and special programs) AND putting pressure on the State to do more than make vague promises.
Remember, this must go up for a vote in both communities, and if that vote fails, which it likely will if parents in either community decide to oppose it, we will be in the same boat, only worse. Our crushing debt will still be there, possibly made worse by the costs related to coming up with a consolidation plan. Our high school will still be “consistently low performing”, and we will hemorrhage parents even more quickly due to the negative publicity. We will then likely come under control of an EFM, and then, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.
This all sounds very dire, but there is a bright spot. Essentially what the Administration DOESN’T want us to realize is that we have a tremendous amount of power in this scenario, and I think we should take advantage of it to do some “visioning” of our own. This visioning process should NOT be guided by an administration that pretends to listen, while never actually incorporating our talents and ideas into the process.
We do have the power to force them to incorporate our ideas for a truly “visionary” consolidated district because they need us to make consolidation happen (we must vote for the plan). In the process, we can force some structural change in our own district that will hopefully be transformative even if the consolidation plan is voted down.
We also have the power to meet with legislators and demand real commitments, not vague promises, and those commitments should go beyond the baseline (extra time to balance the budget, equalizing per pupil funding levels). Indeed, if the State and WISD want us to become the “poster child” for small district consolidation, then they have to actually make the process and its outcome look good. This means that we can pressure them to put the extra resources into our district that will actually make it a leader, both in the State and in the Nation. The truth is, they can’t afford for this not to succeed because we have to be their advertisement for other small districts facing financial distress.
I propose that we begin gathering parents for meetings to lay out what we want in our ideal district. These meetings should, at some point include Willow Run parents and students, and they SHOULD NOT be lead by either District, or the WISD, or the MASB or the State Board of Education, or any other agent of the State who will just listen politely and then insert their own formula.
Here are my preliminary ideas of what a truly visionary district looks like (taking into account the features of our demographic). I know some of you will agree with some of them, and not with others, but the point is that we should together craft something that is sustainable, intellectually meaningful, culturally relevant, nurturing, and civically engaged. Our children ARE our community, and we should see the schools as central to providing them with the tools they will need to build a healthy and cooperative community in the schools and beyond:
· Small high school environments (no more than 500)
· Small middle school environments (no more than 500)
· Small Elementary school environments (no more than 300
· Project-based learning opportunities
· Much greater, and more coordinated involvement of U of M and EMU across the District
· Civic Engagement as a CORE VALUE (Children should have structured opportunities to contribute to their school community and the broader community). These might include volunteer programs, beautification opportunities, community blogging, etc)
· Sustainability as a CORE VALUE – this should be incorporated into curricular, civic engagement, and enrichment programs
· All buildings should adopt a sustainability code
· All buildings should have community gardens, and connected curricular (math, science, social studies) and enrichment programs that teach students about stewardship, ecology, sustainable agriculture and food justice
· Social Justice curriculum beginning at the Middle School and through High School. We need to instill the idea that knowledge can be a tool for social justice and not just something they must acquire through memorization and assessment regimes.
· An Enrichment Director who can coordinate enrichment programs and university partnerships across the District
· Every Student College bound program beginning at the early grades (2nd?). I know that some say that not all students are destined for a college degree, but shouldn’t it be an option that they can think about from the time they start their structured learning? I often wonder how many of those students who are supposedly “not destined for college” just haven’t been exposed to the idea from a very young age?
· Tiered mentorship programs (College students mentor high schoolers, high schoolers mentor junior high kids, junior high kids mentor elementary kids)
· Discipline – implement a restorative justice program
· We should create administrative structures at the HighSchool level that include student voices and ideas.
. We should offer art and music in all of the schools, and art, music, theater, dance and band/orchestra in the High Schools
None of the things above are “pie in the sky” ideas. All of them have been implemented in public schools, charter schools, and private schools. Only a few of them would require a substantial amount of money. In any case, if true vision is what they want, and if, as the administration and board constantly say, we need put the interests of children at the forefront, we have to do everything we can to truly re-imagine what education can be in our consolidated district.
I’d add small class sizes to the list. If you really want to make fast, dramatic improvement in education, I’m convinced that’s the way to do it. You hire good teachers, you empower them to try new things, and you keep their classes small. It’s not a complicated formula. And it really works. (Just ask our Governor, whose kids attended Greenhills.) Unfortunately, it costs more than packing 60 kids into a classroom, handing them irrelevant worksheets, and telling them to shut the hell up. And that seems to be our problem.