If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that my friend Maria Cotera has, over the past few years, been sharing reports with us on the status of Ypsilanti’s public schools. From the closing of Chapelle elementary to the the adoption of the recent deficit elimination plan, she’s established herself, at least in my eyes, as one of the few reliable sources of credible information that we have available to us. Well, tonight, we have a new chapter, concerning the impending consolidation of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts. The following comes from an email that Maria just sent out (with a few minor edits from yours truly) to those aligned with the fledgling Ypsi Public Schools Alliance.
…The current situation is VERY challenging, but it MAY provide an opening to truly re-envision what our schools can, and should, be.
The first thing you need to know is that the Ypsilanti Public School District is getting pressured by the State Board of Education, and by the WISD (Washtenaw Intermediate School District), to consolidate with the Willow Run School District. Both districts have been meeting since last year to discuss this, and they have agreed to move forward with a plan to put the merger measure on this November’s ballot. (It has to be voted on by both districts, in a public election.) There was a public meeting about a month ago, but, really, it just seemed like anopportunity to vent (which is the typical approach of this district, as it concerns community engagement). Public sentiment on the issue of consolidation seems to be divided roughly in half, with Willow Run residents, on the whole, favoring the consolidation, while Ypsi residents are doubtful that it will be good for our kids.
One of the big issues we face is that both districts are struggling financially and academically, and the specter of an appointed Emergency Financial Manager looms. The State Board of Education has promised to kick us some (very minor) funds to aid on the logistical side of consolidation, and they have made VAGUE promises about giving us a few more years to pay down our debt, if we consolidate. They will not promise, however… and this is a BIG one for me… to hold our per-pupil funding to current levels. Currently, Willow Run kids get about a $700 less in per pupil in funding than Ypsilanti students ($7,500 vs. $6,800). The plan is to “equalize” the funding levels in a combined district to $7,250, which would mean that, while Willow Run kids get a boost, Ypsi kids would see a reduction of about $250 per pupil.
So what do I think of all this? Well, there has been a lot of empty cheerleading by the powers that be (administrators, board members, school district staff 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, at the end of this process, what we will have is a combined district that will fall back on the same old “visions” 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 hurting because of budget cuts at the State level. There is also a fundamental lack of confidence in the direction of the district among its constituents, which has resulted in declining enrollment. The District can blame this on a “perception problem” till they are blue in the face, but these perceptions come 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 be negotiating 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 be hemorrhaging 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 to acknowledge 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. For example, WISD is leading this process, and they have acquired the services of an outside consultant “Lead and Learn” who will help us come up with a “master plan” for consolidation (for $40,000). Lead and Learn is OWNED by Houghton Mifflin, a textbook corporation. YUCK. In their proposal, they kept referring to us as an “urban district” (that means “black” in “educational industrial complex speak”), but we are much more complex than their narrow optic for “institutional transformation” allows. I think this decision is an indicator of the kind of “leadership” that is directing this process. We need to take this process and make it our own.
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 outcomes 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 to 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/Community 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). Their intellectual work should be tied to transforming our community.
· Sustainability as a CORE VALUE – this should be incorporated into curricular, civic engagement, and enrichments 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. An urban agriculture program would be ideal.
· Social Justice curriculum beginning at the Middle School and continuing 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
· And Every Student College Bound program beginning at thee 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 wonderhow 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 (Student Court).
· We should create administrative structures at the HighSchool level that include student voices and ideas.
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 ourconsolidated district.
For a list of Maria’s earlier posts on the subject of Ypsi public schools, just click here.
And just how disheartening is it to know that we’re paying $40,000 to a out-of-state entity, which is owned by a textbook company, to develop our curriculum?