Ypsi School Board’s Dr. Celeste Hawkins on race, class, segregation, and the prospect of a merger with Ann Arbor Public Schools


A few days ago, I posted something here about the findings of a study on affordable housing commissioned by Washtenaw County. The published report, as you may recall, didn’t paint a very pretty picture. Our communities, according to the authors of the study, are rapidly becoming segregated, with less-well-off people, especially people of color, quickly consolidating in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, where the poverty rate is already approaching 30%. And this, in their professional opinion, is not tenable. If not dealt with, the authors point out, it’s not just Ypsilanti that will suffer from the resulting instability. This “imbalance in income, education and opportunity between the jurisdictions, along with the segregation that goes with it,” they say, “will hamper the regional economic growth potential of the (entire) area.” And, with that in mind, they made several suggestions. And it’s one of those suggestions in particular that I’d like for us to talk about today. The authors of this study recommended that we “create a unified Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti School District,” the thought being that more financially stable families would consider living in Ypsilanti if our schools were stronger, better funded, and backed up by Ann Arbor. This one thing, in their opinion, would go a long way toward addressing the growing inequality that we’re seeing develop across the region. Not only would the children of Ypsilnati have access to more in the way of educational resources, but it would also lead to some degree of normalization across our communities with regard to household income, etc.

Given that Ann Arbor residents this past November voted overwhelmingly against the idea of annexing the Whitmore Lake public schools, I don’t see how a merger of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s districts would stand a chance, but I do think it’s a worthwhile conversation to have. And, I should add, I know that there are those in County government who would disagree. I have it on good authority that many folks at the County would prefer that such a conversation not be had, as they think, perhaps rightly, that such a conversation would only serve to derail their more achievable objectives, like getting more low-income housing built in Ann Arbor. I haven’t heard this explicitly from anyone in County government, but I also get the sense that our elected officials feel as though suggesting consolidation of our two districts would be career suicide.

And folks who feel that way are probably right. There’s no reason to think that the voters of Ann Arbor, when they just voted against assimilating the small, white, relatively well-performing Whitmore Lake district, wold ever consider joining forces with the more complex, considerably poorer Ypsilanti district. (In the case of Whitmore Lake, there was even State money on the table, and the voters still said no.)

In spite of this, though, I went ahead and reached out to a few folks on the Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education, and asked what they thought of the idea. The first person to respond to me was Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor Celeste Hawkins, who was just recently elected to a new four-year term on the board. Here’s what she had to say. [It should be noted that what follow are her personal opinions, and not those of the board.]

Thank you for the opportunity to offer my perspective. As it relates to your particular question on my thoughts related to the suggestion of merging the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti school systems, I would be remiss if I did not first offer my view on the larger issue as it relates to the interconnectedness of race, class, education, and the pervasive inequalities that disproportionately impact those with lower incomes and people of color. The Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis report demonstrates that patterns of racial and economic segregation both locally and nationally have led to economic and educational opportunities being vastly diminished along the lines of race and class.

As a proud resident of Ypsilanti Township who intentionally chose to live in this community, I have some strong personal views grounded in research about the aforementioned topics. I feel fortunate to live in Ypsilanti and am proud of all that it offers in terms of its rich history, culture, and diversity that is often not widely shared and quite frankly overshadowed by negative characterizations of Ypsilanti. I have not experienced nor do I see firsthand the “livability disadvantages” referenced in the report (p. 28). However, I am not naïve in thinking that perception is often reality for many and is a major issue facing both the city and township of Ypsilanti. The report poignantly suggests that for the entire county to thrive Ann Arbor must prioritize investing in more affordable housing and Ypsilanti must make a concerted effort to grow their demand by “investing in livability” (p. 55). Based on the findings of the report, I agree that there is no sustainability in attempting to defer to Ypsilanti as the remedy for affordable housing, instead Ypsilanti would benefit from proactively seeking to reverse the trajectory of disinvestment. The viability of all communities in Washtenaw County will contribute to its overall sustainability — as the report points out, there is no gain in maintaining high concentrations of poverty and wealth in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. Further, it is important to note that I did not draw the conclusion from the Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis report that the solution was to expand the affordable housing stock in Ypsilanti, but rather redistribute the availability of the affordable housing stock by balancing and expanding accessibility in Ann Arbor in order to avoid distressing and placing an undue financial burden on Ypsilanti. As such, the community is uniquely poised to engage in conversations to identify ways to re-invest in Ypsilanti.

In my view, as it relates to equity, an understanding of how society constructs and perpetuates racial and class stereotypes of lower income families must be stated. It is disheartening that the poor are often pathologized (who are mainly people of color) due to lack of “middle class rules,” but fails to take into account the failings of the system, which create conditions that allow poverty to persist. Society often plays the “blame the victim” game and fails to take into account the institutionalized racism and classism that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Placing the blame on the oppressed instead of looking at the big picture such as inequalities in the school system, economic system, and the power system reproduces and maintains patterns of inequality.

The pathological analysis of poverty that blames the victim for their poverty while failing to acknowledge the structural reasons as a result of the shortcomings of the system is shortsighted at best. Unfortunately, when society focuses on the individual reasons as the most important factors related to poverty, structural reasons such as unemployment and discrimination are typically ignored and viewed as less important. This idea of pathologizing the poor, rather than seriously focusing on the structural causes of poverty itself has been used as justification for policies that have perpetuated poverty leading to minimal urban investment, low household income that cannot support most needy families, and misplaced spending priorities that only encourage and facilitates under-resourced schools and the school to prison pipeline (Kushnick & Jennings, 1999; Rank, 2004).

Views on poverty often gives policy-makers and those with no previous understanding of poverty a very simple way of explaining the behavior of poor people as lazy, shiftless, knowing how to purchase a gun, and knowing their way around a jail, which often makes people rationalize viewing poor people negatively and apathetic about the conditions of poverty. This peripheral and marginalizing view of poverty helps to make people feel comfortable about playing the blame game to justify the stereotypical excuses that allow for the existence of societal issues like poverty.

The problems with institutionalized racism and classism will continue to pervade public education until social changes take place. The schools operate from middle-class norms and values, so views of poverty often shifts the blame away from the school system to the students who “seem” to lack “middle class rules” to succeed in school, thus instead of systematically addressing the issue and critiquing the structural inequalities facing public education, the blame is often shifted to the individual, the family, and the community. This is a social justice issue in need of redress and if left unaddressed from a systemic standpoint will have dire consequences for far too many of our children.

I am optimistic about this proactive approach being taken by Washtenaw County to conduct such a thorough needs assessment and making suggestions on a variety of plausible interventions to perhaps address this disturbing trend.

That being said, your particular question on the suggestion of a merge quite frankly is a strategy we should all be looking at to leverage all available resources to enhance and improve educational opportunities for all students in the county, however these conversations are preliminary at best and if the response to the annexation of Whitmore Lake is any indication of the community’s appetite for expanding school boundaries, then it will take a lot of time and energy to see any movement in that direction. So now that we see that there is the potential for certain segments of the community to become increasingly segregated along the lines of race and class and an overall need to invest in the sustainability of the entire county, it is not merely enough to describe the water when we see the community drowning, we must all do our part by first acknowledging and then seeking to understand the equity issues facing our community more broadly and jump in through efforts of advocacy and raising awareness to save it.

So, should we not talk merger? By doing so, are we jeopardizing other, more achievable goals relative to affordable housing? And, on the other side, if we don’t take the opportunity afforded to us by the publication of this report to have an open, honest discussion, are we doing ourselves a disservice? Personally, I’d be happy to never mention the idea of a merger again, just so long as there was evidence of real, meaningful collaboration between the districts, and an acceptance of the fact that, if we’re to be successful as a region, we need to think beyond our borders and acknowledge the interconnectedness of our communities… But how does one get there from where we are today? How do we use our schools to reverse the harmful segregation that we’re seeing increase around us?

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  1. Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Here’s some demographics as food for thought. My guess is that the poverty demographics would look similar to the racial pattern. As my friend from the Ella Baker Center once told me, “In America, class has a hue.”
    From the 2010 Census:

    Washtenaw County 344,791
    74.5% were White, 12.7% Black or African American, 7.9% Asian, 0.3% Native American, 1.2% of some other race and 3.4% of two or more races. 4.0% were Hispanic or Latino (of any race).

    Ann Arbor City 113,934
    73.0% White (70.4% non-Hispanic White), 7.7% Black or African American, 0.3% Native American, 14.4% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 1.0% from other races, and 3.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.1% of the population
    Ypsilanti City 19,435
    The racial makeup of the city was 61.5% White, 29.2% African American, 0.6% Native American, 3.4% Asian, 1.1% from other races, and 4.3% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.9% of the population.

    Chelsea City 4,944
    The racial makeup of the city was 96.1% White, 0.4% African American, 0.3% Native American, 1.1% Asian, 0.6% from other races, and 1.5% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.5% of the population.

    Saline City 8,810 The racial makeup of the city was 93.6% White, 1.4% African American, 0.2% Native American, 2.5% Asian, 0.4% from other races, and 1.8% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.6% of the population.

    Townships (Ypsi and Superior Townships border Ypsilanti City and include Willow Run _ which is where a desegregation campaign was won in the 40s and hence free of the area’s redlines).

    Ypsilanti 53,362
    The racial makeup of the township was 67.51% White, 25.47% African American, 0.49% Native American, 2.01% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 1.20% from other races, and 3.30% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.80% of the population.

    Superior 10,740 people
    The racial makeup of the township was 63.01% White, 30.81% African American, 0.47% Native American, 2.30% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.71% from other races, and 2.67% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.83% of the population.

    Ann Arbor 4,720
    The racial makeup of the township was 81.21% White, 2.25% African American, 0.17% Native American, 13.58% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 0.85% from other races, and 1.89% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.22% of the population.

    Pittsfield 34,663.
    The racial makeup of the township was 70.37% White, 14.29% African American, 0.44% Native American, 9.96% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.68% from other races, and 3.21% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.97% of the population.

    York 7,392
    The racial makeup of the township was 83.75% White, 12.72% African American, 0.26% Native American, 1.04% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 0.84% from other races, and 1.38% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.06% of the population.

    Augusta, Bridgewater, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lodi, Lyndon, Manchester, Northfield, Salem, Saline, Scio, Sharon, Sylvan, Webster all 90-99.+% white

  2. Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Just as Detroit should annex the bordering towns above 8 mile, Ann Arbor should completely annex Pittsfield and Ypsilanti and put everything under a single tax base.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I’m torn on this. I can certainly see how it might be a distraction, but it does seem like a conversation that should happen. It will be interesting to see who comments here. My sense is that the Ann Arbor liberals who always weigh in on your site will be mysteriously MIA when it comes to the topic of merging their schools with Ypilanti’s.

  4. SST
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Ann Arborites are great when it comes to being progressive in an abstract sense. They like lambasting people online for using the wrong pronouns for transgender people, and signing petitions to ban Israeli rice from the co-op. When it’s their tax money and their schools, though, it’s not so easy. I’m reminded of the movie High Noon, when everyone in town says that they’ll fight alongside the Marshall, and then no one does.

  5. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    How has the merger b/w Willow Run and Ypsilanti turned out? I am not being snarky; I’d like to hear from parents/teachers. I’ve read some horror stories (teachers getting punched, fights all over the middle school), but I would really like to know.

  6. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Saw a little preview over the summer of what would come up in any merger. I was at a public meeting on police militarization sponsored by the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice when there was Q & A. Somebody stood up and started going on how there could be more “problems” in schools if the AA and Whitmore Lake School districts were merged and how the Ann Arbor schools bar of quality would be lowered. Gee, what polite terms for some real ugly feelings.

  7. BK
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    What’s that sound coming from your Ann Arbor readers?


  8. Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious why you think the County is putting out reports with recommendations they themselves hope are never discussed? (Obviously, they’re not of one mind, so it sounds like you’re thinking of individual dissenters?) At the County level, “career suicide” is probably an exaggeration — the County Board has, for example, dug deep into 50- or 100-year-old statutes to find ways to levy road millages without going to ballot…and pretty much all got reelected anyways without any trouble. Simply calling for an open discussion of the idea shouldn’t require much more political courage than they’ve previously displayed.

    Now, I doubt that a merger would have any short-term impact on the educational prospects of students currently enrolled in YCS, though this would probably depend on how the per-pupil foundation grant gets calculated — I think the A2 annexation of Whitmore Lake got to use A2’s higher $ amount? — and whether that might accelerate some of the programs and options that are currently in discussion in the YCS.

    I think that if we over here in Ypsi were willing to be annexed into the Ann Arbor school district, though, it would probably be the single biggest step we could take towards attracting more families-with-a-choice to live in Ypsi City/Township. Mixing the test scores, graduation stats, etc, and taking on the “Ann Arbor Schools” brand (sorry, it’s a lot less effective if we try to screw with the name) would remove those big knee-jerk negative reactions folks have when looking at school districts.

    So, it depends on the desired outcome: if we’re trying to alleviate development pressure on A2 and create it in the Ypsis (a win on both ends), this would be a great option. If we’re trying to improve education for current Ypsi students, it’s probably less significant, though the people hwo know the schools better would have to weigh in on that.

  9. jcp2
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I don’t even think that rebranding a combined AAPS-YCS into a single school district with the Ann Arbor brand will really attract more people into moving to Ypsilanti that wouldn’t have moved there otherwise, unless there are substantial changes in educational programming. The students in the existing schools will be the same, the teachers will be the same, the buildings will be the same, the home environment will be the same.
    Data on individual elementary schools, flawed as it is, is already easily available online through several websites, such as Greatschools.org. Standardized test scores can be compared, as can school demographics and percentage of students on free or reduced lunch. This information is already built into real estate pricing by elementary school districts, where there are substantial differences and substantial choices. There’s no real other reason why houses in Bach are less expensive than houses in Eberwhite, or why houses in Lawton are more expensive than houses in Dicken.
    AAPS is addressing these internal discrepancies by implementing novel programming in otherwise less “desirable” schools. Hence we see the first implementation of STEAM in Northside, as well as the initial targeting of Mitchell, Scarlett, and Huron for International Baccalaureate programming.
    We’ll have to wait a few years to see if Superintendent Swift’s plans work for improving the educational experience for students in these schools, but if they do, then maybe a consolidated district with Ann Arbor branding and targeted magnet style programming in select schools in Ypsilanti available only to those students living within that school draw area could be an additional draw factor to pulling more people into Ypsilanti. That, and a cap on charter schools in Michigan in general.

  10. Kim
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    By not speaking, your Ann Arbor readers are speaking volumes.

  11. Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:41 pm | Permalink


    I agree with you that it’s a conversation worth having. That’s why I posted it on my site. As I noted, however, it’s my sense that some of our elected officials would rather that we steered clear of the issue, for fear that it could derail initiatives that, in their opinion, actually have a chance of seeing the light of day. (No one I’ve talked with thinks that Annarbourties would vote for a merger.) I don’t want to name names, but, given the conversations I’ve had recently, I don’t think it’s just one person who’s thinking this way. My sense is that people at the County know school consolidation is a non-starter, and they’d rather focus on trying to do things like increase the number of affordable housing units in Ann Arbor. But, yeah, I’d agree that it’s probably the single most impactful thing we could do to address the issue of segregation… Sorry if I wasn’t clear in the post.

  12. Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    And, yes, we need to also consider a cap on charters.

  13. Meta
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    From the Washington Post:

    “When public schools get more money, students do better”

    Beginning 40 years ago, a series of court rulings forced states to reallocate money for education, giving more to schools in poor neighborhoods with less in the way of local resources. Critics such as Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution, argued these decisions were simply “throwing money at schools.” His research found that there was little correlation between how much schools spent and how well their students performed on tests.

    It’s a view still held by many politicians today, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.). “We spend more than any other state in the country,” he said a year ago. “It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it — and the results.”

    More recent research, however, has found that when schools have more money, they are able to give their students a better education. A new study on those who went to school during the school-finance cases a few decades ago found that those who attended districts that were affected by the rulings were more likely to stay in school through high school and college and are making more money today.

    The authors, Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico of Northwestern University and Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley, released a revised draft of their as-yet-unpublished paper this week. The benefits were most obvious for students from poor families. They found that a 10 percent increase in the money available for each low-income student resulted in a 9.5 percent increase in students’ earnings as adults. A public investment in schools, they wrote, returned 8.9 percent annually for a typical pupil who started kindergarten in 1980.

    Read more:

  14. Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    1) Mark, why do you keep saying Annarbourites with a U? It’s bugging me for reasons I can’t really express. I don’t mean that you have to stop, but I’m rather curious. I know that we were originally the Village of Ann Arbour…oh, what’s that? Oh, did you say you wanted to hear more about our local history? Come out to Nerd Nite next Thursday and hear me ramble. There will be beer and other, much more articulate people speaking so it won’t be a total wash :)

    2) Seriously, can someone who works or has kids in the merged Ypsi-WR district please weigh in? I’ve only had experience with one school merger in my life and it was a disaster (mixed wealthier kids with non-wealthy kids and it was a freaking hot mess…and this was decades ago). I’m also curious how the Marshall/Albion merger is going.

  15. Posted January 24, 2015 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I don’t feel qualified to talk about the merger of the two Ypsi districts, so I hope someone else will come along to answer that for you, Patti. I can, however, tell you why I’ve taken to saying “Annarbourites.” It’s because “Ann Arborites” looks sill to me. I think Annarbourites just looks better. And there’s historic precedence for it, as Ann Arbor was founded as Annarbour.

  16. Posted January 25, 2015 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Okay, I can learn to love that then :) Annarbourites, it is!

  17. Posted January 25, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    How about “Ann Arboreals”?

One Trackback

  1. […] But, yes, I think it’s great that Ann Arbor is so much better than we are in Ypsilanti at educating those in poverty, and I hope this realization brings with it an acceptance of the fact that we need to do a better job of working across districts for the good of these kids, and our community… If Ann Arbor’s awesome at educating the poor, and we’ve got a lot of poor people, I’d say that’s a match made in heaven… Let’s talk merger. […]

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