Breezing north up I-75 – just 30 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge – it's easy to miss the Indian River exit sign.
Except for the Cross in the Woods, a nearby 55-foot redwood crucifix that draws the occasional tourist, and snowmobile trails that pull in a few more, this sparsely settled region is a place where economic survival can be day to day.
It is also home to Inland Lakes Schools, a Cheboygan County school district of about 775 students that, like rural districts across much of northern Michigan, is doing its best to compete on a tight budget. Just under 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an annual income threshold that extends up to $45,000 for a family of four.
Down the hall from the entrance to the building for 5th grade through high school, students with emergency clothing needs can tap into Kim’s Closet. Its shelves are stocked with gloves, hats, boots, shoes, toiletries and sleeping bags. On Fridays, the local Methodist church sets out bags stocked with food to help students make it through the weekend.
Veteran teacher Kelly Lapeer said the challenges of the school reflect life for many who reside here. More than a few depend on income tied to those with summer homes on Burt and Mullett lakes, while others work in restaurants or motels scattered around the area.
“A lot of the mothers wait on tables, work as cashiers,” she said. “They are digging deep, doing the best they can.”
While some school districts furnish laptops for students, Inland Lakes makes do with a couple computer labs and a computer cart wheeled from room to room. Its performing arts center is the middle school gym, with a raised stage at one end. Folding metal chairs are hauled out for performances.
Lapeer said there's no teasing or shaming by other students for those who use Kim's Closet. It's a fact of life that folks need help from time to time.
“It's open all the time,” she said. “Kids need it when they blow out the bottom of their tennis shoes. Or they don't have clean clothes because the pipe froze at their house. They can come in here and they don't have to go to Goodwill.”
20 miles and a world away
Twenty miles due west, Harbor Springs Public Schools suffers fewer hardships. This Emmet County district of about 850 students encompasses dozens of pricey homes along Lake Michigan, including multi-million-dollar residences in the private enclave of Harbor Point.
It boasts a new elementary school, a relatively new middle school, a renovated high school, a pool, and a new performing arts center with 400 cushioned seats, state-of-the-art, computer-controlled lighting and stage controls. The arts center rests on a bluff with a postcard view of Little Traverse Bay. Students in fifth grade through high school are furnished laptops.
“We have members of our school district who are fiscally blessed,” said high school principal Susan Jacobs.
Indeed, those expensive second homes help make it one of a small number of “out of formula” school districts in the state, which means local property tax generates more than what its state foundation grant would be. Twenty seven percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch – less than half that of Inland Lakes.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, the Harbor Springs School District received more than $12,000 per pupil in 2012-2013, and could afford smaller classrooms averaging 18 students. Inland Lakes received about $8,500 per student with classrooms averaging 22 students.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Harbor Springs students tended to be better prepared for college (with an average composite ACT score of 24; Inland Lakes was at 20) and more likely to go to college (more than 80 percent vs 54 percent). The Inland Lakes district ranked 359 out of 507 districts in the Bridge Magazine Academic State Champs rankings (Harbor Springs ranked 106), an evaluation system that takes into account student socioeconomic status when evaluating school performance.
Experts say a district’s economic profile – while not an absolute determinant of school performance – is a key factor that cannot be ignored when comparing districts.
“Poverty is certainly not destiny,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education policy and advocacy organization. “But it is in fact one of many factors that are a significant predictor of student achievement.”
A school struggles along with county
By any measure, residents of Cheboygan County, at the top of the Lower Peninsula, have been struggling for years. Seasonal unemployment trends in Cheboygan County underscore the economic stress in the families attending rural schools like Inland Lakes. While the unemployment rate at the height of summer averaged just over 6 percent over the past 13 years, it triples to more than 18 percent in the slow season, as winter gives way to spring.
Emmet and Charlevoix counties, Cheboygan County’s neighbors to the west, are not immune from the have and have-not disparity among school districts. In the Petoskey and Charlevoix districts – also blessed by greater residential and commercial property wealth – less than 40 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2013-2014. But farther away from the resort coast, student poverty levels jump to 60.3 percent in Pellston Public Schools, 58.1 percent in Alanson Public Schools and 48.7 percent in Boyne Falls Public Schools.
Student test scores tend to parallel the free or reduced lunch numbers.
In Alanson, in Emmet County, fewer than 10 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math on the Michigan Merit Exam in 2013-2014; 29 percent were proficient in reading (Statewide, 29 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math and 59 percent in reading).
In Boyne Falls, in Charlevoix County, 25 percent of 11th graders scored proficient in math and 42 percent in reading.
According to Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce, things might have gotten tougher for districts like Pellston and Alanson during the Great Recession. Smith said he received anecdotal reports that some families fled those districts to buy houses in the more affluent Petoskey district, taking advantage of plunging housing prices, and leaving lower-income families behind in rural districts.
“They moved there because they could afford to do so,” he said.
Creaking with age, but little money
At Inland Lakes, Superintendent Fred Osborn said he realized shortly after he arrived four years ago that the district was in urgent need of an upgrade to its aging secondary building. A sprawling, one-story concrete block structure, it was cobbled together in stages over the decades.
It had worn carpeting, drafty windows and an ancient phone system. It lacked sufficient security cameras and an updated fire alarm system. Playground equipment showed its age. The roof at the elementary school was due for replacement.
The budget is further squeezed by the sheer size of the district: 180 square miles. Its bus fleet logs 540 miles a day, as the district spends $450,000 a year on transportation, 6.2 percent of its budget. Harbor Springs spends about 2.4 percent of its budget on transportation. Some students spend up to three hours a day on the bus, traveling up to 60 miles round trip.
“There was a lot we needed to get done,” Osborn said. “There really was not a system in place for dealing with an aging infrastructure. Do we get buses and carpeting and lay off a teacher or keep class size manageable and keep 15-year-old buses on the road.”
Which option would the community support?
Osborn held a series of community meetings to answer that question. A swimming pool would have been nice – but the facility committee evaluating the bond proposal ruled that out. The secondary building could use a complete exterior renovation. The committee recommended something more modest.
In August, district voters were asked to approve an $8.1 million bond issue to do what Osborn considered the minimum the district needed to remain competitive. It would cost the owner of a home with a market value of $150,000 $66 a year. The measure passed, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Among other investments, it will pay for new boilers and a new roof in the elementary building, new windows, doors, boilers, carpeting and a partial roof replacement in the secondary building. Both buildings will get a robust wireless upgrade.
Despite the county’s economic challenges, the bond outcome was perhaps not much of a surprise given the school district’s importance to the community.
“The school is the heart of the community, not only one of the largest employers, but this is where things are happening. This where people meet,” Osborn said.
State policy limits career options
Beyond the physical improvements to the district, Osborn is optimistic the technology upgrade will give students a better chance to compete in today's economy. He said it should “ultimately increase student achievement and better prepare students for career and college readiness.”
Osborn said he would like to offer more in career training opportunities for district students, but that means a 35-minute bus ride to Cheboygan for the Cheboygan Area Schools career training program.
It is offered through the Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque intermediate school district.
Because the intermediate school district has no tax support for vocational education, Inland Lakes must pay Cheboygan Area Schools what it costs to educate Inland Lakes students at the vocational center at Cheboygan High School - an equivalent of $475 an hour.
Critics maintain that Michigan’s funding system for high school career technical education needs revamping, noting that districts like Inland Lakes are at a disadvantage because they reside within an intermediate school district that has no tax support for vocational education. A recent report by Bridge highlighted the disparity in vocational funding across the state, noting that 23 of Michigan’s 56 intermediate schools have no tax support for vocational education.
In the meantime, Lapeer, the teacher, is mindful of the family struggles some of her students bring to class. At 47, she has taught science, chemistry and similar courses for 25 years.
“We have families that have been foreclosed on. We had one family lose their home to a fire and no insurance. We have some families that live with grandparents. Many lost jobs as businesses close and have had to move.
“As a teaching staff we have taken up collections to help pay electric and heat bills for families. It's just how things work up here. We are a very close-knit community and we do a lot to try and help our own.”
One bittersweet reward: Students who pass through her classroom, go away to college and never look back. Lapeer recalls students of hers who have graduated from the University of Michigan, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A student she had in physics and chemistry recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“If I do something to help them reach their dream, it’s fulfilling,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome.”