Schools must work together in lean times

When I was just a kid, way back in the 1940’s, the convenient shorthand for what we did in school was the Three R’s: “Readin’, Ritin’ and Rithmetic.”

Curriculums have changed quite a bit since then. However, the realities of how schools operate have changed even more, especially the aftermath of the Great Recession and continuing turmoil in the world of Michigan school finance. Today, in many places, it’s more like the Three C’s: “Collaboration, Consolidation, or Closure.”

This was wonderfully spelled out in Senior Writer Ron French’s remarkable article, “13 Miles To Marshall,” published March 25 in the Center For Michigan’s online Bridge Magazine.

In four beautifully written and intensely reported chapters, the piece describes the brave, emotionally charged journey of two Calhoun County communities that decided to collaborate in merging their high schools.

Marshall and Albion are separated by just 13 miles on the map but by far more in history, race and culture. Marshall is a mostly middle class white town with beautifully restored 19th century homes gracing wide streets. Racially mixed Albion, to the east, is a grittier place, where the factory jobs of 50 years ago have largely evaporated and times are much tougher. Closing any high school is a very big deal; it strikes to a community’s shared history and identity, its stature as a “place” amid the sprawl of nothingness.

Closing Albion High School and busing more than 150 lower income and mostly black kids to a majority white Marshall High seemed on the surface to be an exercise in racially and educationally-charged futility.

But the financial logic was compelling. Over the years, Albion’s enrollment had fallen off, with many local kids (and their $7,000 per pupil state foundation allowance) leaving for neighboring districts.

Closing the high school would help close up the district’s persistent deficit. And Marshall, facing a deficit itself, would benefit financially from the added enrollment. Faced with the harsh logic of the “Three C’s”, the communities decided to collaborate.

The decision wasn’t easy. Race, as in so many other Michigan communities, couldn’t be ignored. “We had a low-income district, basically all minority, going to a white, affluent district,” Albion Superintendent Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper told French.

Lots of adults were, well, jittery if not outright scared. But what appears to be happening, based on French’s detailed and delicately sensitive reporting, is that things are working out pretty well – much better than a lot of adults expected. Albion kids are managing to take long bus rides to and from school and coping with a different school environment; Marshall kids are discovering their school hasn’t been taken over by a bunch of strangers.

The students, like most people, have reactions that are varied, direct and impossible to stereotype as “poor,” “black,” “middle class,” “white” … or any other generalization.

And the adults in the room are breathing sighs of relief – so far, in any event. This is important for reasons far beyond these two schools, because Albion is one of around 50 Michigan school districts in financial trouble, many with deficits bigger than Albion’s.

Across the state, lots of nervous eyes are focused on the Marshall-Albion experiment. Brighton schools are in deficit, along with Menominee’s, in the UP. Ypsilanti’s deficit is $9 million; Benton Harbor Area Schools deficit is 43 percent of revenue, and Pontiac, a much larger district, is $75 million in the red.

For these districts and for many others, the decision comes down to the hard choices: collaborate, consolidate or close. To my mind, collaboration offers the best range of options, ranging from complete merger to sharing of back-office functions and personnel.

For many school boards, the pressures are intense and likely to increase. Once the state adopted Proposal A back in 1994, school funding became mostly a state matter, not a matter of local control and civic pride. “Schools of choice,” which allow students to attend nearly school in any district they and their families choose, often has strip-mined revenue out of older districts, while charter schools have introduced competitive pressures unimagined a few decades ago.

Years ago, a joke in school circles was, “What do you call a superintendent who closes a school?” “An ex-superintendent.”

Not so far, thanks to the bravery and common sense that Marshall Superintendent Randall Davis and Albion Superintendent Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper have brought to their work.

As one reader of Ron French’s piece wrote last week, “I am impressed and congratulate both Mr. Davis and Ms. Williams-Harper for their willingness to take the risks necessary to help kids.

“I have to believe it took courage on both their parts to make this merger happen. As long as the expectations can be held high it will succeed. Keeping those expectations high will take more courage and personal fortitude.”

Let’s hope that our state’s many communities have a lot of that.

Editor's note: As originally posted, this column overstated the amount of the Ypsilanti School district deficit. It has been corrected; Bridge regrets the error.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 04/01/2014 - 10:21am
I understand the State push for consolidation, it makes sense to not duplicate services that could be shared. What I don't understand is the contrast between consolidation on the one hand and State push for decentralized multiple mini-districts - charter schools. Charter schools seem to be a tremendously inefficient solution.
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 10:58am
Good observation, the reasons are very political and ideological.
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 4:27pm
Sooo, choices in food, cars, clothes, colleges and everything else out there - GOOD!, Choices in K - 12 schools - BAD! ?
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 7:49am
Efficient versus inefficient, that's not the purpose of a school. Learning is. Learning becomes inefficient when large bureaucracies create literally thousands of rules and regulations in addition to dictating content and pedagogy and parsing out funds based on a count instead of a need. This consolidation is an efficiency mavens dream come true. Where is the effectiveness in learning? Under the current system of standardized testing, age grading and uniform cohorts we will never really know since those elements do not provide data that contains any information to address the effectiveness of learning. Due to circumstances Marshall was able to maintain its physical and human infrastructure for education while Albion was not. The Albion children paid the price of being part of a larger system that did not work for them. Instead of addressing the systemic issues - one being funding based on a count instead of a need - Albion was abandoned. This says a solution to schools is to simply consolidate poor districts into wealthy districts that have money. Good luck with that! Key question - are the Marshall/Albion kids really learning? (they have learned that they are pawns to adult whims and that adults can be pretty stupid when they panic - Meh)
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 5:38pm
Chuck, Money is a factor in operating a school, there are other things that have a signficant impact on learning. I am not so sure that money was the difference in the student learning. It seems that students were talking about expectations, about student respect for school and each other, it seem to be about students taking responsibilities. Those don't seem to be limited by money. Are you so sure that if Albion had had similar funding as Marshal that the student academic success would have been similar? Money is an issue, but is it the only issue that differenciates the student successes?
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 7:45am
Duane, In order to take responsibility for anything the opportunity to do so must be present. Students and teachers are denied that opportunity, taking responsibility for your own learning, due primarily to the thousands of rules and regulations that control at the classroom level. These rules and regulations are based in a 200 year old structure of education that the efficiency experts and professional traditionalists refuse to let go of. We refuse to trust our children and our teachers to volunteer for a learning journey. Instead we script their every move in our image of what schooling should be. Was it Twain that siad "I never let my school get in the way of my education."? Mr. French and Mr. Power operate from within that paradigm. How could they not since there is so much support for the same patterns of behavior that got us to this point and so much fear of fundamental change - such as applying funds to individual student need instead of the one size fits all equal amount per a student in a seat on a given day. We are caught up in the thick of thin thinking. That is preventing collaboration between teachers and students. That smothers creativity in the classroom. That denies the diversity present in each human being. "Efficient" use of money is not the purpose of education. Money is a tool to be used to promote and support an indivdual learning, an investment in the future of society, not homage to the past.
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 9:58pm
Chuck, I don't disagree that the trust of teachers and students has been a continuing downward spiral. The best step to putting a stop to it is to start looking through the students' eyes to see what they see and what they feel they have to oversome to learn. In this case the drive for efficiency is what is feeding the distrust. People chose the paradigm they use, if they want change, if they want different results, then they must change their paradigm. If one person offers a different paradigm and they are aware of it then they have a choice. "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein. If they keep the same paradigm why should we/they expect any change in results?
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 4:53pm
I think efficiency is a valid measure of a school's perfromance. I wonder if there are metric that can be used to assess the schools' efficiencies. I would surely like to see how poor the charter schools effciencies are and compare them to the noncharter public schools. My limited knowledge of a charter school was how the staff were willing and able to accomodate the needs of the individual students, how effective they were in helping the students learn, and how successful the students prove to be. They may not be as efficient as they could be and that is where having measures for efficiency could benefit the charter schools.
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 11:59am
As a school board member at the time Proposal A was passed, I thought it was a politically expedient but financially stupid idea. The district in which I served was made up of well educated and fairly affluent families who were willing to support reasonable requests for operation mills and bonds. Proposal A took that option away. Judging from the number of school districts in less affluent communities that continue to fail, all it accomplished was to drag all districts in to mediocrity, and financial peril. The mess schools are in is large part due to the failure of the Proposal A concept and the State's failure to assume it's fiscal responsibilities in that regard. That in my opinion is the elephant in the room that is being roundly ignored.
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 5:27pm
Tom, It seems that the lesson from this set of articles about the consolidation is being missed. Though the money forced the issue, by all indication the learning was different, the expectations were different. The indications are the kids from one school were having better academic success than the other. What we should be asking is to see how the (all) kids at the consoldiated school do academically next year and the year after. If Marshall (all) kids maintain or imporve the school's success then we should be looking to findout why. The kids talked about expectations, about classroom and hallway stablity, they talked about access, if the kids continue to succeed then we should be investigating their success to learn if what they were talking about are the contributors. The success is the kids success, what we need to learn is what help them succeed and why. The need for money to operate is a reality, but to think that is the only reason for the problems and will be the only reason for success is a dillusion. It is about the kids and we should be talking to them about how and why they succeed.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 4:13pm
I regret responding to such a well-thought out column by being fussy about details, but I must. The article would have conveyed much more significant information if Mr. Power had clearly delineated between "debt" and "deficit." Debt refers to accumulated deficits, which are annual shortfalls of revenue with respect to expenses. Further, it would have been helpful to know what both deficits and debts were for each district as a percentage of their revenue. Relying on Ron French's excellent articles, I would declare the Albion-Marshall consolidation a success. As Mr. Power says, "Closing the high school would help close up the district’s (Albion) persistent deficit. And Marshall, facing a deficit itself, would benefit financially from the added enrollment. Faced with the harsh logic of the “Three C’s”, the communities decided to collaborate." We now have a situation where more students are being better educated for the same resources. In an earlier column, Mr. Power noted how many school districts had become sclerotic, change resistant bureaucracies. In today's column he notes that, " 'Schools of choice,' which allow students to attend nearly school in any district they and their families choose, often has strip-mined revenue out of older districts, while charter schools have introduced competitive pressures unimagined a few decades ago." While that process may be stressful for school districts, it will compel them to offer a better product. Students in a "low-income district, basically all minority" need a good education even more than those in " a white, affluent district.”
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 5:48pm
Mr. Power didn't seem to read the same articles I read. "In four beautifully written and intensely reported chapters... " It wasn't the writing style of Mr. French, it wasn't the interpretation that he put into the article. What made Mr. French's article so good were how he let the people speak, ask and reported what the kids, the teachers, the superintendents, the parents had to say. He allowed them to speak from what they knew not what he expected to hear. Mr. Power seemed to miss who was speaking and could only see what Mr. French was writing. Both the idea of breaking the reporting into four articles and allowing those who were the focus of the articles to be hear was how and why Mr. French succeed.