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.