13 MILES TO MARSHALL: For Albion students, a long day, but ‘worth it’ (chapter 4)


Last spring, before the merger, the staging of “Happily Never After” at Albion High School involved a couple of chairs and a canvas painted like a brick wall. This April, Marshall’s production of “Grease” will include a car and a dance number with 40 students hand-jiving across the stage. The show will be performed in a sparkling, new 900-seat performing arts center, part of a $21 million high school renovation and expansion funded by a bond approved by Marshall voters in 2010 (the fourth approved bond in a decade).

Mercedes Pace, the junior cheerleader who had been reluctant to move to Marshall last spring, now is all smiles as she emerges from a two-hour choreography rehearsal for the musical. “This is like stepping into another dimension,” she said.

There were three clubs at Mercedes’ old school. Marshall has 30 extracurricular activities, ranging from the environment club to clay target shooting. Albion had eight sports teams. At Marshall, boys have 12 sports and girls have 11, plus separate cheerleading squads for football and basketball.

Both boys and girls have equestrian teams.

Sophomore Jontaj Wallace went from a cross country team of six to a team of about 50, and to a band almost as big as the entire Albion student body. “I walked into the (Marshall) band room, and I couldn’t believe all the percussion,” Jontaj said. “There was marimba, a xylophone, things I’d never had a chance to play in Albion.”

Jontaj was won over the day he and his Albion classmates visited Marshall High School for an orientation last May and were greeted at the door by the marching band playing the high school fight song. During the summer, the districts held a weekend-long symposium at Albion College that allowed students to get to know each other. Albion students shared rooms with Marshall students. The kids designed an emblem that included elements of a Wildcat and a Redhawk.

Seven months in, the merger has exceeded the expectations of most students, parents and school officials interviewed. Administrators guessed as few as 120 of Albion’s 170 students would come to Marshall High School this fall, with the rest choosing to go to school elsewhere. On the first day of class, 160 showed up.

“It’s the older generation that had problems,” said Marshall senior Tierra Orban, who is white. “They said we wouldn’t get along. They said when we go to school, we’re not going to learn because we don’t learn in the same way. But it was sweet. I have a big group of new friends.”

Yet while many Albion kids say they’re glad they made the move, things aren’t perfect. Most Albion students can recount an incident or two that made them feel like outsiders.

De’Jhannique recounted a story from Homecoming dance last fall. Albion teens didn’t recognize most of the songs. When the DJ played a song they did know, they took to the floor, but the song was cut off because the Albion teens’ moves looked a little too much like twerking.

Differences extended from the dance floor to the school parking lot. Many Marshall juniors and seniors have their own cars, parking in the student lot on the east side of school. Most Albion students ride buses that pull up on the school’s south side – separate entrances not by color, but by income.

“They came into a new school not knowing anybody, not having the (academic) scaffolding to succeed. But I don’t have one Albion kid who’s failing. Their willingness to not give up is inspiring.” – Julie Smith, 12th-grade English teacher, Marshall High School

“At Albion, we never thought about (poverty),” De’Jhannique said. “We didn’t have a student parking lot full of cars. Everybody bought their clothes at the same store. We weren’t picking up on the differences.”

At Marshall, the differences are on daily display, from clothes, to cars, to the classes students take. (While there is one Albion student in Marshall’s advanced placement classes, there are five on the boy’s varsity basketball team.)

Some Albion teens say they miss the family feel of their small school. “You knew everybody,” said Marshall senior Jerome Washington.

Those taking business classes at Marshall can explain the differences by the economies of scale – there are things Marshall can do that just couldn’t be done at tiny Albion. “You’re losing a lot,” said Albion senior Brenden Rudolph, “but you’re gaining more.”

Twelve-hour days: ‘It’s worth it’

On a snowy day in January, the schools in Albion were closed because of the weather, but Marshall schools remained open. With the roads treacherous for bus travel between Albion and Marshall, Albion high school students were told they could stay home and bus transportation was cancelled. Then Williams-Harper’s phone started ringing.

Albion teens wanted their buses. They wanted to go to school.

“They showed up, on a snow day, all of them, even though they didn’t have to,” said an astonished Smith.

It’s an example of the resilience of the low-income students that teachers at Marshall said they have witnessed time and time again.

Jontaj’s story is typical. He rises at 5:30 a.m. to catch a bus at 6:30. When he’s on a sports team, he’ll get home at 8 p.m. and start studying. “It makes for a long day,” Jontaj said. “I miss time with my family.

“But there’s a difference in expectations,” he said. “It’s worth it.”

“I’ve been very inspired by the Albion kids’ fortitude,” said Smith, the English teacher. “They came into a new school not knowing anybody, not having the (academic) scaffolding to succeed. But I don’t have one Albion kid who’s failing. Their willingness to not give up is inspiring.”

The Albion students in Smith’s English and British Literature classes are struggling, but working hard. “I told them if they stick with it, I would not leave them behind, but it will affect your GPA,” Smith said. “Some students from Marshall would drop the class if it was affecting their GPA, but the Albion kids are still here.’

It’s that determination that convinces Smith of the long-term success of the Albion-Marshall merger.

“Come back in three years and see how they’re doing,” she said, when the Albion seniors will have been at Marshall their entire high school careers, and the anxiety of the first year is as faded as the photos of championship teams in the hallways.

“Last spring, they thought we were going to come here and destroy the high school,” said Albion sophomore Chris Bell. “They realize now we’re just here for an education.”

A new chapter

The streetside sign still says Albion High School, even though high schoolers haven’t been in the building since June. The district is running a contest to rename the building. The football field of Wildcat Stadium, last used in 2011 when the school last fielded a team, lies fallow next to playground equipment.

Albion High School now houses kindergarten through eighth grade. Students eat at the mac and cheese bar in a cafeteria bordered by a long trophy case filled with gold cups and medals, some likely won by parents or grandparents of a few of the children.

Last week, Albion residents came to the school’s auditorium for a public forum featuring Albion superintendent Williams-Harper and Marshall superintendent Davis. The last time the two were together in this building, parents were screaming and crying. Now, the audience sat quietly through a PowerPoint presentation on the collaboration.

Since the merger, Marshall’s bank balance has ballooned from $60,000 to $700,000. Albion now projects being out of deficit in four years. The superintendents invited community members to make comments. Only two people spoke. Both said they opposed the move last year. Both said they were wrong.

That may be the most important lesson taught in Marshall High classes this year, a lesson taught by the students. Teens from two very different towns are getting along and getting a good education. Kids from other financially troubled school districts might do the same thing, if, as several Albion and Marshall students told Bridge, “the adults just get out of the way.”

Not far from the school, after making the 13-mile return from another day in Marshall, De’Jhannique Straham retreated to her bedroom, a quiet refuge where she can do her homework.

“I’ve decided to stay in AP English,” she announced. “I’ll work hard, learn what I can, and let this be a lesson.”

She pulled out a novel she’d been assigned in Smith’s class. She doesn’t really like the book, but she loves the title. She opens the paperback, and reads the final chapter of “Brave New World.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:20am
This series deserves close scrutiny. One lesson may be that when the infrastructure is there (Capital funds dependent on local tax base) and learning material available (resources and well trained teachers) the kids will learn and grow. Another is that the adults may have had some issues as did the kids but the kids are the ones that have to live with it every day, like those twelve hour days five days a week - learning means a sixty hour work week, one third of it spent in transportation. All that time on the bus - could this be a supplemental learning opportunity?? Education is not about efficiency or financial acumen (AKA consolidation) - its about learning. The problem is not teachers or students or even the parents. Give the kids a chance and they will learn. So what's the problem?
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 10:41am
Thanks, Ron, for an engaging series that focused on a challenge faced by school districts in ALL parts of the state (albeit, as implied with the White Cloud district, not always impacted by racial and/or socio-economic disparities). This is something that I would not have been aware of by depending on my local news sources; a fine example of Bridge's efforts in serving up more than just another surface-treatment story about the educational "shake-out" (exacerbated by the legislative and executive shenanigans with state funding of our K-12 schools).
Carol Pyke
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 11:30am
This story reaffirms the old adage, "attitude is everything.". Parents, students, teachers, and the communities had to have the attitude of "we can do this!". Applause to all parties, especially the superintendents who led the parade!
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 11:50am
This is about children getting the education they deserve. What every child deserves. Expectations, Collaboration, Accommodation, looking to the future. A vision. Administrators not being afraid. Thinking about the children, putting them first. I LOVE THIS. Being pushed to do your best.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 1:41pm
I am happy that Albion children are doing well in Marshall. However, I have a huge issue with reporting that every Albion student is poor, and under educated.
david zeman
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:30pm
Hi ALW, Thank you for reading this story and taking the time to write. As editor of this story package, I'd like to note that we didn't say that every student was poor and/or African-American. I believe the chapter 1 piece noted that the school district is/was 68 percent African-American, while also noting specifics about family income, student test scores, etc. Obviously, no community is a monolith, and city or district-wide statistical averages can mask wide variations in income and learning abilities. Hopefully, some of that was reflected in the individual Albion students that readers met through these stories. David Zeman Bridge Editordzeman@bridgemi.com
Karie Funderburg
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 8:23pm
There are alot of hard working families in Albion. I am a single mother of 2 students that are attending Marshall. I wil work 60 hours a week if thats what i need to do to raise and support my family. We may not be rich, but we are rich in love... What does money have to do with education??????
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 2:04pm
Ron, well done. I just wish teachers were less focused on the "Marshall" and the "Albion" students; aren't they all Marshall students now? I know you wanted that for purposes of contrast but it still felt like us and them.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 2:19pm
The Albion students are impressive - not everyone could have the fortitude to do what they have done. Just for clarification, on one point. My grandchildren, who are Marshall high school students have the same bus time schedule as the one that has been touted as so difficult for the Albion students - in fact I think their bus may come a little before 6:30 am. Not that I don't agree that it is a ridiculously long day for all of them.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 2:31pm
Great, inspiring series, Ron. Love to see more stories on the bumps and successes of Michigan schools.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:04pm
This is very interesting. Many factors for successful educating is displayed in this series. First, the impact of a strong financial base in providing the ability to offer tools for advanced learning, to offer expanded opportunities in sports, band/music, theater. Second, a strong academic environment that does not bend it's standards, targets, or expectations. Third, strong support for students to achieve and development of solutions to encourage their sucess vs. labeling and criticism. So much can be learned that will contribute greatly to the over haul that is needed for most school systems today and more than just a change in the source of the provider. Thank you for sharing this ... kudos for the awareness!
Ted Miller
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:14pm
Good series. It should be published in every newspaper in the state.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:28pm
I appreciate this series. The two districts have worked hard to make this merger work. I wish that you had put forward a more complete picture of the former Albion students. While poverty and race are central to this story, Albion High School was more diverse than this series suggests. Also, there are many students who are not struggling academically.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:30pm
I am a graduate of Albion High School from the 80's and was very disappointed when I found out the high school was closing. I had no idea how bad Albion was doing financially and academically. I am glad to see that both Albion and Marshall have gained something positive out of this merger. I now live in Pontiac and have 3 children. 2 attend a charter school that extends to 8th grade. The charter school has set up a program with Oxford High School that allows students going into 9th grade (high school) to be bused to Oxford High School everyday (if they meet specific criteria for admissions) through school of choice. For those who don't know, Oxford is a small predominately white town approximately 12 miles north of Pontiac. My oldest daughter is currently a freshman there excelling academically and socially and loves it. She attends through school of choice and not through this program set up by the two principals. She does not ride the bus everyday, I take her. This was the first academic school year for this Oxford-Pontiac union. Unfortunately, academically it was a challenge for some of the Pontiac kids in the beginning. They now have required after school tutoring sessions every Wednesday and the bus comes later to pick them up and take them back to Pontiac. What it boils down to in my opinion, is everyone wanting the best possible education and opportunities for our children.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:30pm
Nothing wrong with school financing. Per pupil spending has kept pace. These districts have lost pupils for a reason and it's about time the financial pressures started forcing some of them to take drastic measures that focus on the kids and learning instead of the comfort level of parents, administrators, and teachers.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 1:01pm
There is something very wrong with school funding when small rural districts aren't able to provide the same quality education as large, wealthy districts. This merger may be a success for now, but is riding on the bus 13 miles really the best we can do?
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 6:06pm
As a senior from Marshall High, I'm disappointed in how you projected the people who went to Marshall before the merger. While the overall message of the piece was positive and in favor of the Albion-Marshall merger, it is extremely prejudiced against the 'rich, white kids'. You not only misinterpreted and LIED about several facts about Marshall, but you also talk about Marshall teens as being completely spoiled. This is not true. My family isn't rich. Up until two years ago, we were working a small farm and barely had enough money for groceries. It isn't fair to say that Marshall is 'rich' in common terms. Many of us are middle class, or lower. One of my friends is adopted by her grandparents and was raised by them. She works forty plus hours a week, goes to school. And pays her own bills. And she still barely scrapes by. Both my sister and I have minimum wage jobs at Taco Bell. Both our parents take us to and from our jobs because we can't afford to pay insurance on a third car that is semi-new. Our parents don't spoil us. If we want something for personal luxury, we pay for it ourselves. Many Marshall kids are far from spoiled. Yes, most citizens of Marshall are middle class, but the 'rich' people are usually older people who have had a lifetime to accumulate wealth. And another note, Albion buses are not the only one to stop at the south entrance. That is EVERY BUS. My sister and Inride a bus everyday that comes to our house at 6:20 am every morning. It doesn't matter if the bus is from Marshall or Albion, they all go to the same entrance. The reason is because the south entrance has a wider road, and is less busy. Teachers are already parked by the south entrance and there isn't a constant stream of cars coming in and out. It's a safety procedure for every driver! And furthermore, you fail to present a neutral tone when referring to either former Albion students, or current Marshall students. You make every single comment about Marshall sound as condescending and racist as possible. Racism is hating anyone of any color. Even if it's a white person. Just because I'm white, I'm automatically judgmental of African-Americans and I'm a spoiled rich kid? Because I go to a decent school, I don't have my own downfalls? That is absolutely uncalled for and down right insulting of everyone in Marshall. I work hard at my job, I try my best at school, and I struggle in Algebra. Don't paint everyone with one shade of white just because we happen to have higher income families and a better school than Albion.
Emily W
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 6:18pm
Hello, as a white student at Marshall - also on welfare, since that seems to be a big deal here- id like to say that I'm ashamed of whoever gave you the authority to enter our school and falsify information in such a way that makes our teachers and students as a whole look racist. Prior to the merge, "black, lower class" Albion students were probably racist towards us, just as we were to them. It is human nature to feel afraid towards the unknown. You have portrayed our school and student body in the most insulting way, as MHS students are nothing short of honored to have our new peers. They are some of the best people we know and they are part of us. We are ONE SCHOOL. Adults like you are the ones creating the problem. DON'T tell us how we feel and move on with your life. This merge is directly related to the lives of the students and until you have personally experienced the environment that presents itself as a student at MHS, do not tell us where the problem is. You are only creating more. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from my peers - white and black- as you have done a great job offending everyone at our school.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 12:56pm
Thank you Emily and Courtney for sharing your experience. I was impressed with how well thought out and articulate your responses were. Welcome to the world of media - broad brush world. I was wondering how students felt about this series. Good luck to both of you and all the students at Marshall.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 9:35pm
These articles are wonderful. I have to admit I was one of the skeptical one's when I first heard about this. Both school superintendents have earned respect and admiration. THUMBS UP to both districts.
Marshall Student
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 11:09pm
Im from albion but i know attend marshall public schools , i wish people would stop the negativity ! This Article is bs seriously they made this to start conflict because we were proving them wrong about the rasicm issue . I wish they would just leave us alone , let us live our lives.Seriously we all goto the same school we are no longer "albion students " we are marshall students !!!
Marshall Student
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 11:09pm
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 11:09am
Great reporting; thank you for this series.
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 11:27am
Seems to me that this should have happened long ago. That is, merging an under-perfoming school into a higher performing one, both of which needed more critical mass to thrive financially. Looks like the winners are the students from Albion.
Daniel De Kok
Thu, 01/23/2020 - 4:16pm

I'd say that when it works, everyone involved wins.

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 2:57pm
Shame that a good subject should be manipulated by a 'new world journalist' who believes that 'you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story'. French praises the works of the two superintendents but does not chide Williams-Harper for her lack of leadrship at Albion for allowing the practice on non-homework and accountability to fester. A shout out to both Courtney and Emily for calling out French for his lack of objectivity. A big shame to French for his discription of the arrival doors at Marshall as anything more that practicality and safety (the same is found at a thousand other high schools in Michigan). A salute to the students of Marshall, wherever they get up in the morning, for continued success at Marshall and beyond!
Tue, 04/01/2014 - 12:39pm
I am pleased that the Albion students are being successful at Marshall, but not surprised. Albion is a unique community with unbelievable people who pull together to support each other and our kids. Both my very successful daughters were AHS grads in the 90's and have earned doctorates. They were both so glad to have been Albion graduates and felt prepared for the real world post college. I hope our Albion students can help their Marshall classmates learn the same lessons. One thing omitted from the well-written article was Albion College and the long collaboration with the schools. Are Albion/Marshall students allowed to attend classes at Albion College, as AHS students were allowed in the past? How about the Math-Science Center in BC?
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 5:35pm
As the teacher who directed the Albion High School play, "Happily Never After," I would like to ask for a correction: the set was far more than just "a couple of chairs and a canvas painted like a brick wall." While we did not have the budget for a lavish set, we did not go entirely minimalist or black box, either. Moreover, the students did an amazing job, one that earned them very positive reviews and kudos from all who saw it. Albion High School was known for years as a forensics and drama powerhouse school, even with less money for fancy sets and props. Those students have taken that heritage to Marshall, and Marshall High School's drama department can only be better for it.
Barb G
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 10:56am
I taught at Marshall in the mid 50's. It was very interesting to read this article. To Nancy who said "there's nothing wrong with school funding" you need to research this subject a lot further. I applaud these superintendents who were strong enough to carry out this program. All students will learn a lot about the real world and hopefully it will provide a path for the Albion students to have better successes for their future through better education. Thanks for the article.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:10pm
I came across your articles looking for something on my current district. I am a generation x that is a first generation college student. I chose to get an education up to a masters because there was so much pain around me I had to take a chance at something better. To me failure when trying for something higher is better than failure when refusing to even try. Over a decade ago I bought a house in my struggling hometown in hopes to make a difference. Its a bigger fight than I ever imagined and now a single mother of an autistic child with my own health issues I choose to reserve my energy for things that do move the needle. Our school districts are failing. There is no school of choice for pre-k. My child deserves the best education. He NEEDS it. We are downsizing to a third of the space to be in the best district. Its scary because I will become a renter and need to rent my house. But I will take another chance and strive for something higher. I am white (raised in a poor black family part of my youth) and my son is mixed. The area we are moving to has minority levels a tiny fraction of what we are used to. It was scary to think of at first. But everyone I met while apartment hunting has been wonderful. Some of my friends are appalled that I would go to such a white potentially racist area. Just a small few. Most people get that education is the most important. Those education focused people I will spend time with. Ignorance and racism happens from both sides. Being in my position Ive seen it all! Don't be offended people think a particular way about your race because someone made that thought true for them. Just be the change you wish to see (Gandhi). When we focus on our goals and human needs, everything else will seem so insignificant. Hats off to the heads of both schools. Big ups to all the students making the struggle and those encouraging them!!!
Daniel De Kok
Thu, 01/23/2020 - 4:13pm

What a great story! It can work if everyone signs on and does their job.