13 MILES TO MARSHALL: Are Albion and Marshall a model for other troubled districts? (chapter 3)




There’s an old joke that superintendents know.

“What do you call a superintendent who closes a school?”

“An ex-superintendent.”

Closing a town’s high school, and busing more than 150 poor, mostly black kids to a middle-class, white school seemed like potential career suicide for Williams-Harper and Davis.

“A lot of people think it’s a good idea, but nobody wants to do it in their place,” Williams-Harper said. “It could be a serious career-changer.”

In business terms, the plan made sense. Closing Albion’s high school, which costs more per student than K-8 classes, would drastically lower the struggling district’s bills. (Albion retained its K-8 classes and is still an independent district.) An influx of Albion students and their $7,000 in state aid would help erase Marshall’s deficit.

Albion would shoulder the cost of transporting their teens to Marshall for school and after-school activities, and Marshall’s standardized test scores were likely to drop. But those were small problems compared with the business struggles the districts would face if they did nothing.

But communities don’t view their schools as businesses.

The racial disparity between the schools couldn’t be ignored. “We had a low-income district, basically all minority, going to a white, affluent district,” Williams-Harper said. “They said they didn’t know if they’d be treated fairly. By the reaction, we thought it was 1960 all over again.”

Parents seemed more worried about race than many of their children. “I think it was a generational thing,” said Jerome Washington, a senior from Albion who is African-American. “I think they (parents) are getting the hang of it now.”

Some Marshall parents encouraged Superintendent Davis to hire more security staff for the high school once Albion students arrived. He refused.

“What we were hearing was all negative, basically racist stuff,” recalled Samantha Price, a Marshall junior, who is white and an outspoken advocate of the joined high schools. She believes that while the benefits of the collaboration aren’t as tangible for Marshall students, there is value in pushing out of their white, middle-class cocoon. “This is the real world,” she said. “They’re just regular students like us.”

No Wildcats, no town: Why consolidations are rare

Albion’s angst went beyond race, to an issue that makes school consolidation a difficult sell in any community.

“As long as you have a high school, you’ve still got a town,” said Linda Forward, who as director of education improvement and innovation at the Michigan Department of Education, prods districts to collaborate. Forward was instrumental in steering Albion and Marshall through the high school merger, but has struggled to get other communities to do the same.

Loss of identity is tough to overcome, even when merging high schools makes sense economically and academically.

When you have a high school, “you’ve got the Bearcats or Tigers,” Forward said. “You’ve got the red-and-white.”

High school sports plays an oversized role in education policy. Forward recounted a story from when she was principal of tiny Millington High School in Michigan’s thumb, when to save money she recommended to the school board that the school drop its sports teams. “There was an auditorium full of people and we were there till 2 a.m.,” Forward recalled.

Sports were retained.

“The next month, we were evaluating new textbooks for reading. There were four people there and we were out in 90 minutes.”

For Albion and other communities with struggling schools, the question may come down to this: How much community pride will a town swallow to give their kids a better education?

Felicia Gardenhire said she was “one of those parents” complaining the loudest about the closing of Albion High School last spring. “I graduated from Albion,” she said. “My mom graduated from Albion. My son graduated from Albion. I wanted my daughter to graduate there, too.”

But after seven months at Marshall, Gardenhire and her daughter Tamiyah, a freshman, are converts. “The teachers are great,” Felicia Gardenhire said. “The parents are great. She’s making lots of friends.”

“I love it,” Tamiyah said, turning her attention back toward a text message.

The Marshall-Albion collaboration may not have happened if not for the two people heading the districts. Davis, 57, the Marshall superintendent, who is white, started his career as a family therapist, working at Starr Commonwealth in Albion, a nonprofit that focuses on racial healing.

Williams-Harper, 55, who is black, has never shied away from a fight. She had public confrontations with the school board of Beecher Community Schools on the north side of Flint when she was superintendent of that struggling, low-income district. She was hired as Albion superintendent in July 2012. Within three months, she was working with Davis to close Albion’s high school.

“This couldn’t have been done from the inside, by someone who’s been here 25 years,” Williams-Harper said. “I still have people who won’t talk to me because I’m the woman who closed the high school.”

Albions all over Michigan

Albion was one of about 50 Michigan school districts in the red at the end of the last school year, many with deficits larger than Albion’s.

Brighton Area Schools in Livingston County was operating at a deficit; so were school districts in Mt. Clemens, in Macomb County and Menominee in the Upper Peninsula. Benton Harbor Area Schools has a deficit equal to 43 percent of its revenues; Ypsilanti’s deficit totaled $9 million.

Forward said she has encouraged districts to consider the entire spectrum of collaboration, from complete mergers to sharing back-office personnel, to save money. “Do you really need four bookkeepers,” she will ask, “or can four districts share one bookkeeper?”

Sharing bookkeepers probably wouldn’t be enough to save Pontiac School District, which by last summer had a $75 million deficit equal to 39 percent of its revenues. Pontiac’s problems have a familiar ring: desperate cuts in an effort to save the district; fear of losing schools, concern about where its low-income, nearly all African-American students would go. The six surrounding districts are middle-class to upper-income, and majority white.

The uncomfortable truth is that collaborations that send kids from a struggling district to a financially sound district are always a tough sell, and even tougher when they change the color of classrooms.

Is financially troubled White Cloud School District in rural Northwest Michigan more likely to form an Albion-Marshall type of collaboration than Pontiac because its kids are virtually indistinguishable from students in neighboring Fremont and Newago?

By contrast, if Pontiac officials were inclined to bus its high schoolers to another district – a move that would save money while offering teens more opportunities – would the district find any suitors?

That’s why the success or failure of the Albion-Marshall merger will be watched closely by school leaders across Michigan. If schools of different incomes, races, cultures and academic success can combine successfully, it could spark more high school consolidations. If it fails, Forward’s job will be that much tougher.

“There are districts that should be looking at their data and figuring out what they need to do,” Forward said. Until the Albion-Marshall story unfolds, “there’s no recipe book with those ingredients in it.”

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


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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:09am
Paying attention to the dollar appears to be the priority here, the very first priority. That is fundamentally wrong. Wise business leaders know that you must pay attention to the people if you wish long term success in business. Pay attention to the child first, money second. Michigan is a wealthy state and we spend our $13 billion in school aid funds unwisely. That's what we get for putting the dollars first. How much money do we spend on actions at the district and building level to comply with rules and regulations that have not be rexamined for efficacy in decades. Do we really need 1,782 specific instructions from the MDE to enable children learning? And that's just one statute of many.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:41pm
Chuck, The reality is that money is a common denominator that cannot be accomodate as people and personalities can be. Each school district, each school has its own perception of what is expected and what is acceptable that is how we get the divergence of performance. Money doesn't allow for that discretion. Like it or not, just as in the case of Albion and Marshal we need to use to improve the opportunities for the kids.
William C. Plumpe
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 12:50pm
Hey Chuck--- The reason there are so many regulations is that education is important and we want to get it right. Is being a heart surgeon more important than being a teacher? Or how about a police officer? Heart surgeons and police officers have all sorts of rules and regulations they must follow in the course of their work to get things right. Should teachers who are preparing students for life be any different? I don't think so. Maybe look through and eliminate any obvious unnecessary rules but don't go in just to eliminate rules for the sake of eliminating rules. As to consolidating school districts---a good idea if done properly. I used to live near 8 Mile and Gratiot in Detroit. Just as a test I drew a circle with a radius of 15 miles of 8 Mile and Gratiot and found that circle touched on and or included 15 separate school districts. Remember pi r squared as the area of a circle? The area of a circle with radius of 15 miles is about 480 square miles. That equals something like one school district every 32 square miles. And a good portion of that circle is one District, Detroit and a good deal of open water. Way too many. Enough said.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:36pm
I am impressed and congratulate both Mr. Davis and Ms. Williams-Harper for their willingness to take the risks necessary to help the 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. I thank Mr. French for this set of articles, they have been very informative and breaking it into Chapters to present different perspectives is very effective. I hope he will add chapters following the progress and reflecting these same perspectives. I would like to hear what each student, teacher, parent, and superintendent expereinces and how the overcome challenges to make this happen next year.
John Q. Public
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 10:16pm
Starr Commonwealth, "... a non-profit that focuses on racial healing..."? When did it stop being a residential school for law-breaking boys, whom we used to call "juvenile delinquents"?
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 4:30pm
"John", A simple Google search for Starr Commonwealth will lead you straight to their site. Yes, they do have a residential education program for court-placed students, however Starr Commonwealth as an organization does MANY more things, including working in foster care, community-based programs, training on racial healing, trauma, and resilience. Regarding the timeframe, oh, about 100 years.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 9:16pm
I am once again wondering why does it always have to come down to race? Poor black kids. Middle class white kids. Why? Points can be made without all of the references to skin color. I would like to ask this question, Are there any success stories? Can anyone speak up and say something positive about our Albion kids ? I have to believe out of all the things that have happened, something positive must be going on. This article is sick. Terribly degrading. It saddens me to have read this article, I wish I wouldn't have. I am a Albion native and all 3 of my kids have graduated from Albion too. We are not a poor, low class white family. We are a hard working family with strong Christian values, and we WANTED our kids to attend Albion. We could have sent them anywhere, we chose Albion. Never, ever, will these two towns overcome their obstacles as long as these articles exist. How sad, so very sad.
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 8:08am
What happens to the Albion employees?
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 5:29pm
Most of us who were pink-slipped or who left have found good teaching jobs elsewhere. One teaches for Kellogg Community College, others in area districts, and I now teach at North Branch High School up north of Lapeer.
Morris Taber
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:47am
Michigan created this statewide problem when it turned to Charter Schools and Schools of Choice rather than fully funding education for everybody. Encouraging people to flee community public schools is disastrous for Society's future.
Tue, 03/10/2015 - 5:53pm
I agree about the charter schools, they are making bank off of our tax dollars. Every time a charter moves in the public schools suffer.
Tue, 03/10/2015 - 6:03pm
I respect the way the two schools came together. I will say I went to Detriot Public Schools and had no race issues while I was the minority. Then when I transferred out to a primarily white skinned school I was disscrimated against. I feel that this over all mixing of two schools would have social problems even if the mix was from the same race. How the students of these two schools are working together is all the matters at the end of the day. Had I not transferred to the school district when I did at the high school level, I would not have gone on to college. I support Dr. Randall Davis in his state superintendent roll. I hope that Jerri Lynn William-Harper will stay for the good of Marshall Public Schools.