A tale of two schools in Michigan’s resort paradise

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.

School resources vary widely

Like the wide gap that exists in household incomes in Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan counties, local school districts have vastly different spending levels.

County, district Students % eligible for free
or reduced lunch
3rd grade reading
High school
Per pupil
Charlevoix County
Beaver Island 69 40.6% -- -- >95% $34,098
Boyne City 1,307 40.9% 79.8% 18.9% 71.1% $9,211
Boyne Falls 158 48.7% 61.5% 0% 88.2% $12,988
Charlevoix 1,046 39.6% 68.5% 18.7% 88.4% $9,752
Concord Academy 193 17.6% 63.6% 25% 73.3% $8,014
East Jordan 970 60.4% 73.5% 8.6% 87.7% $9,139
Northwest Academy 96 51% -- 16.7% 35% $7,989
Cheboygan County
Cheboygan 1,897 64.6% 67.4% 16.8% 84.4% $8,763
Inland Lakes 789 56.4% 67.5% 25.9% 89.9% $8,540
Wolverine 313 77.6% 58.6% 4.3% 79% $9,788
Emmet County
Alanson 266 58.1% 50% 0% 66.7% $9,809
Concord Academy 202 36.6% 62.5% 16.7% 90.9% $7,361
Harbor Springs 850 27.2% 84.2% 42.5% >95% $12,358
Mackinac City 194 30.9% 66.7% 16.7% 83.3% $11,011
Pellston 607 60.3% 77.5% 17.1% 54.2% $9,772
Petoskey 2,940 38.1% 82.6% 28.3% 93.4% $8,448

Data in this chart for student enrollment, free- and reduced-priced lunch, 3rd-grade academic proficiency, high school readiness and graduation rates are from the 2013-14 school year. Data on per-pupil funding is from the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which there is complete data.

*High school college, career ready: Percent passing all four ACT subject areas, 11th grade

Source: Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.

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.”

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Thu, 02/19/2015 - 10:40am
I really appreciate the quality of the reporting on this series! Hats off to Ted Roelofs and BRIDGE for covering this topic so comprehensively. While the emphasis is on three counties in the tip of the mitten and west, the same issues are at least equally as challenging across the state to the east side as well.
Ludwig Putz
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 11:47am
My Hat is off for Kelly Lapeer. What a beautiful person she is.More students should be lucky enough to have a teacher like her. I had one like that when I went to grade school in Germany. I am still thankful for having her
Darryle J. Buchanan
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 1:22pm
Thank you for your reporting on this issue. It is not about urban versus suburban or anything like that. It is purely that poverty is a key determinant of educational outcomes. Yes some, SOME, do make it regardless of their economic standing, but that just isn't good enough. We will forever have the same issues in Michigan until we fully determine that education is key to our economic survival. Hopefully the legislature is listening and the study to determine how much it costs to educate a child is a critical step forward. Disparate funding results in disparate outcomes. We simply cannot gamble on our future and that of our children going forward. While I'm at it, we also need to back the proposal to rebuild our country's crumbling infrastructure. All children have a right to safe and modern learning environments.
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 2:19pm
It's very dispiriting to see more evidence of the class divide in this country, where career and life opportunities are not a function of one's brains and ambition, but are, on average, determined by one's zip code. Great teachers are so critical to bridge that divide, but we also have a class divide operating with teacher support and teacher salaries/benefits. Great teachers like to be respected and rewarded, and many, like Kelly Lapeer, do not last long in under-funded schools. It would be very instructive to not only see expenses per pupil, but also average teachers salary comparisons across the state.
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 6:47pm
Ted Roelofs, The Cross in the Woods is a very popular tourist spot. There are between 275,000 to 325,000 people visiting each year. Not the "occasional tourist."
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 7:08pm
I commend Kelly Lapeer for her commitment and dedication to her students and the Inland Lakes School. She truly is a testament to above-and-beyond the call of duty. Unfortunately, I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg in school funding (or should I really say: LACK of school funding)? Especially at the local level. The residents of Indian River are now burdened with an extremely UNNECESSARY, obscenely OVER-PRICED, UNETHICALLY ACQUIRED public sewer project that WILL force people into the LOSS of businesses, LOSS of jobs (what jobs there are), LOSS of HOMES, and LOSS of student population. Rather than face the enormous financial burden this project is placing square on the shoulders of local businesses, and residents, many businesses have already permanently closed their doors or have chosen to relocate to other communities. Fewer business + fewer jobs + fewer people = less children enrolled in Inland Lakes Schools....fewer children? = less state funding per pupil and less revenue from local property owners. While our school is falling apart our children don't have even the most minimal computer equipment and technology necessary to learn. I'm proud to say I live in Indian River! I'm proud to say we have outstanding, generous teachers like Kelly Lapeer. While not an overwhelming mandate, I'm proud our residents supported the bond issue so critical to our children It's unfortunate that families will eventually have to decide which is more important: providing financial support for the education of their children (by relocating), or being financially responsible for the non-mandated multi-million dollar public project. Next time you visit Indian River, take a drive down main street....and count the number of For Sale signs and/or closed businesses (and these are NOT 'seasonal' businesses).....'Tip of the iceberg'? Sadly, you're looking at it. Well played, Tuscarora Township Board of Directors....well played....our area children and future workforce thank you
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 7:09pm
Unfortunately they left off the other school in Harbor Springs that does, by far, the best on the tests listed; Harbor Light. They have much higher test scores than even Harbor Springs Public, but they do it with less money per pupil than Indian River or ANY school the story compared, they are under $7,000. Burt Lake NMC, that is right between the Harbor Springs and Indian River school mentioned does it for less than $4,000 per student. The solution is not throwing more money at a failed system. Time to look again at the voucher proposal that was defeated in 2000.
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 7:55pm
Harbor Light is a Christian school, not a public school. Parents pay to send their children to this school. It certainly is not fair to compare Harbor Light to public schools as children who attend this school would, most likely, have parents who value education and come from a higher socioeconomic level. Harbor Light is also not required to follow any of the state mandates required of public schools since they don't receive state funding. This would be reduce expenses for Harbor Light. Charter schools do follow more similar guidelines as public schools but are, most often, elementary or middle school grades, which are also is cheaper to fund.
Barbara Stevenson
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 12:37pm
Great article!i worked for Communities in Schools in detroit for 9 years and we brought and supported many extras in both academic and after school activities through outside funding. The sad story is our country spends billions each month on wars in other countries yet allows schools and low income families to suffer! As long as we let this go on we are hurting the future of the state and the country! When will we make our elected officials do better for children and families right here?
Charles Richards
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 2:38pm
The article says, "Student test scores tend to parallel the free or reduced lunch numbers." To what degree do they parallel? That is, what percentage of the variation in college readiness//career readiness is explained by the percentage of students on free or reduced lunches? As a public policy think tank, I'm sure that the Center for Michigan supports transparency in government and strong Freedom of Information Acts. It seems to me, that in that spirit, they should be more than happy to provide a link to the study that calculated the poverty adjusted test scores that were assigned to every school.
Beth Campbell
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 5:37pm
To the commenter comparing the two Christian schools with the public ones: apples to oranges. I applaud the work of religious schools and recognize their benefits, but you cannot compare two very different entities with sweeping conclusions. Christian schools do not have nearly as high percentage of low-income students, because tuition is expensive. Those who do attend have parents much more likely to be concerned for and supportive of their students' educations. Employees of those schools are paid a much lower wage, typically without benefits, so they are practically and sometimes literally volunteers. Public schools don't have parents who clean the building, plow the parking lot, and supervise the cafeteria or halls. They also don't have busing; students are all transported by parents. Families are also expected to provide any needed supplies, while public schools have a high number of families who cannot. Private schools can (and should if ill-equipped to handle it) refuse to enroll any child based on disability. Special Education students (rightfully) are much more expensive to educate and that raises the average per-pupil cost. Finally, HLCS has the financial support of its church, including the building used, parking lot, utilities, etc., which are all paid for by the church. Public schools are still the most cost-effective education option, though cost is not the only important factor.
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 7:26pm
I can tell you the root the cause of the problem, if you can first consider a few factors. Cheboygan county has a major freeway running right up the center of it. It has a port/harbor on Lake Huron. It probably has as much waterfront as nearly any other county in lower Michigan. Until recently it had railroad access. With all of these assets, why would this county have such widespread poverty. I had reason to attend about 15 Zoning meetings in 1998 thru 2001. I watched business after business be denied requests and put through the "ringer" for any type of addition, expansion or approval. I was there for several meetings when Tube Fab was wanting to expand.. He came in with a letter of support for his expansion plan from EVERY homeowner within 1/4 mile of his location. What did the zoning board say, "DENIED". Talk to the owners of Burger King and McDonalds, ask them about the hoops they had to jump through, and the modifications they had to make. Have you ever seen half of the parking spaces full at Burger King. Why do they have such a big parking lot. The COUNTY made them, same for McDonalds. But, you go down the road South a few miles to Otsego county, and they are there with open arms for any business. Cheboygan county suffers from NIMBY disease. Not in my back yard and now they are seeing the results. There is no commercial tax bace because for 25 years the county zoning board wanted it that way.
Patricia Lang
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 11:33pm
When will we have equality in education for all Americans????
Sat, 02/21/2015 - 3:18pm
Patricia, When every parent is equally committed and involved. If all it took was money, Detroit would have some the most successful schools in the state. $12,931 per pupil. Pontiac $16,183 per pupil ( higher than Bloomfield Hills or even West Bloomfield) , Flint $13,127. Clearly more money is not the solution. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/b1014_14_481982_7.pdf
Sat, 02/21/2015 - 10:26pm
Patricia, We will never have equality in education, each classroom is different, each student is different so their education will be different. The best we can strive for is an acceptable minimum that provide the student with an 'equal' opportunity to learn. It is up to the student to chose to learn, and what they will do to learn. The student will decide on how much they learn and how they apply what they learn.
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 2:50pm
Please cross the bridge and take a look at the "real" Paradise.
Bruce Gustafsob
Mon, 02/23/2015 - 10:14am
Great series of articles. This series could have just as easily been written about the Eastern Upper Peninsula. We export our most valuable resources - our children. The only segment of our population that continues to grow is the over 55 age group. We desperately need to find a way to modify our local economy. We need to find ways to attract businesses that do not depend solely on tourism. Full time year-round employment opportunities are needed to attract and hold young families. Thanks for your series. You raised many important issues that need to focused upon by our community leaders.