Thursday, April 16, 2009

Willow Run and the Three-Legged Stool

In the comments section, Steve Norton wrote:
The state-mandated "deficit elimination plan," which WRCS must get approved by the state, focuses only on finances and has no provision to judge effects on quality of education. Willow Run is in an especially difficult position, because schools in other districts can be literally across the street. So they are faced with the bind that the savings from closing a school (about $360,000) may be completely wiped out if 45 of those students shift to other districts...
There is clearly a lot of worry and anger in the Willow Run community, and among their staff. I very much hope that they can overcome the past and work together to save their community's schools. But they can't do it alone: much of the problem rests with the economy and with our state's system of school funding, which punishes schools precisely when they are at their most vulnerable.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, as of 4/7/09, Willow Run is one of only 4 districts in the state that have still not had their deficit plans approved. That does not bode well to me.

Obviously, the ongoing loss of students is huge--but finances alone are not the only piece of the puzzle, and I don't think they are the piece that will solve the problems. I think of public school systems as resting on three legs of a stool: community buy-in; academic integrity and strength; and financial strength. Right now, WRCS does not have community buy-in. That's not entirely the district's fault--a lot of people have moved out of the district. It's also not helped by the active in-fighting that has gone on, even though there is good reason for the in-fighting (to the outsider, it is kind of confusing). But without community buy-in, the district cannot move forward. With community buy-in, the district has a chance.

Second, the district's academic strengths are spotty--academics seems to get weaker as you move up the grades, at least if you are using the graduation rate as a guide, and some schools are weaker than others. I'm sure that it is possible to get a good education in the Willow Run schools, but as a parent evaluating options, I think most parents would conclude that you might have to work a lot harder at getting that education; your kids might not have the same opportunities for extra-curricular activities as at other schools; and (bottom line) your kids might be less likely to graduate.

Ultimately, parents who are active in their kids' educations will be, and should be, making decisions based on what will be best for their own kids in the long run (and I hope for the day when all parents are doing so!). And many studies show the importance of a good education in preparing for a prosperous future--and don't we all want the best for our kids? So unless WRCS can make parents and the community believe that it is possible for their kids to have academic success at Willow Run, no deficit elimination plan will ever, ever, ever solve the problem.

That said--
There might be some positive things that come out of merging some schools. For one thing, it might provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate more. For another, merging some of the school libraries might strengthen them. Third, if the strongest principals remain as principals, that could be a good thing.

Last, but not least--
There is at least one very positive development this year at Willow Run Middle School:
There is now a health clinic, operated in conjunction with the UM Regional Alliance for Health Schools, at the middle school.

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