Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Per-pupil foundation grants

From the Michigan.gov website, per pupil spending for all of the Washtenaw County-based schools (note there are a few schools, like Van Buren, and Plymouth/Canton, that pull some but not most of their students from Washtenaw County, they are not on this list although you can get the full list here). Note how far ahead of everybody else in the county AAPS is. Which maybe goes to show how you get used to the money you have. The reason AAPS is so far ahead of everybody else is that, prior to Proposal A, the people of Ann Arbor were very supportive of our public schools, and I think we still are. But now we don't get to vote on it.

1995 2009
81010 Ann Arbor Public Schools 7,734 9,490
81020 School District of Ypsilanti 5,923 7,983
81040 Chelsea School District 5,572 7,650
81050 Dexter Community School District 5,875 7,938
81070 Lincoln Consolidated School District 5,197 7,316
81080 Manchester Community Schools 5,405 7,513
81100 Milan Area Schools 5,177 7,316
81120 Saline Area Schools 5,565 7,643
81140 Whitmore Lake Public Schools 4,678 7,316
81150 Willow Run Community Schools 5,582 7,840
81901 Honey Creek Community Schools 5,500 7,580
81902 Central Academy 5,500 7,580
81903 Washtenaw Technical Middle College 5,500 7,580
81904 Ann Arbor Learning Community 5,500 7,580
81905 South Arbor Charter Academy 5,177 7,316
81906 Fortis Academy 0 7,580
81907 Victory Academy Charter School 0 7,580
81908 Eastern Washtenaw Multicultural Academy 0 7,580

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Help (and Stuff) Wanted

Help, and Stuff, Wanted

The Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop says that donations are way down. If you have stuff, why don't you bring it there? Donations are tax-deductible, and support the schools. If you like to shop at thrift stores, my personal experience is that there is a lot of good stuff there--more than clothes. And if you want to volunteer there, the AAPS school of your choice gets a donation, I think at something like $16/hour worked! High school students can work as well. Address: 2280 S. Industrial Highway Ann Arbor, MI 48104 (734) 996-9155

Friday, February 20, 2009

More about Money and School Financing

Good news from the state of Michigan. Per-pupil funding will likely stay at the same level next year. Which gives a little breathing room for planning. Still, it's not an increase in funding, and it's not like costs stay the same. And did I mention that the union contracts in Ann Arbor open up this year?

If you want to try to understand Michigan's school funding scheme, you might try this presentation. It is award-winning, and does a good job explaining why the system is broken. But it doesn't suggest the legislative fixes. We need to come up with that ourselves.

And if you don't want to watch/listen to a video, this is a good explanation of the issue as well. (Scroll down to "What Proposal A is all about.") This does have some suggestions for particular areas to focus on, but closes with this (to my mind, scary) thought:

Another thing to consider is that most of Proposal A's provisions are written into the state Constitution, and would require a state-wide referendum to change. Even changing the maximum property tax rates (the State Education Prop. Tax and the 18 mills on commercial property) requires a three-quarters vote of both houses of the Legislature. We've really painted ourselves into a corner, and enshrined low taxes at the cost of making sure our schools are working. It's time for a change!

Still, where there is a will, there must be a way!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Adolescents and Depression; AAPS Budget

Meetings to Know About

Adolescents and Depression
Saline Area Schools
Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Time: 7:00 pm-8:15 p.m.
Sponsored by Saline Alive, Open to all
Location: Liberty Media Center
7265 Saline-Ann Arbor Rd
Saline MI 48176

Recognizing the difference between “typical” adolescent behavior and serious illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder can be challenging. This session will provide information on:
· Recognizing the signs and symptoms of adolescent depression, and the warning signs of suicide;
· Understanding the causes of depressive illnesses;
· Strategies for intervention and prevention.

AAPS Budget Meetings

Tuesday, March 3, 7-9 p.m., Scarlett Middle School, 3300 Lorraine

Thursday, March 5, 7-9 p.m., Forsythe Middle School, 1655 Newport

Superintendent Todd Roberts and Deputy Superintendent Robert Allen will be hosting two sessions to give staff, parents, students and community members an overview of the district’s budget planning for the 2009/2010 school year.

NOTE: I found out about the budget meetings at the Ann Arbor Parents for Schools web site. (This appears to be a sporadically-used web site concerned about funding issues in the schools.)

I don't know WHY, but I could not find these meetings on the AAPS web site. Have I mentioned how the AAPS web site disappoints?





Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Schools and Volunteers

Bad economic news abounds these days, and recently I ran into several acquaintances who are out of work. They are smart, skilled people, and it made me wonder how the schools could put people like them to work.

Of course, many schools rely on volunteers, in the classroom and for fundraising, but it can be a little bit ad hoc. Many people volunteer in their kids' classrooms. And there is always the opportunity to volunteer at the PTO Thrift Shop, which is a great way to raise money for the schools. (To inquire about training, the schedule for upcoming sessions, or to register, please contact by email: ptothriftshop@gmail.com and put “Volunteer Training” in the subject line.)

But--it's undoubtedly true that some of the schools in the district have plenty of volunteers (and yes, this does mostly fall along class/income lines) and others struggle with only a few volunteers (the parents are working). So, it seems like the unemployment crisis is also an opportunity for some awesome matches. What if you are an unemployed engineer without any kids in the schools?
Might there be a science teacher who would like some help setting up labs? What if you are a writer without any kids in the schools? Might there be a place for you to put your skills to work--in a classroom, or for central administration? What if you are an unemployed autoworker who is a highly skilled gardener? Might one of the schools with a garden (or one that wants to start one) want your skills?

Sure, there are lots of volunteer opportunities in our county. Any of these people would be welcome at 826Michigan or the Family Learning Institute, but why shouldn't AAPS grab them?


I know that some of my own best experiences have come a) as a volunteer and b) working with volunteers. I would love to see the district set up a short-term task force to identify ways to harness some of this energy and talent for the good of the kids, and then implement those ideas.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's About the Process

A friend writes,
"Did you hear the latest at Pioneer? They just announced that next year the 11th graders won't be able to go out for lunch. And the year after that the 12th graders won't be able to."
"Well," I say, "How was that decided?"
"I have no idea."

If you've ever been to Pioneer at lunchtime, you know that it's crowded. Kids used to eat in the halls but that was banned a few years ago, and the 9th graders get the cafeteria, leaving the 10th graders (and those older kids who choose to eat in school) to sit on bleachers in the gym. It's obviously not ideal.
So with the "space" created by the opening of Skyline, what should happen with lunch? Should kids have to eat at Pioneer for lunch?

I don't know if Mr. White is right. I do know that the 9th and 10th graders, in particular, are outraged. For them, it is a taking. I have no idea why, or if, it is a problem to have kids leave campus. Most of us have been letting our kids eat lunch alone since middle school.

I wonder: is this a form of collective punishment? (If a few kids don't come back after lunch, or go out and smoke, should everyone lose the privilege? Why not revoke the privilege for the few? And for that, why wait until next year?)
When was this identified as a problem? Who was brought in on the decision?
Was the PTO part of it? Was the Student Council part of it?

Decision making works best when the process occurs in the light of day.

As for my friend--it's just one more thing that makes her hate the Pioneer climate.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How to think about the budget

I liked most of what Jack Lessenberry had to say in this essay on the state budget. (Read it, or go down to the bottom to hear the "audio story.") He's right, kids don't vote but we do. And cutting higher education is a poor choice in the longer run. (With kids in high school, it doesn't even seem like that much of a "longer run" to me.)

It made me start wondering--since the per-pupil funding is not evenly distributed (Ann Arbor is near the top, Manchester and Willow Run are at the bottom)--should a per-pupil cut be evenly distributed? Should every district lose $59/student (if that in fact comes to pass) or should poorer districts lose less, so that the proportions are even? Obviously, that would disadvantage my own district, but isn't the point of public schools to give everyone an even chance? Not that that really happens now...

Proposal A might have sounded like a good thing at the time (well, I voted against it) and in retrospect I think it's made us worse off than I might have predicted. More on that another time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln

Charles Darwin and Abe Lincoln shared a birthday. Today they would be 200. In their honor, a couple of quotes.

Darwin influenced my choice of college major. (His childhood nickname? "Gas," because he liked to perform experiments that created smelly gases.)
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." [1859, On the Origin of Species]

Lincoln doesn't have that same personal connection to me. But in fact, if you read his writings over time, you will see that he himself was "adaptable to change." (His first writings were more equivocal about slavery than his later ones. But he believed in education.)

A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones. [1859, Wisconsin Agricultural Society speech]

Government!

So much for protecting the schools. Jennifer Granholm's budget suggests cutting school aid by $59/student. It's not chump change. There are over 16,000 students in the Ann Arbor schools. That's almost a million dollars! And she also proposes cutting funding to before- and after-school programs. If you want to protest, contact your state senators and representatives.

In other news: If you have ever needed some information from a governmental entity (and yes, that includes the schools), this post by Edward Vielmetti on how to FOIA documents might come in very handy. FOIA: That's the Freedom of Information Act. Protect your right to know.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why Kindergarten Roundup Is Completely Inadequate

True Story:
As a conscientious parent of an almost 3 year old, looking for good child care, I visited several day cares. Armed with a list of questions, and my child, I settled in, observing the setting and the providers. I had read several articles that said that when "entrusting my child," I should be inquisitive and make sure the setting was right.
Fast forward a few years, and I'm ready to start looking for a kindergarten. I find out that in the AAPS (at least the school I was districted to), "we don't schedule" classroom visits--although I could meet the principal and get a tour if I liked. I had always thought of myself as pro-public school, but I start to have some doubts. (Are they hiding something?)
I consider a local parochial school. I get to meet the principal (she seemed burned out--in fact she was retiring). And so if I had stopped with the principal, I wouldn't have given the place a second look. But I got to visit the first grade, and the second grade. I got to talk to some fabulous teachers. I was told I could be considered for financial aid. And their foreign language program was an immersion program.
My favorite years of school were at an alternative school, so we also looked at Ann Arbor Open (then Bach Open). We got an orientation. We got to visit the classrooms. And then we got in. My husband felt strongly we should try it. I tried it, and I liked it. But if not for that, my family trajectory might have taken me out of the public schools for a long time.

Think I'm alone? I don't think so. Every year, parents in the Ann Arbor school district choose to send their kids to private, parochial, or charter schools. Schools which they were allowed to visit, in depth, and see in action. And principal visits alone are not enough. My reaction to the private school principal (poor) was overshadowed by the great reaction I had to the teaching staff.
The Ann Arbor Public Schools could do a lot better with recruiting, if they just believed that they were put there to serve the families of Ann Arbor, and let people who are not yet in the school system see all the good things that are going on. In that context, Kindergarten Roundup is a joke. Ann Arbor Open should not be the only school that lets me see the classrooms. Let me meet the teachers. Open Houses, anyone? Parent visits to classrooms? Aren't they a small amount of extra work that is completely worth the years of per-pupil funding? For those of us with more than one child, as the first goes, the rest will likely follow.

It's Official: School Board Time

It's official. Candidates have filed for school board elections. I'm glad to see some competition in Ann Arbor, Saline, and Willow Run. Notice also that Claudette Braxton, one of the subjects of the Willow Run recall effort, is not running, but Andy Blakita, also a subject of the recall effort, is running. And I'm hoping to ask the candidates some questions (at least for the Ann Arbor school board candidates), and post them here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Parents: Wanted? Or not?

Today is National African American Parent Involvement Day, founded by Ann Arbor's own Roberto Clemente principal, Joe Dulin.
Also, tomorrow is the last day to file for the school board election. (What are you waiting for?)

Both of which got me thinking: do the schools really want parent involvement? (My friend, whose child is struggling, thinks that the answer is clearly no.)

I feel ambivalent about NAAPID. On the one hand, it recognizes that parents need to make special efforts to be involved in the schools, and that African American kids nationally have higher suspension rates, lower graduation rates, etc. And parent involvement does make a difference. On the other hand, a day? a coffee hour? an assembly? Really? That is not enough. But maybe it will give some parents a kick start, the courage to talk to some teachers, or the principal.

Parents are highly sought after for fundraising. They are also given a few opportunities to serve on larger committees (although it seems to me that once you get beyond the school site, it is hard to find out what they are). But are parents really wanted for "involvement?" For working with teachers, counselors, principals? Even when you disagree with said teachers, counselors, and principals? Especially as you get into higher grades, it seems to me, not so much.

Which is why it was such a pleasant, pleasant surprise to get a handout, within the first couple of weeks of school, from a high school teacher, that a) explained what they would be doing in the coming months, and had these precious words: "Parents, you are welcome in my classroom anytime. (Chocolate is also welcome.)" And then a note--just kidding about the chocolate. I may never go, but I am glad that I was invited.

Trolling for students

Both the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti schools are advertising in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. I have to admit, I like the Ypsilanti advertising theme better--"Strong from start to finish." They also are advertising their Open Houses. I appreciate that you could actually go and look at the schools during the Ypsilanti Open Houses.

The AAPS theme is "Exceptional Leadership," but they don't say what makes them exceptional. (In addition, the AAPS refers to Forsythe Elementary in one of the ads--so their proofreading is certainly not exceptional.)

All that said--ads are just ads. Shop around. Which would be easier if all of the Ann Arbor schools, not just Ann Arbor Open, had Open Houses. With classrooms open, and teachers present. What would it take?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Advocacy Resource

Are you in need of some basic information regarding how to access special education resources? Do you need some "sample letters" to advocate for your child around behavior? The Student Advocacy Center has a nice overview of what special ed is all about, how to access testing and resources, why you might want to advocate to get your child tested, and what to do if you don't agree with the schools. They also have sample letters on a whole lot of issues, including how to address behavior and discipline issues with the schools. Check it out before you need it!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Willow Run Troubles

There is one school district in the county that has had a lot of trouble since enrollment began declining 11 years ago, and right now there is a lot of finger-pointing going on. Yes, I'm talking about Willow Run. Parents are complaining about the superintendent and the school board, the superintendent is blaming the teachers and parents, teachers are complaining about the superintendent and the school board...a recall effort is underway...see, for example, this website.
Consider these facts:
Their current superintendent remained on the Harvey, ILLINOIS school board even after she took this job. (Showing her commitment to Willow Run?)
Their former superintendent pled guilty to bank and mail fraud. (Okay, that's related to his time in the Ecorse schools, but he was fired by Willow Run "after a district investigation showed he had a conflict of interest with two companies that did business with the district and that he may have benefited from the connection.")
The teachers worked without a contract for a long, long time. (Which does, actually, show their commitment to their students.)
I don't blame the Willow Run school board or administrative staff for everything--after all, the district's school age population has been shrinking for several years. And Willow Run has a very low per-pupil grant. But, but, but:
Last year Willow Run had to file their third deficit reduction plan. Their plan was predicated, not just on stable enrollment, but on an increase in enrollment of 150 students, and an increase in the per-pupil payments from the state. Who wrote this plan and what planet were they on? After school enrollment has dropped for 10 years in a row, what makes you think it will grow? Why did the school board agree to send in this deficit reduction plan?
And guess what? This year, Willow Run lost a lot more students. Why?
Well, several other school districts--including neighboring Lincoln and Ypsilanti schools--are schools of choice. And there are several charter schools in the area. Oh, and did we mention the graduation rates? What would you choose for your child--a high school with a graduation rate of 55%, or one in a neighboring school district that was higher?
For years, WRCS has been practicing avoidance. It is hard to face up to real problems if you are always blaming someone else or not acknowledging the problems. Consider this: A few years ago, both Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts were faced with possibly closing schools. Ypsilanti evaluated their choices, made the painful decision to close two schools, and moved on. Willow Run? Closed their one-stop preschool and redistributed the preschool classes. And couldn't agree on another school to close.

And now? I don't know why it took so long for DOE to write the letter (you can see it at the link below), but:
The Michigan Department of Education has given Willow Run Community Schools until Feb. 13 to come up with new plan to reduce its budget deficit and until March 1 to begin running the district under the plan. If they don't, they lose their per-pupil funding.

In some sense, the schools are the town center for the Willow Run area. Nevertheless, it is time for Willow Run to stop the finger pointing and consider some drastic options. Could all students in the district be placed on the middle school/high school campus? Should they begin consolidation talks with Lincoln, Van Buren, and/or Ypsilanti schools? One thing I do know--a plan predicated on enrollment growth is unrealistic, and likely to fail.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

News and Notes: Superintendent, Special Education

The Ann Arbor News reports that the school board has given Todd Roberts an "outstanding" evaluation as Ann Arbor schools superintendent. What do you think? How is he doing? I've heard that he actually returns parents' emails! (I myself have never emailed him.)
Which reminds me--the deadline for filing to run for school board is February 10th. Think about running, why don't you?

The Ann Arbor News also reports that the WISD (Washtenaw Intermediate School District) has fired the special education aide who has been accused of harming special ed. students. By the way, the aide, and those students, were situated in an AAPS building at the time of the allegations. Allegations of child abuse need to be taken seriously, and kids who have difficulty communicating are extremely vulnerable. So, here's the thing: it appears that the proper reporting and investigation did not occur when it should have. I sense the potential for lawsuits. Policies, on the books, are no good if they are not followed. In any case, even if you are not mandated by law to report allegations to protective services, that does not get you off the hook! You might not be legally obligated, but morally? You certainly are!

Special Ed: Part 1 of Many

I was able to volunteer at one of the Disability Awareness Workshops, which are coming to about 2/3 of the elementary schools in the district. The activities were very interesting, and my son keeps bringing up tidbits that he learned. A lot of the parents (mostly moms) who were volunteering have a child with a disability; and most of the rest had some other kind of connection (in my group of volunteers, there were two physical therapists, for instance). The Center for Independent Living also provided help and volunteers. Thank you to all of you who have worked on organizing the activities--it's a worthwhile project.

It made me even more curious about special education in the district. Friends tell me that Michigan is way behind in service provision compared to some of the states on the east and west coasts.

The first place I turned was the AAPS web site, which as you know I find extremely lacking. I couldn't find special education! (You would think there would be something under the "For Parents" section.) A web site search also didn't turn up what I wanted (an overview of special education in the district), but I did end up finding out a very interesting fact. There are over 2000 students in the district with IEPs (Individualized Education Program). That's about 1 in 8 students. We all know kids who have IEPs, although we might not know that they do. (It might be easy to identify the child with Down's Syndrome in your child's class, but not the child with dyslexia.) I also found the link to the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee, apparently open to all. The committee is also asking parents of students who have IEPs or 504 plans (another special education plan) to fill out a survey. (The instructions look kind of complicated, but I think it's not really that hard to do).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

State of the State: Education

I've been holding my breath, wondering what Gov. Jennifer Granholm would be proposing around the education budget. Tonight's speech was long on support for education, but short on specifics. School budgets are mostly fixed costs--buildings, teaching and support staff, etc. The state budget proposal comes next week. I'm hoping that per-pupil allocations are not cut, but given the state of the economy, until then, I guess I won't breath any sighs of relief...or anguish.

Five Lives

Over the past few weeks, there have been several sad events related to students and staff in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
First there was Pioneer student Michael Jefferson's sudden collapse and death.
Then Huron student Anna Maria List died, following an assault by her ex-boyfriend.
Kisha French, a lunch room supervisor at Ann Arbor Open and a mom of a Haisley student, was strangled, most likely as she broke up with her boyfriend.
A Pioneer student tried to commit suicide by jumping off an overpass.
A Logan student, Mark Ragheb, died in a car crash.

First of all, I am in no way saying that any of these are the fault of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Rather, I think they provide an opportunity to review policies and actions. It's bad timing that these all happened in a few short weeks, but it does lend some urgency to my questions. There are several areas to look at. Working backwards--how was the crisis response after the fact? For the student who died in the school, how was the crisis response during the event? And last, but definitely not least, what kind of prevention activities are going on around domestic violence and suicide?

If you want to see the AAPS Crisis Handbook, here is the 2007-2008 version. On paper, it looks pretty good. What was your experience of the implementation? After Kisha French's death, crisis team members were at Ann Arbor Open, but I also heard that after Michael Jefferson's death at Pioneer, some students were not informed before the end of the day. I'm also not clear how long the crisis team support goes on for (what if kids don't react for a few weeks, for instance?).

Regarding the handling of a student's suddenly feeling ill, was the response fast enough? I read that the AAPS says it was, and the students' family feels it wasn't. It may have been fast, but I would ask a different question--is there anything that could have been done differently that might have led to a different result? And if so, what was it? I know I'd rather have the ambulance come 99 times for kids who don't need it, in order to prevent the one time that someone did need it.

Regarding domestic violence and suicide, I found a few links to resources on the AAPS web site. I didn't find anything about training, policies, or interventions.
I'm sure DV and suicide are part of the health curriculum, but a week of health class in the life of a high school student is not much (and many students don't take health until 11th or 12th grade).

NOW is a good time for AAPS to review its policies, for staff and students, around domestic violence and suicide prevention. Do students and staff know where to turn if they feel threatened? Is there a process if a staff person is worried she or he is being stalked? Even a temporary, non-union staff person, as Kisha French was? Is information shared at trainings, orientations, publicly? Are there, for instance, posters in the bathrooms about domestic violence and how to get help? Are counselors and social workers there to help the seriously depressed student?
And by the way, if you need the information, here is the link to Safe House Center. The hotline is 734-995-5444.
Here is the link to Ozone House. The hotline is 734-662-2222.

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