Monday, April 27, 2009

Interesting News of the Week

First, let's start with the comprehensive series by David Jesse for the Ann Arbor News, on the trials and tribulations of the Willow Run Schools. I have to say that when I saw last week's Willow Run school closing proposals (close two schools and reopen one that was closed before, or close one this year and one the next)--neither of them made any sense to me. Why reopen an already-closed school? And if you are going to close two schools in the end, why not just get it over and done with? And the Willow Run school board is obviously still not ready to make a decision. I guess if they delay long enough, there will be some new school board members. And one of the more interesting rumors that I have heard (I emphasize the word rumor here), is that some people would like it if the state takes over with a finance manager (like the Detroit Public Schools situation), because that will allow someone else to make the hard decisions.

Second, the Ann Arbor Chronicle summarized the League of Women Voters discussion session with prospective board members (the election is not contested, so I think I wouldn't call it a debate...). I got this little tidbit out of it: Liz Margolis, the AAPS PR person, is setting up a communications committee.

Glenn Nelson: Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, is putting together a group to strategize about communication issues, Nelson said. He gave out her phone number – 734.994.2236 – and urged people to contact her if they are interested in getting involved.

Call if you would like to be on it (or try her email, , and perhaps help improve the AAPS web site. (Hope springs eternal, anyway.) I'm not sure why this committee is not publicized on the web site.

Third, apparently AAPS has an "Options" program geared toward attracting homeschoolers and people who want to take online courses into the AAPS system. Here's the link. The program is open to anyone in the Washtenaw ISD district. This seems like a back door way into Schools of Choice. I have to find out about the funding flow for this. Typically in Schools of Choice the person coming in brings in whatever their district's per-pupil funding is. Since AAPS has higher per-pupil funding than any other district in the county, it is a disincentive for AAPS to open up the district to choice students. Either this funding mechanism works differently, or it is just that online courses are much cheaper to operate, so it is still a net profit. [If you know, please comment.]

Last, but not least, Jeff Kass is doing something really fun and interesting (if you are into poetry and/or theater). Wrestling the Great Fear: A Performance Poetica, will be performed on Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor. Admission is $5. To reserve tickets or for more information, call (734) 223-7443 or email Jeff Kass at Go if you can.

P.S. Take my poll, just open for a few more days, on the right hand side of the screen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I liked what I saw

I happened to be inside Pattengill Elementary School recently. I have always felt that you can learn a lot from just walking the halls of a school--and this was no exception.

I liked the art on the walls--drawings"in the manner of" Picasso, geometric patterns.
I liked the variety--there were lots of things in the hall, and they looked fresh and well-cared-for.
I liked the sentiments--Pattengill has been trying to become a Michigan Green School (successfully, I guess, although I'm still not clear on what that means exactly) and Earth Day (today) was a day full of service learning and school ground cleanup.
I liked the--recycling bin for toner cartridges, batteries, and more--in the hall.
I liked the clothes closet donation box--did you know that sister school Bryant (grades K-2) has a clothes closet where families can get free clothes during school hours? (I didn't know that until I saw the sign.)
And I especially liked the "giveaway" box for hats, gloves, and mittens (labelled, "Not the lost and found")--given the number of gloves and mittens my family loses every winter, I really liked this. If we had this at my child's school, I could buy less, save money and irritation, and reduce consumption.

I wanted to find out more about the Michigan Green School program and Pattengill, so I did a web search, and that brought me to a little-known corner of the AAPS web site (ready, set, grumble). Seriously! Apparently the Superintendent sends out a notice to staff every week that is a summary of great things happening in the district. And we can read it. After reading just one (I think the memo is called "This Week"), I cannot--for the life of me--figure out why this is not more prominent, and publicized to all interested parties. It's kind of a brag sheet, so why not brag to parents and community remembers? You can read This Week here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Letter to burned out teachers

I say, over and over, to my friends, that what makes magnet schools like Ann Arbor Open, Community High School, and Skyline High School good--in large part--is that teachers (and kids and parents too!) CHOOSE to be there. Magnets are often extra work, and these teachers willingly sign up for it!

At Skyline, nobody has been unwillingly bumped into teaching there, and it's pretty rare for that to happen at Ann Arbor Open or CHS. Most people arrive by requesting a transfer. (Yes, it did happen to my oldest child at AAO twice. But it's not common.)

Not so at some of the other schools. Some of my friends with kids in middle school and high school report that their kids have burned-out teachers for half, or more, of their classes!

I'm not opposed to tenure; I believe in unions. And before you blame unions, remember that unions do not make people stay in jobs--people choose to stay in jobs. I myself stayed in a job too long. There was nothing wrong with the job, in fact it was rather comfy. It was a job that I loved for the first 6 years, a job that I liked for the next 5 years, and after that--well, it was still "good work" (defined by me as helping to make the world a better place), there were still some parts of the job that I liked, and it did have good flexibility and benefits. But when I finally left, I felt like I had gotten some fresh air, and I said to myself, "What took you so long?" The fact is, there was nothing wrong with the job, but I was ready for something new.

Yes, some teachers can teach for 30 years, and still be excited when a new group of students start. But for others, that is simply not true. So--this is my letter to burned-out teachers.

Dear Teacher,

I know that when you started teaching, you were full of enthusiasm. You have always loved your subject, and the kids were endlessly fascinating. But here it is, 20 years later, and--well, the kids? Same old, same old. The subject matter? There is only so much you can do to make the same grade's subject matter new and different--the kids still need to learn the same things! If this describes you, then you are a. . . burned out teacher. And yes, the kids notice. It doesn't mean that you weren't a good teacher for a long time, or that you couldn't be a good teacher again, but admit it--it is time for a change! Ask yourself how you can make things change.

I am asking you, as a parent of kids you teach, can you:

A. Consider retiring. Possibly it is time for you to stop working.

B. Consider changing careers. If you still love kids, but are sick of the school routine, you could look for informal education opportunities. But if your passion is politics, or math, maybe you could do something else with that passion. You could also go back to school in a non-education-related subject.

B. Can't afford to retire? Not interested in changing careers? Do you love the kids, but you are just bored with your subject matter? Now would be a good time to think about working with a different grade, getting a new certification so you can teach a different subject, trying an administrative post, or even just moving to a new school.

Yes, you know who you are. And the kids and parents do too. You owe it to the kids to bring your best teaching to the table.

Change it up!

And thank you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Information about the last round of Ypsilanti superintendent interviews can be found here.

The Willow Run deficit plan was approved by the state, conditional upon meeting the targets set forth in the plan.

Saline is having a forum for school board candidates, Tuesday April 21, Woodlands Elementary School, 7 p.m. Yes, the election is contested.

I put up a little poll, on your right--please participate--check as many categories as apply to you. Thanks!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Open to the Public? Or Not

David Jesse posted this on Mlive. This Saturday, Willow Run is having time for public comments about closing an elementary school. There is a public commentary session from 6-7:30 p.m.
Before that, there is a strategic planning session from 1-4 p.m.

This is the part that leaves me scratching my head.
A strategic planning work session will follow from 1 to 4 p.m. It's open to the public, but participation is by invitation only, the district said in an announcement.


I'd encourage you to read the 4/16 12:32 p.m. comment by WRCS Parent (scroll down). It's pretty interesting.

Ypsilanti Superintendent Interviews, Part II

Summaries of three more candidate interviews, found here.

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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New Beginnings Academy

I took this picture outside of New Beginnings Academy, one of the charter schools in Ypsilanti. Two thoughts about it--first, the sign is about the history of interurban transportation in Washtenaw County. Let me just say--the work and school landscape in the county would be VERY different if the interurbans still existed, and their dismantling is largely due to aggressive efforts by auto companies to get people to buy automobiles. All of which feels a little ironic these days. If the interurbans were around, maybe we wouldn't need school buses. Seriously, in NYC, school children take public transportation to get to school. Why couldn't it be so in our county?

Second (and you can't see this from the picture), although some of the charter schools in the county are seriously doing a great job, it's not so clear to me what New Beginnings Academy has going for it. It gets a Great Schools rating of 2/10, a Michigan Yes! ranking of a C; and the playground is not-so-hotsy-totsy. Oh, but wait--there is that one minor thing--you get to choose to go there.

Ypsilanti Superintendent Interviews

You can find information about the ongoing interviews here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

K-12 School Aid Budget

Read about the details, here, summarized by Michigan's Children.

School Board Competition Dwindles

Adam Hollier has withdrawn from running for AAPS school board.

I don't know any of the candidates, so this (broad) statement is not targeted at any of them, but:

I know there are people who are not happy with their schools--I hear from them.
I know there are people who think we could do things differently.
Yet there is no competition for most of the school boards in the county.

Which is too bad. Especially since the people I have talked to who have been on school boards have uniformly told me that they found it to be interesting, and some have even used the word "fun." (I kid you not.)

I think we need to ask why people don't run for school board. At least for me (some people have said, well if you are interested and blogging about the schools, why don't you run for school board), it comes down to two things: time, and money.

The time is significant (at least in larger districts). Estimates I've heard for Ann Arbor are in the "15 hours on a light week, and 25 hours on a heavy week" range.

The money is (at least in Ann Arbor) very insignificant. Currently it is $130 per calendar month.

The combination of a high workload, with a very low compensation rate, means it is challenging to be on the school board while working and raising a family. Obviously, some candidates don't work, or don't work full-time; other candidates don't have kids at home--but if you need to make more than $3/hour, it might be difficult to be on the school board. It seems to me that such low compensation reduces our pool of candidates.

Friday, April 10, 2009

More Budget Information: Saline

On the Saline Schools web site, there is a presentation about the Saline Schools budget for next year. (It was easy to find a few weeks ago, but I had to do a search to find it this time.)

The Saline schools superintendent also has a narrative description on his blog, here.

Saline also has two school-related millages coming up for a vote, and you can read about them here.

Look Out The Window: School Nature Areas

I was at Gallup Park recently, and I started thinking about schools and natural areas. Now, Huron has both Gallup and Furstenburg parks right next door. Forsythe and Wines have Birdhills Park. Allen Elementary is next to County Farm Park.

All of which is fabulous. (Even if those parks are underutilized by the nearby schools, they could and should be used for more.) But did you know that the schools actually have some natural areas attached to the schools? Some of them are jointly owned with the city or county. And guess what? Since I couldn't find a list on a web site (say, perhaps, the school district's?), I probably missed a couple. So please, add to this list!

Are you looking for something to do over spring break? Try visiting these areas! Flowers will be budding and blooming, birds will be building nests.

Scarlett-Mitchell Woods
Read this nice description of the Scarlett-Mitchell woods.

Thurston Pond and Thurston Nature Center, described here.

Eberwhite Woods, described here.

There are more locations: Pioneer High School has Pioneer Woods, Skyline High School has 45 acres that were kept natural, but I could not find good information links for them. (Send them to me, I will post them.)

Snow Day!

Even though I generally will have to go to work, the words "Snow Day" still warm my heart. So I was very happy on Monday. The reaction from my friends who teach in school districts that were on vacation this past week? "That's not fair! We're already off this week!" I think snow days, unexpected and infrequent as they are, are like getting an extra birthday present.

When the state of Michigan switched from a number of school days/year policy to a number of school hours/year policy, it gave a little more flexibility in terms of calendar scheduling.

But up north, there are many more snow days, and schools still run into problems.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

More Thoughts on Willow Run

David Jesse summarizes a recent Willow Run board meeting here. Board member Harold Wimberly had this thought:

He reminded the 100 or so people there that as bad as the finances are, the district's academics need just as much help."Our kids need to graduate," he said. "We need to look at how we can educate these students."

I hadn't thought about it in exactly those terms, but Harold Wimberly clearly is right. I mean, what are schools for? To educate students. Obviously Willow Run must have a short-term focus on finances, but if they don't simultaneously maintain a long-term focus on student achievement, then what exactly is the point?

I went and looked at some of the more recent school board minutes. A few things surprised me. First of all--

For the most part, the Willow Run board doesn't use a consent agenda. Staff changes, check approvals, and school field trips (to places like the Toledo Zoo!) all get voted on and approved separately--even when there is clear agreement.

Second, in every set of minutes I have looked at (admittedly, not all of them) they are dealing with at least one, and sometimes as many as 4 or 5, students being suspended, expelled, or sent to alternative educational settings like COPE. That is really a LOT of suspensions and expulsions. Either the schools are too quick to suspend or expel, or things are really out of control. Or both. In a 2000-student district, that is a lot!

Third, many of the meetings ended in an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Given the weighty issues the school board is dealing with--and the number of routine agenda items--that scarcely seems like enough time.

Sure, Willow Run is a high poverty, low per-pupil funding district. But they are not the only ones with those challenges, and other school districts have dealt with those challenges by focusing on the needs of students and teachers.

What it all comes down to, in my opinion, is leadership. The last Superintendent of Schools in Willow Run who had a presence was...Dr. Joe Yomtoob. I don't attribute all the district's woes to his leaving, but he was not replaced by any superintendent who showed that they cared about the community, or even the schools. Dr. Yomtoob had a passion for the kids, and for the community. He was also a part of the wider Washtenaw community, serving as a trustee at Washtenaw Community College. Actually, I think he still has a passion for the kids--for years after he left, he and his wife have been giving U.S. savings bonds as awards to Willow Run students every year.

What happens when you don't deal with your problems when they are small? They get a lot bigger. That's why Pontiac schools recently discussed laying off all teachers (a union busting, cherry picking maneuver) and re-hiring only a few. That's why the Detroit schools are faced with closing 50 schools. That's why Willow Run has a 52% graduation rate.

What Willow Run needs now?


and a vision that says, "We need to educate students well. If we are not educating students well, then we are not doing our job, and we should find a way to let someone--or some other school district--do it for us."

It's Worth A Field Trip

Whether on your own, with a class, or with your family, I think you will find the newly-expanded University of Michigan Museum of Art worth the trip. There is a lot--and a lot more--to see. I think it will take several visits for me to appreciate all that is there.

I'm also told that some woodworkers have taken the wood from the trees that were cut down for the expansion, and turned them into bowls that can be bought in the gift shop, with the proceeds going to the museum. I'm thinking of wedding gifts...