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."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Ruth, for your efforts to get people thinking and talking about our schools and what we can do to make them better.

    I was at that Willow Run summit, and I have to say that the financial presentation was heartbreaking. What's clear is that WRCS is in what I call the "death spiral," wherein the poor economy causes some people to leave, lowering pupil headcount, which immediately cuts their operating revenue (it's on a per-pupil basis, remember), forcing cuts like closing schools and laying off teachers, which drives more families to move their kids to other districts under Schools of Choice, and the cycle repeats.

    WRCS has lost half of its student body in the last seven or eight years; that also means they have lost half of their operating budget. 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.