Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unintended Consequences

I know you've all been waiting for this post. 
At the end of the 1985 reorganization, several schools were closed: Bader, Clinton, Freeman, Lakewood, Newport, and Stone schools. In addition, the K-6 elementary schools became K-5 schools; the 7-9 middle schools became 6-8 schools; and the grade 10-12 schools became 9-12 schools. In addition, the Open School got a School Of Its Own, at Bach.
Now, back in the day--pre-proposal A--decision-making did not take into account the number of students in the district the way that it does today. Of course, overall the size of the district population mattered, but ten students here or there did not make any significant difference. In fact, the five-year forecasts the 1985 committee used showed the elementary school population growing slightly, and the middle and high school populations decreasing slightly. The 1984 total head count was 13,772 students, and the Committee on Excellence used a 1990 projected head count of 12,741 students.
After the decision was made to close the schools, the district had to decide what to do with them, and the decision was made to sell some, and keep others.
Bader (which is in Ann Arbor Hills) was bought by a preschool, the Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center.
The district held onto Freeman (which is in the Dixboro area), and gave a long-term lease to Go Like The Wind Christian Montessori. Side note: Rec & Ed soccer games are still sometimes played there.
Clinton (which is halfway between Stone School and Bryant, and which abuts Clinton Park) was bought by the Jewish Community Center, and both the JCC preschool and the Hebrew Day School are located there.
The district held onto Lakewood School (on the west side of Ann Arbor near Dolph Park), and reopened it in 2001--at which point it got some fairly extensive renovations. After being closed for 15 years, it probably needed them.
Newport School (on Newport Road) was sold and became the Rudolph Steiner School.
Stone School (at the corner of Stone School and Packard) has been used by the district for various things over the years--for Rec & Ed, for the New School (an alternative high school), and now for another alternative high school, Stone School.
When you close a school, who are potential buyers? For whom is a building like a school perfectly suited? Why, for another school. 
One of the unintended consequences is that, in selling schools to other schools, the district set up competition for itself. This doesn't seem to have been anticipated at all, and in fact--pre-proposal A--what mattered most was whether the community would support the schools, and not the exact number of students in the public schools.

So, for instance, the Rudolph Steiner School started in 1980 with a handful of students, and grew slowly until 1986, when it was able to occupy Newport School. By 1999, the Steiner School had 298 students--the vast majority in their K-8 lower school (313 students K-12, 2009).
In 1985, the Hebrew Day School was in very inadequate space, and had under 50 students. By 1999, the Hebrew Day School had over 100 students (87 students K-5, 2009).
Go Like the Wind Christian Montessori school, which only opened in 1987, had over 100 students by 1999 (101 students K-8, 2009). 
And Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center goes through age 8, with a K-2 primary school program that in 1999 had 35 students (33 students K-2, 2009).

Of course, not all of those 500 or so students live in Ann Arbor, but probably about 75% of them do. (That is an unscientific number, based largely on the people I know who send their children to these schools.) In addition, at least three of these schools have feeder preschools, so children who get started there are likely to stay there.
Certainly, all this was an unintended consequence.

All of this didn't matter so much then, but it matters a lot more now, when per-pupil counts matter so much--and I feel that in some sense, we gave these schools the freedom to expand. Sure, they might have found space anyway (several of the charters have), but we made it easy for them. Obviously, excess capacity can be a drag on the system. However, there were estimated savings at the time--have they come to pass? I don't know, but if you include the per-pupil costs, I think the closings probably haven't saved money.

And in the "this might be too far-fetched to consider" category, I will add one more possible unintended consequence: the building of Skyline High School and the building of the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center. Regarding Skyline, I say this because, today, we still have significant excess capacity at the middle school level. (Remember, this was also true in 1985, and one of the proposals that wasn't implemented included closing a middle school.) At the time, putting sixth graders in the middle schools kept the middle schools at essentially the same size, and adding the ninth graders to the high schools put Huron and Pioneer essentially at capacity. I say that the building of Skyline as an unintended consequence "might be too far-fetched to consider" for two reasons: first, the estimates of student enrollment only went out five years, and the estimates were essentially flat. This turned out not to be the case, at least ten years out, when the fall head count had grown by 1500 students. The other reason is that educational trends can be like bulldozers, and the trend to move to having ninth graders in high schools reached its ascendancy many years ago. I don't think there would be much traction for moving ninth graders back to middle school--at least, I never heard it entertained as a serious suggestion during the whole time that building a new high school was discussed.

In a similar vein, it seems to me that the building of the AAPS preschool center admits the importance of having feeder preschools to the K-12 AAPS program--something these private schools figured out years ago. Yet, at the point at which this was identified as a need, there was no obvious building for locating all of the preschool programs.
[As to what I think about the excess middle school capacity--I think that there is a lot of demand for K-8 schooling, and one of the middle schools could become a K-8 school. But that is a subject for a different post.]

Last, but not least--the planners did not (and I would say, probably could not) have anticipated the ascendancy of charter schools. Charter schools have undoubtedly had an impact on some of the schools' enrollment, particularly in the elementary schools. The Committee on Excellence had a goal of ensuring that all elementary schools have enrollments over 300. In 2009, three elementary schools fell short of that (I'll give Abbott a pass at 297), with Pittsfield School having the lowest enrollment--and my understanding is that at least some of the reason that Pittsfield is so small is due to the fact that charters have attracted many "potentially Pittsfield" students.

So--unintended consequences--is this what you thought I would say?

P.S. Because this is the last post I will write on this for a while (at least I think it is), I just want to say that I believe the Committee on Excellence did a really good job with the information at hand, and the reason is that the process was good. The process was used to the advantage of the school district. The process involved a citizens' committee gathering input from the larger community, bringing a proposal to the School Board, with the administration serving as support for the committee. Read about that process in the report itself. That was then, this was now--let's learn from our past. And if you see any of the members of the Committee around town (some have passed on, but some are still here), you can thank them, because I'm posting the list of members:
1. Mary Austin
2. Ronald Bishop
3. Vincent Carillot
4. Patricia Chapman
5. Susan Doud
6. Cheryl Garnett
7. Leonard Gay
8. George Goodman
9. Charles Kieffer
10. Norma McCuiston
11. R. Griffith McDonald
12. Bettye McDonald
13. Melinda Morris
14. Merrill Nemiroff
15. Duane Renken
16. Ingrid Sheldon
17. Joann Sims
18. Estelle Titiev
19. James Wanty
20. Ronald Woods


  1. Here's more about Bader, which is now the home also of Fellowship Bible Church.

    "In 1987, Fellowship Bible purchased the former Edith Bader elementary school from the Ann Arbor School District. The building was dedicated in conjunction with the April 1987 Missionary conference. Rev. Paul A. Tidball, Superintendent of Cleveland Hebrew Mission, and the New Tribes Bible Institute Choir of Jackson participated in the dedication service. The building provides a very suitable auditorium, rooms for Sunday school classes and quiet prayer, and a location close to the university campuses in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti."