Monday, September 27, 2010

Death Spiral, or Revival?

It's time to turn our attention back to the east side of the county, and Willow Run schools.

Good News
There has been a little bit of good news from WRCS over the past few months. For one thing, they officially fired their superintendent, Doris Hope-Jackson, and that frees them to move on! In addition, according to the Ypsilanti Courier, Holmes Elementary just won an award, the "2010 Robert and Patricia Muth Excellence in Leadership Award from [the] Middle Cities Education Association, a coalition of 33 urban school districts in Michigan. The annual award honors K-12 schools in Michigan's urban school systems that demonstrate leadership in school improvement, specifically improvements that reflect gains in student achievement." And WRCS actually came to agreement with its teachers' union, and the union gave up big concessions. [I'm not sure the big concessions are good news, but having an agreement certainly is.]

The Big Questions
You might recall that Willow Run was asked to file a deficit elimination plan (for I believe the third year in a row), and that the state accepted it, even though it is predicated--once again--on an increase in enrollment (50 students). For more than a decade, WRCS has lost student population every single year. Count Day is coming up this week. The number of kids that show up on Count Day determines the vast majority of the per-pupil funding for the school year for each district. Accurate projections (even if the numbers go down) are key to balancing the school district budget.

Steve Norton, of Michigan Parents for Schools, once wrote in a comment on this blog that chronically losing students leads to lack of funding which leads to losing students which creates a "death spiral" that is hard to break.

Is it possible that WRCS can push back against a more-than-decade-long trend and increase enrollment this year? We will know later this week, but my sources in the district say "I doubt it."

The Bad News
You might also remember that Willow Run High School was in the bottom 5% of high schools in the state. That's not good, but that's not the bad news part. [Well, really it is the ultimate bad news part; no school wants to be designated Persistently Lowest Achieving.] What I mean is, that's not the bad news I am discussing here. Every high school in that bottom 5% had a chance to compete for additional grant funds that would allow the district to remake the high school. There were four choices:

*turnaround model--replace the principal and 50% of the staff, change governance structure
*transformation model--replace the principal, change instructional methods
*restart model--close the school and reopen it under the guidance of a charter school operator
*close the school

Now, in fairness to Willow Run, the competition for the grants was relatively stiff. According to the Michigan Department of Education Frequently Asked Questions document, in the first round of funding, 108 schools were eligible; 84 schools applied; and only 28 schools would be funded.

But according to my sources in the district, it didn't help that Willow Run applied for a model that required the replacement of the principal, and proposed. . . keeping the principal. Does that make any sense? NO. It's not rocket science, it's grant writing. MDE says, "The award of a grant was based primarily on the merit of the grant application." Typically, you need to meet the grant requirements in order to get the grant. Or really, why bother spending all that time writing the grant?

It doesn't make me too hopeful.
Count day, later this week, will give us some more information.


  1. The real motor of the "death spiral" is that the money lost with each lost student is more than the savings from not having to educate that student. That's what drives districts into the ground, because they have to cut services yet further, leading to more student losses, and so forth.

    The opposite is true for growing districts; they benefit from a "virtuous cycle" of rising revenues that exceeds their marginal increased cost for each student. Districts that abruptly stop growing find this a difficult transition - I believe Saline is a good example.

    One good idea for reforming the foundation allowance system is to make some allowance for fixed costs.

  2. As for the turnaround models, they all seem to operate on the scorched earth principle. It's a bit like the tech companies which are always in hope that the next "reorg" will re-energize the company.

    An article in yesterday's NY Times is an interesting commentary on how it can be done from inside - what it takes is commitment and ideas.

    While the focus is on the size of the Boston school, I found the description of the process itself most interesting.

  3. Thanks Steve for your comments. I agree with you that the turnaround models do operate on a "scorched earth" model, and that is not a good thing. On the other hand--not every school that met the bottom 5% criteria applied for grant money, and my experience with applying for grants is that if you don't try to match your proposal to their criteria, you won't get funded--so if you don't want to try to match them, you are better off not applying at all.