Monday, September 20, 2010

Don't Blame the Messenger

Last week, I came home one day and found this email message:
Ann Arbor Public Schools sent an important automated phone notification using their SchoolMessenger system. You are receiving this message because your email address was included to receive the notification.
If you missed the call, or if your phone number was not included on the notification list, you can still listen to the message. Simply follow the message link below to play the message in your web browser.
I asked my husband, "Did you listen to the message from the SchoolMessenger system?"
(And to be perfectly honest, I thought it was either a reminder about a PTO meeting, or that perhaps my child had been "absent or tardy.")

"Yes," he said. "It was a reminder about Skyline's Spirit Day. The kids are supposed to wear blue."

Really? That was the "important message?" Aren't high school kids old enough to remember their own spirit days? But. . . whatever. I don't care about it, but maybe someone else does. I don't mind the "important message system" being used for that. At least I didn't care. . . for about. . . five minutes.

That's when I opened the web site of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and I was shocked. . . Shocked. . . SHOCKED to see Jennifer Coffman's article that said this:
AAPS, UM to Open "Lab School"
The Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education’s planning committee heard a presentation this morning on a “lab school” partnership being planned between the University of Michigan and Mitchell Elementary and Scarlett Middle schools.  The Mitchell/Scarlett/UM lab school, as it’s currently being called, has been under development for six months.
At today’s meeting, Mitchell principal Kathy Scarnecchia described the lab school as creating an integrated K-8 campus between the Mitchell and Scarlett buildings, as well as extending the function of the schools to serve as a community center for local families. She also noted that the lab school will use a year-round, extended-day academic calendar.
Had I heard of this before? No. And here is the kicker: 
The Mitchell/Scarlett/UM lab school will pilot two projects during this school year, then begin its full program in the 2011-12 school year.
So, just like the International Baccalaureate program, it's a fait accompli? Is predestination something more than Puritan theology?

Look--I'm not opposed to schools of choice. I've said before that I think Ann Arbor should have more magnet schools. I've dreamed of an elementary immersion Spanish program. . . perhaps another open school. . .  a high school arts magnet. . . something on the east side, maybe? I completely understand why Scarlett and Mitchell--both underperforming and underenrolled schools--would be targeted. I understand why schools of choice, and the money that follows them, are key. [What do you think is a top search term for this blog?]

When I was at the UM in the School of Education, reading John Dewey, the man who pioneered the "lab" school, I used to wonder why the SOE couldn't have its own lab school. (In fact, the School of Education is actually in a former Ann Arbor high school!) I get all that, but. . . But. . . BUT. . .

Is everything determined by professional staff now?

I really, really hope that significant public process comes before the "i"s are dotted and the "t"s are crossed.  Let's recall that our successful alternative schools (yes, I mean Ann Arbor Open and Community High School), in the past, have been developed through a ROBUST public process and with a GROUNDSWELL of support from parents and teachers--NOT from the top down.

Let's have some discussion: what do you think of an extended day and a year-round program? [I wouldn't send my kids to a year-round program. Would you send yours?] What do you think of sending your kids to a "lab" school? Why both Scarlett and Mitchell? Scarlett alone could accommodate between 800 and 900 students, which would be large for a K-8 program. Mitchell can accommodate over 300 students. Do we need a program for 1000-1200 students? How will this be cost-neutral? Etcetera.

Ann Arbor Administrators and School Board: I don't need to know about Spirit Week. I need to know where the schools are going.

This is the message that I should have gotten from the SchoolMessenger system.
This is a reminder that the Ann Arbor Public Schools are considering a partnership with the University of Michigan School of Education to create a "lab" school. Please come to the planning committee meeting on [DATE] or one of the three public hearings scheduled for October. You can also read the concept paper on the front page of the Ann Arbor schools web site,
THAT is what we need.

P.S. A concept paper? Yeah, that would be a nice idea. I couldn't find that on the Ann Arbor schools web site either.


  1. What cracks me up is the fact that you get an email reminding you to listen to a voicemail message. Why not just include the text of the message in the email? My school uses the same system.

  2. Many things in the district are increasingly top down. Administrators aren't asking teachers for any input either.

    Now that my kids are through high school I am SO happy not to be getting School Messenger calls and emails. Definitely overused, so it will quickly lose its effectiveness.

  3. I had the same reaction to the announcement in the Chronicle--whaaaat? When was this decided? By whom? WHERE IS THE PROCESS?

  4. There was some good points made about this in the comments after the AA.Com article. One parent over there made the statement that a lot of the kids are not in school regularly now. If that is the case, why extend the school year? It does not seem to be very well thought out.

  5. Jrsowash, my experience is that the Ann Arbor district is weak on technology and don't necessarily think through the end-user point. What you say, of course, makes great sense.

    Anon1, I agree that overuse of the school messenger system can be a danger. But I still like the idea of the system--what are appropriate uses for it?

    Kate, We have to keep asking that question: Where is the process?

    Anon2, The idea of the extended school year is tied up in research around the differences in academic achievement for low-income and middle-income kids. The Scarlett and Mitchell schools are both Title 1 schools, meaning they have hit a certain threshold of low-income students. In general, middle-income and upper-income students have enrichment activities during the summer and after school (for instance, summer camps, vacations to new places, music lessons) and tend to lose less ground academically over the summer. Some research suggests that lower-income students don't get those enrichment activities, and that it takes the first month of school to "catch up." The idea is that with an extended year (and an extended day) you can build in enrichment activities and lose less ground.
    I am not at all clear if that means that this school would be a required neighborhood school, a magnet, or what--or what if it is mostly middle and upper income kids who choose to go there. But anyway, I believe that is why it is being proposed. I would like to know how many parents would choose year-round school for their kids...especially if it didn't match up with the high school schedules.

  6. I know what you are saying about the summer months, Ruth. I think we all realize that there are huge disparities in outside of school opportunities. And with the emphasis on closing "the achievement gap", it is no secret why those schools were chosen. But, my central point was......if kids are not in school daily now, does it make sense to put those same students in school year around? Will there be any benefit? What about trying something else, like getting the kids in school everyday to take advantage of what is already being offered? What about homework clubs after school -- mandatory for anyone not getting homework completed? What about enrichment activities/camps during the summer? The correlation between school attendance and school success is well documented. I don't have all the answers, but I think there are some significant problems that need to be solved first, and no one seems to want to talk about them.

  7. Yes, I see what you are saying, and that is also a good point.

  8. Well, define how much school the kids are missing? What's the cutoff? Lots of times when kids begin to struggle, they begin to develope school avoidance, not the other way around. Who wants to show up and be the "dumb" one? So yes, it makes sense to augment regular schooltime.

  9. Why would anyone NOT want to send their kids to school year round? How many of us actually need our kids home during the summer to work on the farm? I would so much rather have them at school than have to come up with structured activities, day camps, etc. Maybe if all our schools were year round we could begin to close the global achievement gap as well as the domestic one.

  10. Julie, I have no doubt that some people will find this a very attractive option. There are lots of reasons that I would not: Summer is a better time to take vacation; I would have a harder time syncing schedules (especially if the district is not all on the same schedule, and now I have a child in college too); it's the same amount of school days, just spread out; we do other things during the summer--like Jewish summer camp and camping. And, in addition, I find it harder to schedule activities for my kids during those shorter vacations (like April), so I think two weeks here and two weeks there would be difficult. Last--is the district's infrastructure up to the task? Some of the schools have not-very-robust air conditioning. It is hard to learn when the rooms are hot.
    So I imagine that if a particular school offers year-round school, that would be an attraction for some and a deterrent for others--in the same way that multi-age classrooms attract some and detract others.
    A friend of mine with two children at Mitchell told me she was SHOCKED when she heard, for the first time, at curriculum night, that Mitchell might become a year-round school. Even though she wants a neighborhood school, she said that would make her switch schools in a heartbeat.
    Of course, she is only one person.

  11. Lots of people don't vacation much, especially with the economy, and the extended school year would be beneficial is both parents work. It would be beneficial for people who don't have the money for camps, and certainly the district can find some air conditioners.
    It seems your biggest problem is the public process. Maybe. Maybe, if you're in the school system, the school people don't want the extended year, because it's ruins their routine, their summers off...
    The tragedy of the achievement gap can't be understated. It's been there a long time, and taken many kids down under in it's undertow. There's been lots of time for people to get involved and interested in how to help, and it's seems like there's been lackadaisical interest at best through the years.
    This is a nice try and I think it should go forward.

  12. I absolutely believe we have a huge and growing educational gap here according to household income and educational level and that the schools should be addressing it. But, the whole global achievement gap deal leaves me cold. The truth is, there are many illiterate people in both China and India and there are many children there who are not in school. They are being kept home to work so the families can survive. Americans have always valued a more broad and well rounded education and I still do. Getting a driver license, dating, having friends, playing sports, working, partipating in clubs like theater, writing poetry, playing an instrument for fun. Most middle class kids here do these things while students in other countries that are supposedly "beating us" are staying at school through the dinner hour. My kids are at school through the dinner hour too. They play sports, participate in putting on plays, concerts, volunteer, go to dances, etc. It all depends on what the values are and what is considered a "good" education. What do other people think? I get frustrated by the "school as competitive sport" mentality. JL

  13. JL, I agree with you.

    Anon4, yes for me it is all about the public process. If, in fact, there are 1000 students/families in the district (K-8) who would like to be in a year-round school, then I think that is great--as long as people who don't want it can opt into a different school. I'm all for options--as long as a public process, where input is actually studied and taken into account, is in place. Right now I don't see that.

  14. Ruth, have you sent a link to this message to the board, the administration? I have been waiting pseudo-patiently for announcement of district "strategic planning" talks, which I've been told are to be announced by the end of this month. Yet this lab school certainly sounds as though it should have been a part of that big-picture planning! I'm getting more and more frustrated.... Any word from the AAPS on this?????

  15. Anon,
    Like you, I've been waiting since LAST FALL for the promised strategic planning groups to take place.
    In response to your question about whether I have directly emailed the school board...
    No I haven't, on this issue. (I have on some other issues.) Although I believe that there are some school board members who read this blog.
    But I shouldn't be doing all the heavy lifting here, because then the board might think I am the only one who feels the way I do, and I know that is not true. That is where you come in--feel free to a) share this blog on facebook or twitter b) paste a link into an email (I guess I need to add the email share-it application too). Start a campaign targeted at the school board or just write your own note. You can email the entire school board directly at:

  16. Ruth,
    I've emailed everyone about the talks in the recent past. But I will try to spread this link, too.

  17. The district seems to go which ever way the winds blow. Back when we were sold on building and paying for a new high school, the promise was that it was going to improve things at Pioneer. But, as soon as the district got their new showcase high school, they developed amnesia and forgot about Pioneer. It is smaller, but still overly competitive, impersonal, noncomumicative, and factory like. We were promised a team format, but that hasn't happened either. The new idea now is a lab school. This will take all of the time and attention for the next year. There seems to be a lot of flitting around from one idea to the next with no real follow through.