Wednesday, August 31, 2011

School Registration: I'm scratching my head about a few things

Last week was school registration in the Ann Arbor schools, and it left me--and my husband--wondering about a few things.

First of all, the timing of registration is problematic. Registration is in the middle of the day, and there is no evening registration alternative. In addition, the "make-up" day is during the same week as the regular registration. Most people take vacations Saturday to Sunday, and most camps run week-by-week, so: why don't they set the make-up day(s) during the following week, on the theory that if you are out of town on Wednesday you will probably still be out of town on Friday?

Second of all, my daughter (like many of her classmates) came home with a schedule that made no sense. Sure, she was able to laugh about the fact that she was given two sections of the same exact class. She was able to laugh about the fact that she was given two classes during the same class period. And she was able to laugh about the fact that she was given Mandarin Chinese Level 2, despite the fact that a) she's never taken any Mandarin Chinese and b) she didn't have any Chinese class on her list of possible electives.

I admit--I laughed about it too. Until my husband said to me, "Don't they use computers for these things? Can't they program the computer so that it is impossible to assign someone two classes in the same class period? Can't they program the computer so that it is impossible to assign someone two sections of the same exact class?"

Um, good point. Yes, I'm pretty sure they could. If they would.

And while they're at it, if a student has a blank class period, why don't they fill in that period with a class the student requested? If that's not possible, the computer should just leave the space blank! If a class is not on a student's list of possible electives, why does the computer automatically fill in the blank--with a class the student has no interest in taking and possibly no qualifications to take? I think they could probably fix that too, with a little programming.

And really, I don't think it's a lot of programming. If we were to compare the amount of programming time it would take to the alternative (not programming), it would be obvious that the up-front programming time would be worth it. 

Because you might be wondering--what happens when students get these kind of cockamamie schedules? Well, the counselors get hundreds of change requests, and those all have to get dealt with manually. In other words, counselors are spending hundreds of hours on this.

In the meantime, the class counts for those mis-assigned classes are completely wrong.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transportation Redux

If you've been following Ann Arbor's transportation issues, you know that:
1. Back in the spring, the powers-that-be suggested cutting all high school transportation in order to save money.
(There was a Big Outcry.) 
2. The upshot was, that the Board of Education decided to establish "common" bus stops--for the most part at elementary schools and in some areas on the edge of the district.
3. (There was another Big Outcry.) This was from people who are just now realizing that their kids are going to have to get up super early and walk to a bus stop at a school, perhaps a mile or more away from their house (the district walk zone is a  1-1/2 mile radius). There may not be sidewalks; by late fall it will be dark; and if the bus pickup is a 6:45, they may need to wake up at 5:45 a.m.

You can read more here.

I'm all for common stops--but who thought up that they should definitely be at existing schools? In the case of concentrated subdivisions, it might make more sense to have them there. Is there any data from last year that could tell us about actual usage patterns?

Right now the district is saying:
a) We'll meet with parents again on Thursday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. in the cafeteria of Clague Middle School.
Great! The early meetings have been populated largely by people from Arrowwood and Foxfire, but I highly doubt those are the only parents concerned about this.

b) There's a video from the new superintendent on the Ann Arbor schools web site where she says that all decisions will be guided by safety concerns.

Great! This shouldn't be a popularity contest. I have to put in my two cents here: first of all, safety concerns are different in the morning and the afternoon. In other words, I would be concerned about my daughter walking a mile, by herself, in the dark, at 6:30 a.m. I wouldn't have those same concerns at 3 p.m. So potentially, stops could be added in the morning and not in the afternoon.

View Larger Map
Second, there are some other safety concerns if you're enforcing walking to school. For instance, this past year in March, there was a 1/4 mile of Maple Road--near the roundabouts, between where school property ends and houses start--where the sidewalk was unplowed and piled high with snow from the road--for over a month. Yes, you can see it on the map. Students faced a choice of slogging through two feet of snow or walking in the road. I couldn't figure out who owned this property... (the city? the road commission?) but I'm sure it's just one example. If we really expect kids to walk to school, we need to enforce sidewalk clearing.

c) Last, the district says, they won't make any decisions until after school starts.
What?! Why not?! If you are being guided by safety concerns, then those safety concerns exist on day one. 

Finally, it's worth noting that I don't believe that the district has yet received--or released--any information about whether their privatization switch to the WISD saved them money, and if it did, how much. I hope we'll get to see those numbers soon.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Else is Math Good For?


Check out the work of Sol LeWitt, on display at MassMoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, until 2033--so you've got plenty of time to get there. It is beautiful art, but also mathematical masterpieces.

View this, or this, or this, or this.

About LeWitt's work:
"LeWitt—who stressed the idea behind his work over its execution—is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of Minimalism and Conceptual art, and is known primarily for his deceptively simple geometric structures and architecturally scaled wall drawings. His experiments with the latter commenced in 1968 and were considered radical, in part because this new form of drawing was purposely temporal and often executed not just by LeWitt but also by other artists and students whom he invited to assist him in the installation of his artworks.
Each wall drawing begins as a set of instructions or simple diagram to be followed in executing the work. . . " From About the Artist, MassMoCA. Emphasis added.
If you read his instructions in the piece below (taken from here), you can see how math can be used to create art. 


Monday, August 22, 2011

Charter #2: Arbor Preparatory High School

My initial idea in writing about the charter schools in the county was that I would provide the same information about each charter school, and that I would go alphabetically. Well, I'm sticking to my plan of going alphabetically, but that basically makes it impossible to provide the same information for each school, because this next school has not even opened yet! It does, however, allow me to provide some very basic information, and make some observations.

View Larger Map

Arbor Preparatory High School is a charter school that is part of the for-profit National Heritage Academies (which has two other established Washtenaw County schools--Fortis and South Arbor--and one other school that is set to open this year on the same site as Arbor Prep--East Arbor). It is set to open in the Fall of 2011 with up to 250 ninth and tenth grade students, at the corner of Merritt and Hitchingham Roads.
One thing that is very interesting about the development of this school is that it is only the second charter high school in the county that is really focused on high school students. The other is Washtenaw Technical Middle College, which is chartered by and run in concert with/on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. Two other schools--Eastern Washtenaw Multicultural Academy and Central Academy--have much smaller numbers of high school students.

The school is part of the National Heritage Academies and is being run by a charter management company, PrepNet. The newly-appointed principal, Matthew Hudson, was formerly an assistant principal at South Arbor. The web site looks very bare at this point. The only parts that are fairly well filled out are the athletics and college planning sections, and I assume those are basically boilerplate from PrepNet. As with all National Heritage Academies schools, there is a "moral focus curriculum," and they offer art, music, library, and physical education.

If you want to see the proposed budget, you can find it here. Operations and Maintenance is over half the budget! Only about 1/3 of the budget is devoted to instructional services. This may be a function of the fact that they are moving into a new building, but I'm not sure if this is the building budget or not.

In the article about the principal, there was a lot of discussion in the comments about why all these schools have "Arbor" in their names, when they are actually located in Ypsilanti. It's a good question, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

The school itself is chartered by Bay Mills Community College, which is Michigan's first fully-accredited, tribal (community) college, and if you're wondering how or why a small community college that doesn't certify teachers is in the business of chartering schools, I think the answer is: money. When Michigan first started allowing charter schools, they put caps on the number of schools that could be chartered. Bay Mills is on Indian land, and is therefore not subject to state law--so they didn't have a cap. So would-be schools were interested in Bay Mills because there was no cap, and Bay Mills was interested in the schools because the schools pay an administrative fee to the charterer. Based on the Bay Mills web site, it appears to me that other chartering authorities do a much better job of supervision. The role of Bay Mills as a charter authorizer has been a matter of some controversy, deserving of its own post.

This is also where I tell you that unlike my search of the EMU web site for chartering documents when I wrote about Ann Arbor Learning Community, I could find very little on the Bay Mills Community College web site (no charter documents). Nor could I find information about the charter on the state web site (when I looked a few weeks ago) because at that point it was still showing up as a "proposed" school.

And because I'm still a little bit murky on the corporate behind-the-scenes information (and I'm not sure if it's supposed to be easy to find this information or not), I can't tell you very much about PrepNet or about the proposed school. However--I'd be interested in tips on how to research our local charter schools, so if you know, please do tell--either in the comments or via an email message.

What I can tell you is this: there are two kinds of charters--non-profit and for-profit. Ann Arbor Learning Community, Washtenaw Technical Middle College, Honey Creek. . . they are organized as nonprofits with local boards of directors. In contrast, Arbor Preparatory High School is part of a much larger, privately-held, for-profit venture.

I have to tell you that I am completely and totally murky on why we permit for-profit ventures in education. Fundamentally and philosophically, that seems wrong to me. In charter schools, some of the profit may come at the expense of teacher salaries, which are lower than other public schools--but the same could be said of many non-profit private schools where tuition is significantly higher than the per-pupil allowances of public schools. In other cases, I don't even understand how the profit accrues. In any case, if there is "leftover" money in education (a.k.a. surplus or profit), then we should plow it back into the education of students.

That does not mean that there won't be demand for Arbor Preparatory High School, or that it won't be successful. (I believe that the other local NHA schools have waiting lists.) Feel free to come back to this post in a month or two and write about your experiences with the school.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It's Art! It's Math!

I doodled my way through high school, so I found this fascinating, even had no idea who Hilbert is. (Find out who he is here.)

[So this is what math is good for! Doodling! I never doodled so symmetrically.]

Monday, August 8, 2011

Technology and (Lots) More

OK, I know you've been wondering where I've been...hey, it's summer!

I have been working on some longer posts, but in the meantime, here are some updates.

1. Tuesday, if you're like me you'll be keeping an eye on the recall elections going on in Wisconsin. At their core, they are all about how public employees are treated. On twitter I think you can search #wivotes or #wiunion for up to the minute information. I blogged about my experiences back in February at the rallies in Madison.

2. Also Tuesday, the Ann Arbor school board will be discussing the possibility of putting a technology millage on the ballot. It's a special meeting to discuss this--I'd encourage you to share your opinion, either by going to the board meeting (Balas, 7 p.m.) or by emailing the board at I wrote about my concerns about whether this is a good way to pay for technology, in the post How should schools pay for technology? I also haven't heard much enthusiasm for the idea from anyone except school board members, so I wonder--why pursue something and spend so much time and energy on something that is going to be voted down anyway? And if I were in the teachers' union, I might consider opposing this. Why? Well, it was only a couple of years ago that the Saline superintendent threatened to eliminate the high school math department and move completely to on-line learning. (Yes, it was a dumb idea--and likely mostly a bargaining tool--but still--why support that kind of thinking?)

3. And this article, Michigan teachers continue to leave for other states,  has really gotten a lot of play. It's not a big surprise to anyone that there are very few teaching jobs in Michigan, and that we are training too many teachers. I wrote about that a short while ago. It would be nice if teacher training institutions consciously chose to reduce their class sizes and upgrade the quality of their incoming classes. Will they? I bet not nearly enough, because teacher education is their bread and butter...

4. The Ann Arbor district did a nice job sharing information with Ann Arbor Open parents when the fire happened in the building (it was an electrical problem). 

5. I'm quite sure Governor Rick Snyder isn't interested, but nonetheless I'm going to put out here, for my gazillion readers, two thoughts about how the state could raise more money. First, let's turn I-94 into a toll road, and dedicate those funds to improving the roads. (I grew up on the east coast. Most of the roads are tolled. People who use them, pay for them.) Second, let's look at what mobile home owners pay in lieu of "property taxes." The last time I checked, it was something like $15/year and was set in the 1950s. Maybe it's time to raise them.

6. Ypsilanti Schools have unveiled a new design for their website at Let them know what you think!

7. I was a little sorry to see that Stone School got renamed Ann Arbor Technical High School. It reminded me of a line from a Grace Paley poem, "I gave away that kid like he was an old button." I admit, it's not exactly "giving away the kid," but did we have to lose the name? And if we did, couldn't we think of something less...boring...trendy...I mean, we've already got New Tech High School, and Washtenaw Technical Middle College...and is the name really going to change the reputation?

In case you are wondering, the original Stone School is now a cooperative preschool, at the corner of Packard and Stone School roads, and the building is 100 years old, this year.

8. About Ypsilanti's New Tech High School--A couple of weeks ago, I was checking out of a store, and because I was buying a backpack, I started talking about schools with the cashier. Her child has been going to New Tech. She thinks it is fabulous, that it has rekindled his interest in learning. Now, she said to me, he's thinking about college. She said, "Well, he was behind in school, and he's still behind, but now he's interested in catching up." I thought that was very high praise for a brand new program. And apparently they were just named a national demonstration site, too, so that is promising. (Now, I would link to the New Tech web site, but I guess still has some work to do, because the link is broken...if it gets fixed I will update it.)