Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From MIPFS: Don't Let It Happen Quietly

I got this email from Michigan Parents For Schools Today, about (surprise!) the Michigan schools budget:

Don't let it happen quietly - we need to fund all public schools adequately!
Where's your school funding?

State budget continues to dis-invest in education
Don't let it happen quietly! Our state lawmakers are about to pass a budget that keeps K-12 spending essentially flat, despite debilitating cuts over the last few years.

[Update, 5/30: The word from Lansing is that the school aid budget will give a $120 per pupil one-time increase, or "equity payment" to 378 districts and 70 charters that currently receive the minium allowance. That $80 million earmark will reach about 43% of Michigan's public school students. Other chunks of money will be available to districts that meet six of eight so-called "best practices" ($80 million), technology grants ($50 million), and performance grants ($30 million).

At the same time, the scheduled reduction in the income tax rate has been moved up from January to October.]

This election-year gambit to claim to be "helping" schools is not very convincing, since all districts have been cut by at least $470 per pupil over the last two years. But cutting taxes again was the top priority of the legislative leadership.

Let them know that we are watching: watching as they slowly strangulate our local public schools, watching as they quietly delete the promises made to K-12 as part of Proposal A, and watching as they show where their true priorities are.

Speak out today! Take Action!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Title IX in My Life--And Yours

A few weeks ago I was talking to my daughter's track coach about the SHARP Title IX conference that took place in Ann Arbor. Yes, she said, she had gotten an email about it. But in the course of our conversation it became clear that she (who was born after Title IX) really didn't understand the impact of Title IX. Two weeks later, it became clear to me that my son didn't either. Maybe that's not surprising, given that he's only twelve, but he did reject it as an interesting topic to write about as a sportswriter for the school newspaper. And then last night, it became clear to me that another mom on my son's baseball team--of a similar age to me--had only the vaguest notion of how her daughter's educational opportunities were affected by Title IX. Yet in the case of the track coach, in the case of my son and his classmates, and in the case of my friend's daughter, Title IX has had a tremendous impact on their opportunities.

Title IX is a law passed in 1972 that requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.
Many people have never heard of Title IX.  Most people who know about Title IX think it applies only to sports, but athletics is only one of 10 key areas addressed by the law. These areas are: Access to Higher Education, Career Education, Education for Pregnant and Parenting Students, Employment, Learning Environment, Math and Science, Sexual Harassment, Standardized Testing and Technology. (From

So I thought I'd set down, for the record, some ways in which I am aware that Title IX directly affected my life, and the life of the girls in my hometown. The Title IX blog recently had a post where they described these as the "little moments" of Title IX. We do need to document these! I know I was not alone. Thousands of girls around the country had similar experiences.

1. I went to a middle school that was run separately from the high school, but was physically attached to the high school and was simply in a different wing of the building. There were two gyms in the building. The small gym was in the middle school wing, and the large gym was in the high school. When I was in seventh grade, all of the girls, grades 7-12, had gym in the small gym; all of the boys had gym in the large gym. In eighth grade, the building use changed. The middle schoolers got the small gym; the high schoolers got the large gym. (Also in eighth grade, we got to stop wearing silly one-piece uniforms in gym, but that is besides the Title IX point--although it did definitely affect my enjoyment of gym, which we had four days a week!)

2. In seventh grade, I took home economics (cooking). All of the girls did. It was a requirement. All of the boys took wood shop. I didn't mind cooking, but I didn't want to take sewing. That was the eighth grade home ec. requirement for girls. They wouldn't let me sign up for metal shop though. I was a girl. My father appealed to the assistant principal. Said assistant principal told him it was against the law to let girls take industrial arts. My father asked him to cite the law. When he couldn't find it, my father left--and called the ACLU. The ACLU informed him about Title IX (which at that point was a few years old), and they wrote a letter to the school district threatening further action. They must have also put out a press release, because I remember that the issue made it into the local newspaper. The district changed its policy.

We can't leave aside the part that in the end, I was the only girl in the class, and if my dad hadn't gone to a lot of trouble for me I would have dropped out of industrial arts, because I was somewhat shy. Because the point is that my parents did go to bat for me, and actually, parent advocacy is a huge part of Title IX's success.

We can't leave aside the part that the teacher gave me an "A" for a project that was, objectively, terrible. This was an action I didn't understand until a few years later, when I realized it was his way of being supportive of the fact that I took a risk. And I do think that the industrial arts teachers--and probably the home ec. teachers too--were very supportive. If you think about it, giving students choices doubled their potential audience of students. In fact, when my brother, two years later, took home ec., one-third of the class was boys; and when he took industrial arts, one-third of the class was girls. In other words, because of one apparently small decision, things changed rather quickly.

3. I ran track in high school, but there was no girls' cross country team. When a group of us decided we wanted to start a girls' cross country team, Coach Miller was able to say yes. He was able to say yes because of the Title IX mandate.

4. And after years of advocacy on the part of my friends Denise and Anne, in our twelfth grade year the district agreed to add girls' soccer. We were on the first team. That was because of Title IX. It's not an accident that a couple of years ago the soccer team I helped start won the New York state championships. It's a legacy of Title IX.  (Two years ago I wrote about soccer, Title IX, and the Skyline soccer team here.)

What's your Title IX story? 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Accidental Essay: Thoughts About Ypsilanti's Budget

A few weeks ago, I asked a person who sometimes comments on this blog as YpsiAnon to write about the potential consolidation of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run schools. She said she would when she had time, in about a month. In the meantime, there has been a lot of discussion in Ypsilanti about some very draconian budget cuts, and when she came back to me, it was with what she called an "accidental essay." I think it's fantastic and thought-provoking, and I hope you will too. It's my first guest post! (You, by the way, are welcome to contact me directly if you are interested in writing a guest post.)

Thanks YpsiAnon!

You know how you can hear about a terrible disaster that kills thousands of people and it doesn’t affect you nearly as much as knowing one person who has died from the same thing?  The former is just too big to comprehend, while the latter is much more meaningful.  It’s kind of like this with the school district’s financial crisis.  We’ve heard for years about the deficit elimination plan, and sort of understood that millions of dollars were involved.  We’ve heard for months about the budget crisis being worse than we understood, and that now $14 million would need to be cut.  $14 million is just impossible to fathom.  But when the cuts are announced, and it’s your school or your band program that’s affected, then it is real. 

How dire are things in Ypsilanti?  Here is an example that hits close to home for me, since I have a band student at Ypsilanti High School.  (Please note that the figures below were shared with me by a couple of YHS sources.  I trust, but cannot presently verify, their accuracy.)

In Ypsi, the budgets have become building-based, where a lump sum is given to the building principal, who must determine how it is spent.  Next year, for Ypsi High School, I am told that this amount is in the $65,000 neighborhood.  This money is intended to cover all expenses, which have typically included copier costs (paper and ink), textbooks, phone service, mailings (including report cards), band instrument repair, band transportation, choir camp, science class supplies, and even light bulbs.  It also includes substitute teacher costs, which are estimated at about $60,000 for next year.  Go ahead and do the math.  Yes, that would mean that $5,000 remains for all those other expenses (plus some I didn’t mention) once you deduct the sub costs, and I imagine sub costs are less negotiable, perhaps due to contract issues.

I’m told that copy-related costs are around $80,000.  Should we go without copies?  Currently, a monthly limit of 250 copies/teacher has been allotted, regardless of whether teachers provide their own paper—toner is expensive, too!  (There goes my plan to give the teachers a ream of paper each fall instead of Kleenex.)  Teachers are trying to be creative, doing what they can online, for example, but most classrooms have about 4 student computers, so that’s not usually a viable option for an entire class. 

I’m also told that phone service for the building costs about $5,000.  Should we go without phones?

Should we not replace and/or replenish textbooks?  How about light bulbs?

As the abstraction of $14 million becomes concrete, the public will be in shock, which will quickly turn to anger and blame.  “Cut the administration!  They are overpaid and incompetent!”  “Cut sports!  They don’t help our test scores!”  “Cut transportation!  My kid doesn’t ride the bus!”  “Cut everything—except the things I value!”  And then it is just a reflection of the divisiveness of the greater world.  Hard as it may be, this is not the time to divide; instead, we need to find ways to work together and try to solve this problem.

The band budget used to include $5,000 for repairs, $5,000 for equipment, and $14,000 for band transportation (most of it to/from band camp).  It’s difficult to imagine that any of that will exist, given the circumstances.  What do we, as band families, do next?  Some might try to influence the district’s decision-makers by pleading our case.  (Frankly, I think band costs should be part of the public relations budget, for as much as marching band and jazz band represent the school district to the greater community.)  Some might try to find new sources of money, such as grants.  Some might launch new fundraisers.  Some might plan to kick in more money when the band camp bill comes due.  Some might even think about running for school board… Whatever it is, we need to do
something, not nothing.Whether you are from Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor or Chelsea, this story either describes what your district is going through now, or what it will be going through.  Maybe it will reassure you that your activism is justified, or maybe it will motivate you to become more involved.  I hope something good will come of it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Roberto Clemente: It Starts When You Care to Act

By now you have probably heard that Roberto Clemente will stay open for (at least) another year. Over the next year the board will thoroughly evaluate both Roberto Clemente and and Ann Arbor Tech. And that is good news. But that is not the real victory.

The real victory is that a group of students who--for the most part--have never seen the power of community organizing and social action, have now seen how that can make a difference. I was so impressed by the speeches that these kids wrote--and delivered--in front of the school board.

Project-based education research suggests that you need a) meaningful projects; b) hands-on experiences; and c) performance-based presentations. Although this was thrust upon them, this turned out to be a great and meaningful learning experience for those students who decided to participate. Kudos to the parents, teachers/staff, and principal who facilitated this experience (and who spoke up themselves)

I hope that is the lesson these "at-risk" kids take from this. When you see something you want to change, you can advocate, agitate, and organize. And yes, it is worth it. (By the way, sometimes it is worth it even if you feel you will lose.)


In their honor, a poem by Marge Piercy: The Low Road.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Picnic Pops: Saturday, May 19th, 2012

A fun, outdoor, ice cream social type event, with lots and lots of music. Join in the fun--free! Did I mention music? At Pioneer High School. Saturday, May 19th, 2012.

Here is the schedule:

Following is the full schedule of Picnic Pops:

10:30 AM Skyline Symphony Band
11:15 AM Huron Symphony Band
12:00 PM Forsythe
12:30 PM Skyline Concert Band
1:00 PM Huron Concert Band
1:30 PM Clague
2:00 PM Huron Varsity Band
2:30 PM Skyline Varsity Band
3:00 PM Slauson
3:30 PM AA Open
4:00 PM Pioneer Concert Band
4:30 PM Pioneer Varsity Band
5:00 PM Pioneer Symphony Band

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Few, Quick Budget Thoughts This Week

I don't have a lot of time to write this week, but here are a couple of thoughts.

1. As a parent at my table at the budget meeting said on Monday (and I agree), "It's important that we don't start ganging up on each other for our own personal interests."

2. It's important that we keep demading answers from an administration that seems not to have very much supporting detail in their proposals. Keep asking for the details. So you want to cut the middle school athletic directors? What is the plan for getting that work done? Who is going to hire and supervise coaches? Schedule fields and games? Is it feasible?

3. I was surprised to hear, the other night, that the staff (well-represented at my table) felt that they weren't able to get information either. That sucks, but it's also poor management. We have a superintendent who is very "green" to the district (pun intended), and much of the cabinet is new. There is a lot of institutional memory in the schools, but apparently there is not much information flow. That does not bode well for implementation of any changes.

4. It seemed to me that there were a fair number of budget cuts that nobody had a problem with. Adjust the starting times of Skyline, or Bryant/Pattengill, by 15 or 20 minutes, to make it easier to coordinate transportation? Go for it. Phase 5 Energy Conservation Services? Awesome.

5. I didn't even hear that much grumbling about cutting 32 teachers, given that most of them would be cuts from retirements--and let's remember that although Plans A, B, and C were presented as cuts of 32, 48, or 64 teachers, it's not really a fixed number. We could agree to have 36 teachers cut instead of 32 or 48. . .

The areas I have been hearing the most conversations about:
1. Closing Roberto Clemente. My questions: Why are we discussing this with six weeks left in the school year? This should be part of a much longer planning process. Why am I hearing *rumors* that Clemente would be put into a wing of Pioneer? Why does Ann Arbor Tech survive over Clemente? How many kids have identified special education needs at Clemente? Who are we trying to serve? One thing I've wondered is, although on paper the Ann Arbor Tech and Clemente students look kind of similar, are they really functionally different populations? Is the Ann Arbor Tech population an older, less-tied-to-a-family kind of population? And please, please, please: can the schools detail where those supposed savings would come from? I've asked for the details, but I haven't gotten it yet.

2. Cutting busing to Ann Arbor Open, Community High School, Skyline, and Roberto Clemente. My questions: Is it legal to cut busing to the magnet programs, but maintain busing for non-public schools like St. Francis? These are magnet programs, not "schools of choice." How many kids would you lose from Skyline, Ann Arbor Open, Community, Roberto Clemente if it was legal and this was done? Would your savings be erased by that? (Skyline did lose about twenty students last year just from the reductions that were made at the beginning of the year.)

3. Cutting middle school athletic directors. It's scheduled to save a miniscule amount of money ($37,000) and how will middle school athletics continue? I'm not saying that it can't, or won't, but I haven't seen any plan. More distressing? The middle school athletic directors have not seen any plan. Even more distressing? From the last round of budget cuts, they had developed a list of possible cuts--but nobody asked them to share the list.

Read these articles, if you haven't already.
From the Ann Arbor Chronicle: 

Budget Forum #2 (May 14, 2012)
May 9th AAPS Board Meeting
Budget Forum #1 (May 7, 2012)


Possible Transportation Cuts
Budget Forum #2 (May 14, 2012)
May 9th AAPS Board Meeting

By the way, as late as these budget presentations are, I think they would have been even later if Board of Education member Christine Stead had not kept asking for the budget presentation to come earlier. Christine also has a blog post detailing a revenue conference about the School Aid Fund that took place in Lansing today. The news is not good. You have to understand this in the context that there are some parts of the state legislature that simply want to destroy public schools. We have let them get the upper hand and they are doing a pretty good job at it. In addition to dealing with individual districts' budget issues, we need to operate on a second cylinder that works on influencing the shenanigans at the state Capitol.

Bottom Line: Keep talking to the school board. Email them at

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

AAPS Budget and FOIA: Transparency, Where Art Thou?

If you've been following the AAPS budget proposals, then you know that one of the proposed cuts is to cut busing to Ann Arbor Open. The co-chairs of the Ann Arbor Open Coordinating Committee immediately started brainstorming a) how to stop this and b) if cuts were needed, what could the school offer instead as alternatives?

Fair enough. The only thing is, the budget proposal had a round number estimate for all savings from transportation cuts, and that included cuts at several other schools. What portion of that is related to Ann Arbor Open?

The co-chairs put in a request to the Ann Arbor schools. Then they received--in the mail, not by email (even though they submitted the request by email)--the district's form FOIA response asking for an additional ten days to respond. (And they could get even more time, under the FOIA process.)

You see the problem, don't you? The budget timeline and the FOIA timeline don't match up very well.

At tonight's board meeting, during public commentary, a member of the Ann Arbor Open community (perhaps more than one) brought up that they would like to present alternatives, but they don't know how much they would be asked to save, because they hadn't gotten the information they asked for about the transportation expenses.

After public comment, trustee Simone Lightfoot followed up with a question about how parents should get information, and Pat Green, the Superintendent, said that the proper process was to FOIA information, that would be "fairest" to all.

Actually, I would call that, most obstreperous and obstinate. And idiotic, too.

Honestly, since I started this blog, most of the time I've just asked nicely for information--from Ann Arbor, Saline, Ypsilanti, Willow Run, and the WISD--and I've gotten it. If it is to be easily gotten, what is the problem with just providing it? The one time I had to FOIA something, it was for detailed historic data--which does make sense.

But recently, Pat Lesko wrote about having to FOIA data on class sizes--data that she was told didn't exist, but actually did exist. I wrote about that here.

And now, Ann Arbor Open parents are told that they have to FOIA information about the projected savings from transportation cuts in a budget proposal?

Is this a new policy, promulgated by a new superintendent? You're not making any friends here with this policy, Pat Green. It's wrong.

If the district is basing expected savings in the budget on hard numbers, then it should be easy to provide those calculations to families whose lives will be affected by these proposals. It should be easy to explain what the savings will be for cutting transportation to the various schools--by school. It should be easy to detail the savings from closing or moving Roberto Clemente.  Unless they are based on. . . data that doesn't exist?

Let's assume for now that data does exist.

There's a reason for a formal FOIA process. But there is also a reason that an informal process is often the preferred alternative, not just for the ask-ers, but also for the ask-ees. 
If a policy is necessary, I can imagine a school district policy that matches what the district has done previously.
If it's relatively easy to get the data, just respond to the request.
If it's difficult or complicated in some way, ask for a FOIA request. Ed Vielmetti pointed out to me, for instance, that in the teacher contract there is language around FOIA'ing lesson plans.

Obviously, lesson plans are not current budget proposals that are being debated by the current school board and that have a timeliness factor involved.

I could get my friends to flood the district with FOIA requests. I don't want to do that. And I'm quite sure the district doesn't want to have to respond to tons of FOIA requests. That might prove my point, but it's not particularly helpful.

No--what I want is a district that is responsive to parents' and taxpayers' requests, with the least drama possible. 

By the way, I've learned a lot about the FOIA process from Ed Vielmetti. Read my post about FOIA, and more, (with links to some of his posts) right here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tuesday's Election Day, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti

Let's start with the tech bond in the Ann Arbor schools. I started out ambivalent about supporting it. After all, philosophically I think most of the technology should be funded through operating funds. I expressed this feeling (and got some good discussion) in this previous post, How Should Schools Pay For Technology? (Read the comments, too, I think they are helpful.)

I still believe that--but I've also become convinced that in this current "climate"--by which I mean the state's continued cutting of funding to our public schools--that it is simply not feasible to expect technology funding to come from operating funds and not seriously affect our schools by taking money away from other things.

I've gotten seriously annoyed at our new Superintendent because every time we've raised the issue of the NWEA MAP test, she has responded that the "problems" are due to our old technology. Well, that's only true if you accept that the test itself is a good thing. If you think the test itself is a bad thing, then technology is not the problem, and it's not the solution either. Nonetheless--I'm not voting against the bond even though I'm unhappy with the testing, and unhappy with the pay increases for administration. I'm voting for the bond because I think it's a way to limit the destructiveness of current state policies around education. I'm voting for the bond because I think our students and teachers will benefit.

I wish that this bond was to support a county-wide operating millage for all school districts--but it's not. If that's put on the ballot in November, I'll support it then--in addition to this bond.

I also want to mention the Ypsilanti votes. I'd encourage you to check out Mark Maynard's virtual cyber debate, which he set up because the anti-income tax people didn't want to debate publicly. If you are a regular reader, you know that I don't live in Ypsilanti. But I'm pretty sure that based on where I work, I will be taxed through the new income tax, if it passes. Nonetheless, I hope if you live in Ypsilanti that you will vote for the income tax and the Water St. millage. I believe that a healthy city is necessary for healthy schools, and I also want people to have access to police and fire departments that are properly staffed!

Roses are red
Money is green
This May please vote yes
On the voting scene.

Apologies to all for awful poetry.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Observation and the Science of Journalism

Today the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a "monthly milestone" column by Dave Askins on the "science" of journalism. It's an essay that discusses why the Chronicle has chosen a writing model that privileges describing (what happened at a meeting) over storytelling (about the meeting). I found it thought-provoking, and you can find it here.

[As an aside: I also had to look up an old Ann Arbor News article on microfilm today. It really made me miss the (old) Ann Arbor News--the article was from the mid-1980s, and although there was a story-telling aspect to the article, it was also very information-dense, which is another thing I don't see a lot of these days in most journalism outlets.]

In any case--back to my main point here. Askins writes,
The lab manual for my first course in high school chemistry was called “Merrill Laboratory Chemistry,” co-authored by my teacher, David Haines. As I recall it, the first laboratory experiment involved lighting a candle and then watching it burn for an entire class period. The laboratory task was to record in the lab manual just what we saw happening.
That was a quintessentially descriptive task. And it’s not as easy as you might think, once you grasp what’s meant by “description” in this context.
For example, here’s the effort of a hypothetical student at this descriptive task:
Candle is burning.
Burning candle, wax is starting to melt.
Liquid wax is dripping down the sides of the burning candle.
Candle is getting shorter.
Flame is flickering.
I think it’s a poor effort. It’s not a poor effort by dint of a lack of detail. It’s a poor effort because it uses words that are already analytical, instead of purely descriptive. A possible commentary on that “description”:
You’ve used this word, “burning.” What do you mean by that? Do you mean to be talking about phlogiston leaving the candle? Or do you mean to be referring to a chemical reaction involving oxygen? Do you really mean to be describing the three-dimensional orangish, yellowish area above the white cylinder that’s shaped roughly like a teardrop and that moves around a bit?
Or take these words “melt” and “liquid.” What’s that exactly? Why are you convinced that the translucent stuff you’re seeing at the top of the white cylinder that tends to move around a bit is made of the same stuff the white cylinder is made of? Is that something you can see? Or have you already analyzed this situation, because you think you know what’s going on? What if that translucent stuff is being created by the orangish area out of some stuff in the air and deposited there on top of the white cylinder?
Dave's point, that we often analyze when we should perhaps describe, reminded me of a college friend who is an artist now. Like me, she was an environmental studies major. At the time of the discussion I'm going to tell you about, she was experimenting with her art, but she was making a living as a middle school science teacher at a Friends' (Quaker) school in Philadelphia.

One day we were discussing teaching methods, and Bonnie told me that her students spent a lot of time drawing. She would place an object--a shell, a piece of wood, a stone--on each table, and her students would draw. I was surprised, but she said, "Most of these students don't spend very much time looking at things and thinking about what they really look like." In fact, drawing really is a good way to observe, and observation really is a building block for good science. Therefore, encouraging observation--real, finely detailed observation--should be foundational to science education. Is it?