The April 13 study session of the Ann Arbor Public Schools board was highlighted by an update on the district’s efforts on equity initiatives, as well as some blunt discussion about race in the Ann Arbor public schools. Study sessions are meetings of the board scheduled as needed to gather background information and discuss specific issues that will be coming before them in the future.
The session included a presentation from Glenn Singleton, a facilitator for the Pacific Educational Group (PEG). PEG was hired by AAPS in 2003 to assist in the district’s efforts to close the achievement gap – a disparity in academic performance between minority students and other students.
Singleton, who led a majority of the discussion, criticized the board on a number of points, contending that a lack of continuity in leadership has impeded progress in closing the gap. He also said the board has not shown full support for closing the achievement gap, resulting in uncertainty for principals, administrators and other building leaders as to the board’s commitment to solving the problem.
Interim superintendent Robert Allen was on hand and provided background on the district’s involvement with PEG. Allen said that Singleton was touching base with the district and visiting AAPS schools. Singleton was doing walkthroughs to evaluate the district’s progress on closing the achievement gap using techniques suggested by PEG.
“At this point we can have a meaningful evaluation of where we are with the equity work and what we’ll need to do to achieve our goals,” Allen said. The study session focused on lack of board support, failures in leadership structure and the need for “courageous conversations.”
Lack of Board Support
Singleton opened his remarks by touching on the perceived lack of support the board has shown for closing the achievement gap. According to Singleton, the issue stemmed from trustees’ disagreements about how well the district’s plan is working, and uncertainty expressed by other school leaders when it comes to enforcing and supporting equity issues.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot joined Singleton in contending that the progress made is not satisfactory and that the board has not paid enough attention to fashioning an effective strategy. “Even with the improvements, the gap is still huge and it’s not sufficient enough to say we’re moving there, not enough for me,” Lightfoot said. “We are clear on the strategic plan, but we don’t have an achievement gap plan.”
Singleton added that the district still faces teachers who blame the students for the predicament they are in. He said that teachers incorrectly attribute the poor performance of minority students to factors such as lack of family support, mobility issues and poverty. According to Singleton, these problems apply to some poor performing minority students, but they are not the cause of the poor performance.
Singleton said these inconsistencies and inaccuracies continue to make inequity a problem for the district. He added that there was uncertainty amongst school leaders about the board’s stance, causing some of them to lack confidence about engaging in equity work. “The fact that the system is still questioning whether the board is fully on board with this makes this a dilemma,” he said.
After hearing arguments by Singleton and Lightfoot, some members of the board spoke in defense of their efforts. Board president Deb Mexicotte spoke on what she felt had been a genuine effort by the board to confront the achievement gap. “We made policy changes, we placed resources, we looked at our hiring practices,” she said. “The board has demonstrated through a number of avenues that we are committed. We never said we maybe won’t do this work or will stop this work.”
Trustee Glenn Nelson also argued that the board has made a significant effort pursuing equity, pointing to the district’s longstanding relationship with PEG as evidence.
“My first reaction is that we have not pretended we know everything. We reached out to PEG because we know we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I think continuing to search for how to get at this is an indication we’re serious about this.”
Trustee Christine Stead spoke last, referencing initiatives such as the district’s partnership with the University of Michigan and the commitment to innovation at Mitchell Elementary and Scarlett Middle School.
Nevertheless, Singleton pointed to this split between board members as troubling when school principals, administrators and building leaders look for a unified stance to follow. “This disagreement would give permission to those who watch you to wonder whether there is a plan and a commitment,” he said.
In his comments, trustee Andy Thomas found common ground between the two positions, comparing the district’s efforts at equity to a disorganized anthill.
“There are lots of people doing a lot of things with the best of intentions, but it’s almost like an organism that isn’t quite coordinated,” he said. “Some parts don’t know what other parts are doing.”
Singleton called this approach “random acts of equity.” “Those acts will measure up, but they don’t measure up in a system,” he said.
Failures in Structure
Singleton dedicated a large portion of his presentation to detailing the leadership structure that PEG promotes to combat disparities in academic performance. This structure includes a top-down style that he felt may be at odds with the culture of some district schools.
Before delving into discussion, Singleton mapped out the system of leadership that PEG promotes to deal with equity issues.
The system involves a dedicated team at the school board level that hands down programmatic decisions for school principals to implement. Schools also have a responsibility to foster environments that promote equity by developing teams of school leaders that work to shape a school’s culture. These teams deal with topics such as instruction and professional development.
PEG intended for these teams to grow in numbers and spread throughout the district, but according to Singleton, inconsistent messages from the board on support and accountability have led to an incomplete realization of the district’s equity goals. He added that, while the system is working in a number of schools in the Ann Arbor district, it is failing in more of them.
Trustee Thomas spoke to the issue of autonomy, discussing the unique environments cultivated by each school and school principal in the district. “At a school and principal level, many of these schools operate semi-autonomously,” he said. “There are commonalities, but basically, the principals have a lot of discretion on what goes on in the school.”
Mexicotte agreed, saying that the district had an entrepreneurial culture.
Singleton viewed this culture as problematic, arguing that, despite the autonomy and unique cultures of each school, black and brown students always seem to end up on the bottom. He added that, while he understood the benefits of autonomy in a district, sometimes a school’s culture is being shaped by members of the community instead of a school’s principal, creating a convoluted system of leadership.
Nelson noted that many schools employ school improvement or student achievement teams. But Singleton said those only serve to create, “overload and fragmentation,” because “those teams see equity as something different.”
The uncertainty about how the board is approaching the achievement gap issue troubled board president Mexicotte.
“During our superintendent interviews, we talked about how in five years we wanted to see the achievement gap closed and I find it hard to think that someone has the impression we’re not in full support of the work,” she said. “If that’s still the case, maybe we need to take out a billboard.”
Singleton responded by referring to “courageous conversations,” a concept he outlined in a book he wrote with Curtis Linton, “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in School.” The book focuses on what teachers need to know to effectively educate minority students and close achievement gaps.
The book also provides outlines for having meaningful conversations in order to deal with potentially uncomfortable areas of discussion, and to create authentic changes.
Mexicotte said the turnover on the board has led to continuity issues and board members not being fully informed on courageous conversations, an issue that resonated with other board members.
Singleton agreed, making the frequent turnover at the district’s superintendent and trustee positions one of his biggest points.
“I looked back to the first training I did in 2003,” he said. “I was invited to the district by a superintendent who wasn’t here when I got here.” [Rossi Ray-Taylor was AAPS superintendent from 1999 to 2003, when she resigned under pressure from the board and George Fornero was promoted to that job from deputy superintendent. Fornero left the district in 2006 and was replaced by Todd Roberts, who resigned last year.]
Incoming superintendent Pat Green will be the fourth one to work with PEG, a fact Singleton felt spoke to irregularity in the efforts.
“Everyone was connected (with the previous work), but everyone connected differently,” he said.
Trustees Simone Lightfoot and Susan Baskett felt that their perspectives on some board issues had been dismissed because of their race. Baskett added that the issue of having safe conversations about race has been absent from the board for some time. “We haven’t had a safe conversation in eight years and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” she said.
Board members also talked about a 2010 field trip at Dicken Elementary School which had been limited to African American students and generated criticism of Dicken principal Michael Madison. They took it as evidence that there needed to be more open conversations about the topic of race.
The board resolved to schedule a meeting or study session that would focus on the issue and allow for “courageous conversations” within the month to ensure that plans would be ready for the start of the 2011-12 school year.
After agreeing to make time for a meeting focused on conversations about race and equity, trustees laid out a number of other initiatives to pursue.
The biggest issue trustees tackled was the formation of a transformation plan, which would outline how the board would create a system of leadership that was unified, and had clear expectations and processes for holding schools accountable to those expectations.
Board president Mexicotte asked the board’s planning and performance committees to look into the issue, adding that she would like to be present for their discussions as a non-voting committee member to provide input and for her own understanding. She added that the board should either read or re-read Singleton’s book on courageous conversations, to be prepared for when the board focuses on the issue.
Mexicotte concluded by saying that while the board is usually not in charge of some of the measures that will need to be put forth, she still wants to look for ways to create policy that will support equity efforts.
Trustee Nelson added that board members should be aware that some of the measures they use to judge the achievement gap are imperfect – because they do not separate students who have been with the district for a number of years from those who had joined within the past couple months.
Trustees Lightfoot and Baskett also had their own goals relating to the board’s progress on closing the achievement gap.
Baskett wanted a report on which schools were making progress with PEG’s plan and which were not, saying that she asked for the same thing nearly a year ago but has yet to see anything.
Lightfoot requested documents that showed accountability by outlining where the district was in terms of an achievement gap, what the district’s goals were and how the district would be pursuing those goals.
Both Singleton and the board agreed that the transformation plan had to be aligned with the district’s strategic plan. The board also agreed that there would not be one “band-aid” for the district problems. Rather, solutions would have to be tailored to each school to address specific issues.
Interim superintendent Robert Allen was on hand to provide input. He spoke to the fact that AAPS had fallen behind on a plan PEG envisioned happening over a five-year period.
“We should talk about filling in the holes without taking four years to catch up to where the district should be,” he said.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, April 20, 2011, at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
About the writer: Eric Anderson is an intern for The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Jennifer Coffman, who usually covers AAPS board meetings for The Chronicle, is taking a maternity break.