The new Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent, Jeanice Swift, is on her “listening tour,” visiting each and every one of Ann Arbor’s schools. If you haven’t gone to one of those sessions yet, I encourage you to go. Here’s the schedule.
One thing that has come up in discussions at some schools is the possibility of school closings. This is a natural outgrowth of the fact that in the AAPS district, the prospect of school closings was raised explicitly by the school board in the spring, and by the fact that the Ann Arbor schools have been under financial pressure for several years. (As has every school district in Michigan. You can visit Michigan Parents for Schools to find out more about why that is.)
In fact, in the spring of 2013 the district issued requests for proposals for consultants to help on redistricting. Eventually, they began discussions with the University of Michigan to help the district decide what schools, if any, should be closed. Since nothing has been fully negotiated, I can’t say whether the University of Michigan’s proposal is a good plan or not. They may have a role to play. But I can say this: parents and community members have “skin in the game” when it comes to discussing redistricting schools, and I believe there is an effective way to make these decisions.
As it happens, shortly before I moved to town in 1985, Ann Arbor went through a redistricting process. It was thoughtful, involved a broad sector of the community, and resulted in significant realignments and school closings – with long-lasting benefits. It’s worth taking a look at what happened then. If redistricting is in Ann Arbor’s future, this process may be worth copying and updating.
The Committee on Excellence of Education
There were 20 members of the Committee on Excellence of Education – including many who are still active in the community today: Mary Austin, Ronald Bishop, Vincent Carillot, Patricia Chapman, Susan Doud, Cheryl Garnett, Leonard Gay, George Goodman, Charles Kieffer, Norma McCuiston, R. Griffith McDonald, Bettye McDonald, Melinda Morris, Merrill Nemiroff, Duane Renken, Ingrid Sheldon, Joann Sims, Estelle Titiev, James Wanty, and Ronald Woods.
This was the their charge [emphasis added]:
The Committee on Excellence of Education in the Ann Arbor Public Schools was created by the Board of Education to address several long and short-term issues facing the system during the 1980′s and beyond. The explicit charge to the Committee from the Board of Education was:
1. Do sufficient futuring to provide guidance to timely decisions concerning: a. a long range plan (August, 1985); b. a five-year financial plan; c. school grade reorganization
2. Recommend what quality education should look like in Ann Arbor in 1990 and beyond.
3. Address the issues associated with and make recommendations regarding: a. boundary changes; b. declining enrollment (numbers and implications); c. grade reorganizations; d. building usage; e. school closings; f. definition of what an ideal elementary, intermediate and high school should look like in terms of physical space, number of students, and curriculum; g. desegregation; h. minority/majority performance gap; i. special programs and services; j. school hours; and k. current goals and policies
4. Develop a process to fulfill the charge to the committee, such process to include formal solicitation of input from every employee group, PTO and other interested parties. Twenty-one citizens were appointed by the Trustees of the Board of Education to serve on the Committee. Three alternates were also selected in the event that vacancies should occur.
Just like today, at the time the Ann Arbor school district was trying to solve multiple problems: financial problems and declining enrollment; racial issues (segregation and achievement gap); balancing the needs of special programs; and creating consistent school hours, goals and policies. Part of the committee’s charge involved “formal solicitation of input” from all interested parties.
Let’s look at what the school district did right in 1985.
The school board appointed a group of citizens, plus alternates, and that tells you they really expected people to be committed to the committee. And the citizens were! The committee had subcommittees that sifted through data and met with the community. The district also funded a consultant to provide technical support in developing three redistricting plans based on data and guidelines that the committee provided. The public expressed concern about the input they were having (or weren’t having) as the decision was being made, and ultimately the committee put forward its own plan, not the consultant’s. That plan was then vetted by the public, and several changes to it were made.
I moved to town shortly after all of the work was done, but the decisions were still being discussed and implemented. That is not surprising, because desegregation/equity issues and school closings were a very large part of the discussion.
The redistricting decisions were essentially based on two primary issues: (1) improving racial balance; and (2) reducing the “underutilization” of schools. Although some of the school buildings were sold, the financial implications of that decision were not primary. Today, though, that might be an important consideration.
If we were to modernize/adapt these almost-30-year-old guidelines, what issues would surface?
Updated Issues: Desegregation
In 1984-1985, the district was 17% African American, and that population was distributed unevenly throughout the district, with 19 out of 26 elementary schools having a building population that was either less than 12% or more than 27% African American. The Asian population was highly concentrated near the University of Michigan’s north campus. White students were a much greater percentage of the school population than today.
The committee wanted to address the problem of segregation. Past attempts had ended in failure. For instance, in 1979 the school board agreed on a desegregation plan, and shortly after found themselves ousted in an election. The committee decided that all schools should have an African American population of between 12% to 27%, and they tried to distribute the Asian population among several schools so as not to create a “third world ghetto.”
Today, the district is less segregated, but there is still wide variation. During the 2011-2012 school year, the district was 14.3% African American, 14.8% Asian, 9% multi-racial, 6.5% Hispanic/Latino, and 55.4% white. So now, there are more Asian students than African American students, many more students who identify as multi-racial, and many fewer white students compared to 1984.
Today, we are looking at different definitions of diversity. Yet just as was true then, racial/ethnic populations in the district are not evenly distributed. [.xls file with detailed AAPS student demographics for 2012-13 school year.]
Here’s a general look at some of the current racial/ethnic distributions, compared to the district average:
- Schools with approximately double or more the Asian population include: Angell, King, Logan, Thurston, Lawton, and Clague. Schools with proportionately half as many Asian students (or fewer!) include Abbot, Community, Eberwhite, and Ann Arbor Open.
- Schools with approximately double or more the Hispanic/Latino population include: Bryant, Lakewood, Mitchell, Pittsfield, and Scarlett. Schools with a very small Hispanic/Latino population include King, Lawton, and Clague.
- Schools with approximately double or more the African American population include: Bryant, Northside, and Scarlett, as well as Ann Arbor Tech and Roberto Clemente. Schools where less than 10% of the student body is African American include Bach, Eberwhite, Lakewood, King, Wines, Ann Arbor Open, and Community.
- Schools where over two-thirds of the school population is white include: Bach, Burns Park, Eberwhite, Wines, Ann Arbor Open, and Community. Schools where fewer than 40% of the students are white include: Mitchell, Northside, Scarlett, Ann Arbor Tech, and Roberto Clemente.
In addition, a much higher proportion of the African American population is low-income, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, and so schools that are more than 20% African American generally match the Title 1 schools. (Title 1 schools are schools that get additional federal funding because they have a high proportion of low-income students.) Schools that are more than 20% Asian are heavily concentrated on the north side of town.
Other schools have a higher-than-average percentage of students with special education designations. Most notable are Ann Arbor Tech and Roberto Clemente, at 29% and 42% of the student body, respectively. And while nearly a quarter of Mitchell’s students qualify as English Language Learners, there are several schools where almost no one does.
District-wide, 25% of the students qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program. Yet at Mitchell, Pittsfield, Scarlett, Ann Arbor Tech, and Roberto Clemente, over half of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. At King and Wines, less than 10% of the students qualify.
Updated Issues: Underutilization of Schools
In 1984, there were 13,772 students in Ann Arbor public schools; today there are over 16,500. There were 26 elementary schools in 1984, and some of them were small. The committee decided that a goal of “two classrooms per grade” was reasonable. For a K-5 school, two classrooms per grade would mean a school building with a little more than 300 students in it. (The committee also recommended reconfiguring the grade levels – at the time, the elementary schools were K-6.) If a grade 6-8 school were to have eight classrooms per grade, the school would have between 600 and 650 students in it.
If we had the same goals today, we would be looking at the following elementary schools with significantly fewer than 300 students: Mitchell, Northside and Pittsfield. (Angell has consistently been just under 300.) It’s also worth noting that Mitchell, Northside, and Pittsfield have been losing students since at least the late 1990s. Northside’s population count is now down to 189, and the school has lost more than two classrooms’ worth of students since 2010! (I’m not going to speculate on why, but obviously that is worth investigating.)
Similarly, Scarlett Middle School’s population has declined by over 100 students in the last 15 years, and is now under 500 students – while every other middle school in the district has seen increases. Ann Arbor Tech and Roberto Clemente have both seen shrinkage, while Ann Arbor Open and Community High have both seen increases.
In 1985, the elementary schools averaged 260 students; a year later, after the redistricting took place, they averaged 380 students. Since 2005, the elementary schools have had average head counts in the 330s. If we were to aim for elementary schools with an average of 370 students, we’d probably close three elementary schools, and perhaps close a middle school or turn it into a K-8 school.
Updated Issues: Magnet and Specialty Programs
In 1985, the committee recommended combining the various open classrooms around the district into an Open School, then housed at Bach. So too, a new look at redistricting could imagine some other types of magnets. Ideas that I’ve heard mentioned include another K-8 school on the east side of the school district; another Open-type school; a K-5 or K-8 language immersion program (Spanish, Mandarin, and/or Arabic); a STEM (science and technology) K-5 or K-8 program; a Montessori school; and a school, or two, with an arts/theater/music focus.
I’m sure I’m missing a few of the ideas that are out there! Obviously, redistricting offers opportunities to create other magnet or specialty programs.
Updated Issues: School Closings
In the 1980s, the district closed six schools, selling or leasing several of the buildings. One school building – Lakewood Elementary, on the city’s far west side – was reserved by the district and eventually reopened. But Clinton School’s building was sold to the Jewish Community Center, which also houses the Hebrew Day School; the former Bader School building now houses a preschool/early elementary center; Freeman School’s building was leased to Go Like the Wind Christian Montessori School; and the building for Newport School now belongs to the Rudolph Steiner School.
And those private schools have grown, at least in part because they were able to move into nice buildings.
So, for instance, the Rudolph Steiner School started in 1980 with a handful of students, and grew slowly until 1986, when it was able to occupy Newport School. By 1999, the Steiner School had 298 students – the vast majority in their K-8 lower school (313 students K-12, 2009).
In 1985, the Hebrew Day School was in very inadequate space, and had under 50 students. By 1999, the Hebrew Day School had over 100 students (87 students K-5, 2009).
Go Like the Wind Christian Montessori school, which only opened in 1987, had over 100 students by 1999 (101 students K-8, 2009).
And Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center goes through age 8, with a K-2 primary school program that in 1999 had 35 students (33 students K-2, 2009).
As we look to the future, I would hope that we consider how to reduce the competition that AAPS faces from private or charter schools. From that point of view, ideal school buildings to consider for sale are buildings that will have resale value to organizations that are not private or charter schools. In that sense, a neighborhood school building like Pittsfield or Mitchell – under-enrolled though they may be – is much less attractive to sell than a building like Angell, Bach, or Community, all of which are downtown or near downtown. Also more desirable to sell would be the building for A2 Tech (formerly Stone School), which is near Packard, a major thoroughfare. Not only would the district probably get less money for a Pittsfield over a Bach, but a Pittsfield would be much more likely to be turned into another – and competing – school.
Other things that are worth putting on the metaphorical table:
- Geographic distribution. In the 1985 plan, the committee recommended closing Forsythe Middle School as they felt it was too close to Slauson. That didn’t happen because the public didn’t like it. Today, Scarlett is the most underenrolled middle school, but closing Scarlett would leave no middle school in the southeast quadrant of the district.
- Transportation and walkability. Burns Park, Mitchell and Tappan are examples of schools that draw a lot of walkers, and that’s a good thing – although it may sometimes conflict with concerns about racial balance. Transportation and walkability are huge issues for parents, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Two other issues are the expected growth and movement of student populations, and of course the next moves of the state legislature.
The Doover: Looking Ahead, Looking Behind
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about. Change can be hard. Even mini-reorganizations – such as the restructurings that occurred when Lakewood Elementary reopened, when Skyline High opened, and when Ann Arbor Open moved to Mack and the Mack school catchment area students moved to Bach – were vociferously debated. But as a parent whose children experienced two of those changes, I feel comfortable saying that it didn’t end up being all that big of a deal.
As I look back at the process the school district used in 1985, I’m proud of it. I think it’s an excellent model, and it’s one reason that the reorganization was successful for as long as it was.
Yet the committee didn’t do all of this alone. Not only did the administration provide key support, the feedback loop from the broader community was quite strong. In fact, quite a few of the initial committee recommendations never came to pass, because of community feedback. (Also, the committee made a lot of recommendations that were not related directly to redistricting, but rather were related to the other committee goals.)
At Ann Arbor Open, in fifth and sixth grade, my younger two children had teachers Rick Hall and Ko Shih. Rick and Ko don’t generally tolerate messy or sub-par work. Turning that in earns students the special “Doover” stamp. (Get it? Do Over.)
In this case, I want to turn the Doover on its head. I want us to Doover the redistricting process using the same method that was used in 1985. I want a Doover, not because the work was so bad, but because the work was so good.
 “Unintended Consequences” was the last in a series of posts that I wrote on the 1985 reorganization. The others, in sequence, are: “But Was It Worth It?“; “A Little History“; “Desegregation Outcomes“; and “Privatization History.”
Ruth Kraut is an Ann Arbor resident and parent of three children who have all attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She writes at Ann Arbor Schools Musings (a2schoolsmuse.blogspot.com) about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.
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