The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Education it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In It For The Money: Our Schools Mon, 01 Sep 2014 13:01:22 +0000 David Erik Nelson My son starts third grade at Pattengill this week. He spent the first three years of his compulsory education riding the big yellow bus to Bryant Elementary – Pattengill’s K-2 sister school, sorta-kinda over by the municipal airport and town dump.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Every day, on the way home from the bus stop, I’d ask what he did that day at school. Invariably they’d done nothing. I’d prod, as directed by the school: “Which specials did you have today? Did you go to the library? Did you have gym? What did you get in trouble for? Did anyone fall out of a chair?” and basically get nothing.

He clearly demonstrated that he was learning things somehow – he was reading ever more voraciously, and suddenly knew perfect squares through 10 and what a rhombus was. If the school accomplished that through long days spent sitting motionless and staring into space, far be it from me to disrupt their zen practice. “Nothing” was, after all, getting results.

But as it turns out, my kid is a damned liar. They hardly did any “nothing” at all at that school.

Enter the Loose-Leaf Golem

At the end of the school year my boy brought home a trashmonster, his backpack heavy with pounds upon pounds of classwork, much of it unfinished, or seemingly untouched (kinda confirming his claim that he does nothing at school).

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Embedded in that mess of nightmare penmanship and abandoned math sheets were bizarre gems, like these little daily writing things. I don’t know what these were supposed to be: They are half-sheet size, stapled into booklets, rarely dated.

Sometimes they are just a sentence or two about his weekend or favorite food, but often they are these weird schematic jokes.

Or little nuggets that read like spitball pitches for indie horror films in an alternate universe where the SAW franchise was conceived and executed as an animated series a la Muppet Babies. My favorite of these reads (with spelling corrected): An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

If any of you aspiring young filmmakers want to option this concept, the boy and his lawyer are taking meetings.

So that’s something they did all year: They scrawled cough-syrup fever-dream koans on little pieces of paper. Also, they published a fiction anthology.

This thing weighs over a pound-and-a-half and is thicker than my thumb. My boy’s contribution is the first chapter (?!) of what seems an awful lot like Snoopy/Pikachu slash fic in which wolves bring the intrepid couple magical weapons and a sonorous bird.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz's 2nd grade class.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz’s 2nd grade class.

More chapters of this – occasionally illustrated, invariably scrawled edge-to-edge, front and back, on loose sheets of college-rule paper – were embedded in the classwork trashmonster.

There was also the unpublished first draft of the first book in his series “Presidents in Peril,” in which Lincoln is saved from wolf-assassination by a time-traveling ninja (also an excellent film pitch, in my humble).

I realize that I’m running the risk of being dismissed as flip, so here’s a slightly more somber piece of classwork I extracted from the work-lump my son brought home from school.

Below is a single page from a not-at-all radical second-grade civics curriculum. That final box is a bit squished. It reads: The community may be abandoned.


“The community may be abandoned.”

We’ve lived next to an abandoned house for as long as he can remember (#PureMichigan), and we’re middle-class pink-colored people – which is to say we’re the sort of Americans that, statistically, are doing OK right now. That is what OK looks like in 2014.

In the Belly of the Beast

Oh, and, one more thing: My kid’s second-grade class made a whale last year.

In the belly of a blue whale.

In the belly of a blue whale.

It was a 1:1 scale replica of a blue whale, made from black plastic tarps and inflated with industrial blowers (the kind the custodians use to dry the floor after waxing. Sorry the photo isn’t super-fantastico; there was no practical way to get a pic of the outside of the thing, because it was as big as a blue whale.)

A whale. A whale. They made a whale, and then inflated it, and got inside it as a class, and made measurements so they could tape down 3×5 index cards labeling the locations of all the organs.

They worked on it for months – during which, every day, I asked my kid: “What did you do at school today?” and he answered “Nothing.”

He spent his days toiling in the belly of a whale.

Yet that was “nothing” to him – nothing at all. We live in an age of wonders.

These are our tax dollars at work, Ann Arbor. These are our tax dollars at work, Michigan.

This is what we vote for when we vote for millages. This is what we destroy when we slash budgets and privatize services.

This is what we destroy when we permit ourselves to obsesses about the less-than-meaningless minutia of testing tests – to better test the tests’ capacity to test our kids’ capacity to test well on future tests of their test taking skills.


My son attended Clifford E. Bryant Elementary School for three years. It wasn’t until that final day – the day I saw the whale – that I stopped to actually read the plaque next to the rather dour portrait of Clifford E. Bryant hung in the lobby. It’s hung high above the door my son walked through no less than 1,000 times, in the building bearing the name of the man pictured there. And what does that plaque say?

Clifford E. Bryant came to Ann Arbor after World War II and was hired as a custodian for the Ann Arbor Public Schools on August 16, 1946. He worked in the school system for 25 years. Mr. Bryant was not an ordinary custodian. He had the reputation of being a friend and helper to both students and teachers. He was not a tall or big man in physical size, but he was in every other way. Although tradition dictated that schools be named after deceased persons, Clifford Bryant was honored during his lifetime. He was chosen because of the kind of man he was and what he did for the children, teachers, and parents of Ann Arbor.

I’m including a half-tone photo of Bryant from a 1972 newspaper article instead of a photo of the plaque, because I think it makes a  better portrait of the man.

Clifford Bryant

Clifford Bryant

On the occasion of the school being named for Bryant, AAPS assistant superintendent of operations Emerson Powrie (who had worked with Bryant as a principal) said, “I’m very pleased that the [Ann Arbor Board of Education] has recognized that faction of the school community that is so often overlooked. Cliff was a very dedicated employee and deserves such an honor.”

I want to flag a couple things here.

First and foremost is the primacy of always reading the plaque – and the sooner the better. I wish I’d known this three years ago. I wish that I could have told my son, so that he would have more than 1,000 reminders of the other thing that I want to flag: The little things count.

We didn’t name a school after Clifford Bryant because he fought in a war (although he did), nor because he saved a bunch of kids from a fire (he might have), or because he cured cancer (which doesn’t seem to be the case), or because he walked on the moon (which no records indicate ever happened). He was not rich (according to any reports I’ve seen), he didn’t revolutionize desktop computing (to the best of my knowledge), and he didn’t appear in 47 top-grossing films nor win an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting. As near as I can tell, his death wasn’t even very widely mourned – heck, he passed just six years after the school was named for him, and yet doesn’t seem to have even warranted an obituary in the local paper.

So what did he do to deserve this honor?

He showed up faithfully. He worked kindly. He helped. In short, he bent the arc of the moral universe in exactly the way that we all want our children to aspire to: By being gracious on the daily to those around them.

At a fundamental level Bryant was a custodian: He steadfastly protected and maintained something of value to us all.

And just as I very much like living in a community where we set our children to the task of building and working inside of ersatz, air-filled land-whales, I also very much like living in a community where we will name a school after a person because that person was good and faithful and kind.

Happy Trails

And here we are, Dear Readers, at the end of the road.

I’ll level with you: This has been a ton of work. In the normal course of events these columns consumed hours upon hours of typing, backspacing, typing, revising, cutting, cutting, cutting, and cutting, followed by my endless compulsive nit-picking and fidgeting and altogether trying of Mary Morgan’s good faith and Dave Askins’ monumental patience – and those were the columns that went to print.

Uncounted were the hours spent standing in lines, pestering folks, fruitlessly Googling, working the phones, and otherwise chasing down leads that evaporated to nothingness. If you knew how long these 33 columns took to write and research, then you’d know the awful truth: That I’m not just a self-aggrandizing blowhard, but also a damned fool.

Say what you want, Gentle Readers, but at least I was always a fool for the facts. I reported what I saw as faithfully as possible, and told you the truth to the best of my ability. And over and over and over again I have been surprised, and humbled, and intensely flattered by your honesty and patience and good will in coming along with me on what has been, quit literally, a fool’s errand. That we are here, together, at these words so low on the last page of the final column is a testament to your civic fortitude as much as my obstinacy.

So while it’s a bummer we’ll no longer hang out like this, it’s also a tremendous relief. I’m sure you understand.

That said, I continue to write.

Something like this column – albeit much shorter and more poorly proofread – pops up on my website now and again. If you want to be kept apprised of that, you can sign up for my newsletter (and hear from me not more than weekly) or follow me on Twitter (and see many more pictures of my toddler attempting to feed gin to a stuffed lemur). I also write other stuff. Amazon will happily sell it all to you, and places like Literati can certainly get ahold of the things actually printed on paper.

If any of you happen to know someone looking for a somewhat obtuse columnist interested in a new project, I’m willing to talk. No reasonable offers will be dismissed out of hand.

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Column: Fixing College Football Fri, 13 Jun 2014 11:57:20 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, I explained why Michigan students are dropping football tickets in record numbers – about 40% in the last two years. It touched a nerve – actually a few hundred thousand nerves. And not just among Michigan fans, but college football fans nationwide, who recognized many of the same flaws at their favorite university that were turning them off, too.

It’s all well and good to criticize Michigan’s athletic administration – and apparently very cathartic for many fans, too. But it doesn’t solve the central problem: How can college programs protect an experience millions of fans and students have loved for decades, before it’s too late?

Yes, winning helps. But when Michigan went 3-9, 5-7, 7-6 a few years ago, they still had a robust wait list. And when USC was winning national titles about the same time, they rarely sold out their Coliseum. Fans obviously love winning, but what they want – what they need – runs deeper than that.

Allow me to offer a few suggestions.

First, some easy ones: Give the fans real opponents, at a reasonable price, then revert the student ticket policy back to what it was, for – well, forever. Freshmen sit in the end zone, and seniors get the best seats. Simple.

Want them to show up on time? Don’t bully them, or tease them with donuts or cell phone service. Just remove the least appealing aspect of a modern football Saturday: boredom.

What’s boring? Waiting in line for 30 minutes to get in your seat. Or worse, being forced to arrive hours before kickoff, with nothing to do but sit in the heat, the cold or the rain, while your classmates are still outside tailgating. Then there’s the 20-minute wait for a six-dollar hot dog.

Fans at home don’t have to wait in line for any of these things. Why should fans who paid hundreds to sit in the stands? Hire a few more folks, reduce the lines, and keep the fans happy.

Everybody’s most hated delay is waiting for TV timeouts to end. Because every game is televised, ticket holders endure about 20 commercial breaks per game, plus halftime. That adds up to more than 30 minutes of TV timeouts – about three times more than the 11 minutes the ball is actually in play.

To loyal fans who sit in a stadium that is too hot in September and too cold in November – and often too rainy in between – this is as galling as taking the time, money, and effort to drive downtown to a local store, only to have to wait while the clerk talks on the phone with someone who didn’t bother to do any of those things.

Why do the powers that be let TV spoil your day at the stadium? TV doesn’t stop car races, golf tournaments or soccer games – yet those still make millions of dollars for all involved. If the TV whizzes can’t figure out how to make a buck on football without ruining the experience for paying customers, those fans will figure it out for themselves, and stay home.

While TV is running its ads, Michigan too often gives its loyal season ticket holders not the marching band or – heaven forbid – silence, but obnoxiously loud rock music and, yes, ads! Spectators spend hundreds of dollars to suffer through almost as many ads as the folks watching at home for free. Sssssuckers!

Yes, advertising in the Big House does matter. Americans are bombarded by ads, about 5,000 a day. Michigan Stadium used to be a sanctuary from modern marketing, an urban version of a national park. Now it’s just another stop on the sales train.

I’m amazed how eagerly universities have sold their souls to TV. It wasn’t always this way. Bo Schembechler said, “Toe meets leather at 1:05. If you want to televise it, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too.”

Bo’s boss, Don Canham, backed him. TV was dying for a night game at the Big House. Canham wasn’t. So, they compromised – and didn’t have one.

If fans want night games, fine – give ‘em what they want. But nobody likes waiting for TV to decide when Michigan is going to play that week – especially fans flying in from far away.

This past fall, ESPN descended on Evanston, Illinois, for a game between Ohio State and Northwestern – a rarity. When ESPN told the folks at Northwestern to get rid of these shrubs and those bushes near Lake Michigan, because ESPN wanted to build their set there, Northwestern did something none of the big boys have the guts to do: They said, “No. You can set up where we planned it.”

What did ESPN do? They followed Northwestern’s orders. What else could they do?

The universities still have the power – but only if they’re willing to use it.

Okay, you start dictating terms to TV networks, they might cut back on the cash (though I doubt it). But even if they did, what would that mean? Perhaps Michigan’s rowing team would have to make do with a $20 million training facility, instead of a $25 million one. Maybe Michigan’s head coach would have to get by on $2 million a year, instead of $4 million. Perhaps Michigan’s athletic director – and yes, he does pay himself – might just have to feed his family on $300,000 a year, instead of $1.3 million.

I think universities could somehow survive these deprivations. It would be worth it if, in the bargain, they get their souls back.

Which brings me to legendary Michigan broadcaster Bob Ufer, who often said, “Michigan football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day of obligation.” He was on to something. Athletic directors need to remember the people in the stands are not customers. They’re believers. Treat them accordingly – or lose them forever.

That is not unique to Michigan. Researching my latest book, “Fourth and Long,” I met Dr. Ed Zeiders, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in State College. He has seen what a college football team can do for a community in ways others might not.

“We are desperately needy,” he told me. “We need a place to stand, and a people to stand with, and a cause to stand for. That is not original with me. That came out of World Methodism. And those three propositions hold the key to healthy and value-oriented living. Our culture is devoid of these things.”

Pastor Ed, as he’s known, fills those needs every week at his church. But he couldn’t help but notice the place of worship down the street can host 108,000 believers every Saturday.

“Sports has the capacity to make that happen,” he said. “That can get skewed and twisted, especially in the marketing side of the equation, but my interest in sports is more in the community that forms around them.”

And this brings us to the central problem: a misguided mindset driving the entire enterprise into the ground. If you think the University of Michigan is just a brand, and the athletic department is merely a business, you will turn off the very people who’ve been coming to your temple for decades.

Break faith with your flock, and you will not get them back with fancier wine. Welcome them, and the faithful will follow.

You have a choice. Just remember: The fans do, too.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Student Press & the Body Politic Sun, 08 Jun 2014 23:02:35 +0000 Ruth Kraut Over the years, school newspapers have played a critical role in raising issues relevant to schools and their students. Since they are generally under the thumb of the school administration, this can sometimes become a little bit dicey.

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

When I was a student newspaper writer and editor, the newspaper was part of our extra-curricular choices. Now, most high school newspapers are published as part of a class. As these programs move into the classroom, they come even more under the control of school administration.

In this article, I explore the complex issue of censorship, including local examples of school news controversies, past and present. I highlight some student work that has been published – topics that are important to students, even if they might make adults uncomfortable.

I started writing this column in mid-May, impressed by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association (MIPA) awards won in April by Community High School and Dexter High School – and to a lesser extent, Pioneer High School and Saline High School. I was interested in the struggles that high school newspapers have to create a (somewhat) free press.

More recently, two local students – Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld – wrote a column published by the New York Times on May 21. Titled “Depressed but Not Ashamed,” the column explains how Halpert and Rosenfeld discovered at a journalism conference that they were both taking medication for depression. They then decided to interview other students with depression for their school newspaper. In the column, they describe how, ultimately, they were not allowed by the school administration to publish an edition focused on students with depression.

Even though I’d been working on an article about the student press, I hadn’t heard about their situation. That fact highlights two truths about the student press – and the media in general. First, we generally know only about the controversies that are ignited when something is reported on – and not when it is suppressed. That may, in fact, be the best argument for a free press.

Second, the areas of most concern to students are also the areas most likely to be censored by administrators. I think they fall into two general categories: school politics and environment, or the body politic; and issues that are more personal to students – the body politic.

My Own School Newspaper

To give you some context about my own experience, I worked on my high school newspaper – the Garnet & Black. And as a side note, I attended high school with Adam Silver, the new National Basketball Association commissioner who recently banned Donald Sterling from the NBA. At one point, I was the girls’ sports editor and Adam was the boys’ sports editor.

Ruth Kraut, Garnet & Black, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Staff list from a 1979 issue of the Garnet & Black student newspaper for Rye High School. The Rye, N.Y. school was built by workers who were being paid by the Works Progress Administration. The “mascot” of the Garnets is named after the garnet stones found while excavating the school.

Last fall, when I was home, my father had dug up yet another old box of my memorabilia, and in there were some copies of the high school newspaper. Back then, the newspaper was an after-school club, and the newspaper came out monthly during the school year.

Although I was surprised to see a short notice in one of the issues about Planned Parenthood’s services (including the words “birth control”), in general we felt we were fairly limited as to what we could write. All ideas and copy had to be approved by the school principal as well as our newspaper’s adviser, and the principal was perceived as a fairly heavy-handed censor.

That’s not unusual. Because student newspapers are produced in the context of school, they operate under the rules set by the faculty and administration.

The Washtenaw Voice

Yet within those constraints, student newspapers can – and do – break news and shine a light on problems. Sometimes, though, the consequences of doing that can be severe.

Over the past few months, the Washtenaw Voice, the student newspaper for Washtenaw Community College, has highlighted faculty dissatisfaction with the current WCC president, Rose Bellanca. On May 5, 2014, Voice editors felt compelled to post an editorial, “The Voice Will Not Be Silenced.” In part, they write:

We don’t usually print rumors, but a recent widespread rumor hits so close to home that we can’t help but address it: Someone at Washtenaw Community College is intent on shutting down The Voice. Several concerned sources came to us with this information last week. We asked administrators up our chain of command – Vice President of Student and Academic Services Linda Blakey and Director of Student Activities Pete Leshkevich. Both told us that they’ve heard nothing of the sort.

But if this rumor were true it would be done by simply putting a red line through our budget, and we wouldn’t know it had been done until after the trustees approve the budget. So, we would never have a chance to defend ourselves.

By highlighting this rumor, the students were trying to forestall action that the administration might be tempted to take.

School Newspapers and Freedom of the Press

Eliminating the budget for a student publication would be an extreme measure, but school administrators can exercise control in other ways.

According to a survey taken at a recent national high school journalism convention, one-third of respondents reported that they’d had articles censored by administrators. One-third also said they had self-censored because they thought administrators would censor them. This is complicated even more by the fact that often, the means of production – money, classroom space, computers – are controlled by the administration.

So what rights do school newspapers have? The Student Press Law Center provides a clear explanation:

Q: Do high school students have First Amendment rights?

A: Yes. As the United States Supreme Court said in 1969, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” But the First Amendment prohibits only government officials from suppressing speech; it does not prevent school censorship at private schools. A state constitution, statute or school policy could provide private school students with free speech protections.

Q: What about the Hazelwood decision?

A: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they choose to do so. But the ruling doesn’t apply to publications that have been opened as “public forums for student expression.” It also requires school officials to demonstrate some reasonable educational justification before they can censor anything.

A student publication is a public forum for student expression when school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions.

Local High School Publications: Our Bodies, Ourselves

Issues of censorship often arise when students attempt to cover topics that administrators deem inappropriate or controversial. But those are exactly the subjects that are of intense interest to the students – whether they’re working on a publication, or reading it.

Dexter Squall, Dexter High School, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot from the Dexter Squall’s website.

It’s worth looking at how this plays out locally. In a brief survey of six local high schools, I found publications at two high schools – Saline and Huron – that appear to be defunct. The Saline High School lost its school newspaper, the Golden Sting, due to a combination of budget cuts and a lack of interest in the class a few years ago – it needed 25 students to run, and only 21 students enrolled. Before it was cut, it had won a Michigan Interscholastic Press Association Spartan Award for seven years in a row.

The Skyline newspaper  – The Skybox – looks like it’s just getting off the ground. But three high schools have active, well-established student publications: The Pioneer Optimist, Dexter Squall, and Community High’s Communicator.

The Squall and Communicator appear to be the most robust student publications locally, with print and online editions. The newspapers solicit advertising and sell subscriptions. The Communicator is also running an indiegogo campaign to raise funds.

These publications are fertile soil for future journalists. Along the way, students learn writing, photography, and web design.

At Community High School, the current print edition looks and feels more like a magazine, and the web publication is meant more for breaking news. At Dexter High School, the print edition is a 16-page, color publication with a print run of 1,700. Old issues are available online.

Community High School, The Communicator, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot of the student publication for Ann Arbor’s Community High School: The Communicator.

Both papers cover a wide range of topics, including school policies, theater and sports, local news. For instance, the Communicator recently covered the same-sex marriage court decision, including interviewing a CHS student. The Squall covered the Dexter district’s decision to combine the Advanced Placement English and the International Baccalaureate English classes. Dexter students reported on a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives to revise the way teachers are evaluated, while CHS students wrote about the year-end CHS jazz concert.

Students also report on issues of a more personal nature. In February, Lauren Kimmel of the Dexter Squall used humor to tackle a serious topic in her column “Boys, Take the Hint: Relationships Aren’t Like Movies, You Know.” In it, she compares the real world to scenes from romantic movies – and concludes with an anti-stalking message:

Before you even consider scouring the entire kingdom for her,

take the hint.

If you had to scale a Ferris wheel to convince her to go out with you in the first place. If she and her family moved away 364 days ago. If you’ve been writing her a letter a day ever since without so much as a “k” or “:)” response,

take the hint.

Boys, no means no. Girls, you’re welcome. Now hopefully you won’t have 10 unread messages and 16 pending Snapchats when you check your phone. Hopefully you will be able to walk down the street without constantly checking over your shoulder and hopefully there will be no more pebbles hitting your window in the dead of night. 

Over at the Communicator, Hannah Hesseltine recently penned “Skintight Sexism,” about the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ dress code policy.

Community High School student Ada Banks and Pioneer High School student Julia Hale devised a petition on May 8 to the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS), demanding that they review their longstanding, district-wide dress code policy. Banks petition addresses the public shaming AAPS has instated into their protocol; girls at Slauson Middle School are required to wear “ugly t-shirts” when their dress is deemed “inappropriate” by their teachers, a direct shaming tactic and a “blatant attempt at humiliating students for their dress”. While the conflict throughout AAPS is centralized around the length of a girls’ pair of shorts, the cut of her shirt, or the thickness of her tank tops’ straps, the central reasoning behind the dress code policy here and in Evanston remains the same: these garments are “too distracting to boys”.

It is this logic that has the potential to severely damage a girl’s self-image. While a need for appropriate attire in a school environment is understandable, blaming weakened male academic performance on women’s clothing choices—and their changing bodies—is not. 

If you want to read the petition, and/or sign on, you can do that at the website.

Administrators: To Censor, or Not to Censor?

Obviously, these are articles and columns that the administration allowed to be published. In fact, the Dexter Squall has a history of taking on controversial issues, like dance clubs where students “grind,” and teen pregnancy. In 2010, a group of parents did not like what they saw, and created an anonymous blog to try to stop students from focusing on some of these issues. The Dexter High School principal, William “Kit” Moran, stood with the students, and for that he won the MIPA Administrator of the Year award, as well as the Courage In Student Journalism Award from the Student Press Law Center.

Here’s an excerpt from the SPLC press release (emphasis added):

Principal Moran received the administrator award for refusing to censor The Squall despite fierce attacks from community members who claimed the paper was printing content inappropriate for its school-age audience. Unrest over the content resulted in the creation of anonymous blog distorting the content of The Squall as “tabloid journalism,” and calls for the school district to strip the students of autonomy over editorial judgments.

The controversy prompted the Dexter school board to review the publication policies for The Squall, which limit the school’s authority to censor student speech. The board declined to remove the “public forum” designation protecting student publications, a balanced approach that allows students to make editorial content decisions as long as what they publish is not unlawful or substantially disruptive of school.

“I believe that journalism in America is crucial to our democracy,” said Moran, a longtime English teacher and coach who has been principal at Dexter since 2006. “A free society needs a free press. This isn’t new, but allowing this concept to be played out in high school may seem a bit radical. However, if we teach our students sound journalistic methods and ethics and allow them to act as journalists, we provide a rich and robust environment for their education.”

However, there’s a recent example that shows the opposite approach.

Last year, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld were interested in highlighting the struggles that students have with depression. As they write in their New York Times column – “Depressed but Not Ashamed” – untreated depression is a major contributor to suicide. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added):

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.

We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

The students interviewed for this series had signed consent forms, as had their parents. Yet administration was concerned that the students – who would be fully named in the article – would be vulnerable to bullying, or to re-traumatization from reading the articles.

The editors did not want to use pseudonyms, because part of the focus was on de-stigmatizing depression. By saying that this topic needs pseudonyms, they’d be reinforcing the very thing they hoped to dispel – that depression causes so much stigma that one must hide behind a fake name.

The AAPS administration supported the CHS dean’s decision.

One thing that jumps out at me was the idea that a whole edition would be devoted to this topic. Halpert and Rosenfeld write, “By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried – and failed – to start small in the fight against stigma.” But I think that assessment is too modest. Devoting a whole edition to a topic is not starting small. Interviewing lots of students is not starting small.

What’s more, the reaction of Halpert and Rosenfeld to the censorship – writing an op-ed piece for the New York Times – is also not starting small. [Note, though, that neither the town nor the high school is mentioned by name in the column.] Further, getting as far as they got – interviewing students, getting consent from parents regarding publication students’ names, utilizing the advice of the Student Press Law Center – could not have happened without the support of their teacher advisor.

What gets published, gets noticed. If the New York Times column had not been published, most people would never have known about this controversy. This isn’t limited to the classroom, either. In suppressing writing – an act that happens every day in newsrooms across the country – we suppress information. Changes in the news industry have the capacity to suppress many, many topics.

On the other hand, the opportunity to publish in other venues – to self-publish on blogs, Twitter or other online publications – means that the ability to censor students has changed.

Back in February of 2008, Jeff Piku – Dexter Squall’s image editor – vented in an editorial:

Apparently this paper has become somewhat controversial.

It seems like every time we come out with a new issue, there is someone waiting to knock us and “constructively criticize” us.

Well, frankly, I’m getting fed up with this.

The world isn’t perfect. There are such things as drugs, alcohol, sex and strippers that exist out there.

The fact is, most teenagers have had at least minor experiences with these topics and want to read about them. And, given that the Squall’s primary audience is teenagers, we’re going to continue to write about things that might be viewed by parents as controversial.

Students desire to construct meaning through their student newspapers. To me, it’s important to let them.

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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

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Column: Chasing the Brass Hoop Fri, 18 Apr 2014 13:36:27 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Nik Stauskas grew up in Mississauga, Ontario – a Toronto suburb better known for its neighborhood hockey games than for a Lithuanian kid spending thousands of hours shooting on his parents’ backyard hoop.

This year, Stauskas was named Big Ten player of the year. It worked.

Glenn Robinson III took a completely different route to the NBA: His father is Glenn Robinson Jr., also known as “The Big Dog,” and was the first pick in the NBA draft twenty years ago. If Stauskas had to work to get attention, Robinson had to work to avoid it.

They became strong candidates to leave college early for the NBA draft, which is their right. This week, both decided to make that jump, and file for the draft this spring. Stauskas is projected to be a high first-round pick, and Robinson not too far behind.

Good for them. They’re both nice guys, hard workers, and serious students. If a violinist at Michigan was recruited by the London Symphony Orchestra, no one would begrudge her for jumping. I might have done it myself.

But I do object to the pundits and fans claiming if the NBA dangles millions of dollars in front of a college player, “he has no choice. He has to go.”

This bit of conventional wisdom is based on one gigantic assumption: that the pursuit of money eclipses all other considerations, combined.

The idea that a great player might decide to stay in school to improve their game, to enjoy the college experience, or to pursue his education are  considered silly, even immature responses, when they’re considered at all.

And if he does decide to stay in school – as a surprising number do, despite the pressure to leave – these same people will call him a fool. Why? Money.

The funny thing is, we have actual data – tons of it – that tell us what makes us happy. And study after study shows it’s not money. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s work we care about. And that’s about it.

But ignoring our own values invariably creates unhappiness. Ditto, greed.

The happiest people I know have lived the most meaningful lives, including dedicated schoolteachers, talented musicians and friends working for nonprofits that actually help others.

My dad, like just about everybody else who works at a university, turned down more money from the private sector to keep teaching, researching and treating his pediatric patients. My mom spent ten years teaching grade school, and decades later, she still hears from her students.

The late Chris Peterson, a psychology professor at Michigan who won the Golden Apple Award for teaching in 2010, studied happiness. He discovered the biggest factor in job satisfaction is not hours or prestige or pay, but one good friend. That’s it.

Perhaps that’s why every former Michigan athlete I know who played in the NBA, the NFL and the NHL says they liked playing for Michigan best.  That list includes Stanley Cup champions, Super Bowl winners, and millionaires.

Mike Kenn played for Michigan in the late ’70s, then played 17 years for the Atlanta Falcons, 251 straight starts. He told me, “I watch the Falcons play on Sundays, and I hope they win. But on Saturdays, I live and die with the Wolverines.”

Jim Mandich was the captain of Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan team in 1969, and an All-Pro tight end on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. He stayed in Miami, and did a lot of radio and TV for the team. When the Detroit News’s Angelique Chengalis asked him a few years ago, when he was facing terminal cancer, if he still had time to follow Michigan football, he said, “Are you kidding me?” Mandich said. “Of course I care about that stuff, to the point of irrationality. It will always be Michigan first, cancer second.” He didn’t even mention the Dolphins.

Yeah, this is what the NCAA wants us to believe, which always makes me nervous. My contempt for that organization is growing – and I didn’t think that was possible. But that doesn’t mean everything they say is always wrong.

So, for Nik and Glenn, do whatever is right for you, and good luck. You’ve worked hard and beaten incredible odds to create those options.

But don’t think for a second that just because someone offers you money to do something, you have no choice but to do it.

If you do, you’re not buying your freedom. You’re selling it.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Reforming College Football Fri, 04 Apr 2014 01:41:32 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, in a surprising decision, the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, if they want.

But what does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? And how might this change the future of college football?

The NLRB’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision applies only to private schools. There are only a handful or two that play big time college football – usually about one per major conference – a short list that includes universities like Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt, Stanford and USC. Further, the Northwestern players still have to vote to unionize – not a given – and no matter how they vote, the university is going to appeal the NLRB’s decision.

But the Wildcat players have been very shrewd, and will be hard to dismiss. That starts with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him pretty well while researching my latest book, “Fourth and Long,” and I can tell you he’s one of the more impressive young men to play the game today.

Colter is a pre-med major who often had to miss summer workouts to attend afternoon labs. The group he’s formed – the somewhat redundant College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) – is also wisely not asking for money, but post-graduate health care for injuries suffered while playing. Seems to me it’s pretty hard for any university – created to improve the lives of its students, after all – to argue against that.

Because he’s a graduating senior, Colter is not acting out of self-interest, either. He’s working for those who will come after him – while potentially jeopardizing his appeal to the NFL teams who might draft him this spring. He’s also made it clear that Northwestern has been very good to him, from President Schapiro to athletic director Jim Phillips to his coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Having studied the program throughout 2012, I can tell you unequivocally that Northwestern is a model of how college athletics should be done.

So what’s going to happen next? Anybody who claims they really know is either stupid or silly or both. We have never been here before. But we do know a few things already.

First, what the Northwestern players are asking for is exactly what the NCAA, the leagues and the schools should have been providing for decades anyway: health care for injuries sustained while playing for their schools. In other words, the same protection the universities give their employees who are injured on the job – and few jobs are more dangerous than football.

While they’re at it, the NCAA should end the very cynical policy of providing one-year scholarships. That’s right: when an athlete gets a scholarship, it’s not a four- or five-year deal, but a year-by-year contract, leaving him entirely at the mercy of the coach. At an upright school like Northwestern, the players don’t have anything to worry about. But at too many other schools, the coaches exploit this shady arrangement every season.

A scholarship should automatically cover the players’ entire education, even if their careers end due to injuries or disappointing play, so long as they’re making an honest effort – and they should keep that scholarship until they earn their degree, even after their eligibility runs out. It’s difficult to finish a bachelor’s degree while working 40 hours a week on your sport – and that’s what it takes, no matter what the NCAA claims.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is a serious student, who asks more questions per hour than the rest of his classmates combined. He does very well in class, though not as well as he’d like. When I asked him once what he would be if he wasn’t the Michigan quarterback, he thought about it, then said, “An ‘A’ student.”

If the NCAA is serious about the “student” part of “student-athlete,” now would be a great time to prove it.

The NCAA should also ban the increasingly obscene practice of paying bonuses to head coaches, assistant coaches and even athletic directors for milestones the players themselves achieve. Last week, when Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won his third consecutive national title without a loss – an incredible feat – his athletic director, Gene Smith, automatically received an $18,000 bonus for Stieber’s thousands of hours of work. Stieber, of course, couldn’t take an extra dime.

Doesn’t the nonprofit NCAA find that outrageous?

They should also outlaw, completely, the practice of “oversigning.” This occurs when unethical coaches promise more incoming freshmen scholarships than they have. When they all arrive on campus in August, they conduct what amounts to an on-campus try-out to whittle their numbers down to the 25 scholarships they actually have. The losers go home, having already turned down offers from other schools, and try to pick up the pieces.

If the NCAA rights these wrongs, I’d bet the Northwestern players call their efforts a success – as they should – and drop their campaign.

And there are good reasons why they might. Most college athletes are actually getting a pretty good deal. In my previous book, “Three and Out,” I calculated that for an out-of-state, fifth-year senior at Michigan, the free tuition, meals and travel easily come to $580,000. And that doesn’t count the cost of the academic counseling and tutoring, the strength and conditioning, or the athletic training – let alone the cost of those buildings. If the student-athletes become employees, the IRS could easily conclude they have to pay taxes on their scholarships, and everything else.

If the players do unionize, and become employees of their schools, I also wonder if their new identity will diminish the appeal of college sports. College fans aren’t attracted to excellence – any pro team can beat any college team, in any sport – they’re attracted to romance. If the magic bubble bursts, the fans might decide to stop supporting the venture, and then who’s paying the bills?

In fact, both parties should be careful what they wish for, or the law of unintended consequences could obliterate the benefits both sides receive. I honestly don’t think either side has given the long-term consequences of their actions very much thought.

For now, the NLRB’s decision is less important legally than it is symbolically – more Rosa Parks than Brown v. Board of Education. For the first time, a group of players has formally organized, and been officially recognized. And in the process, they’ve discovered something I finally realized in the past couple years: the players have no power – until they threaten to sit down, together. Then, suddenly, they have all of it.

I hope the people who run college athletics are listening – but their hearing has been impaired for so long, I wouldn’t bet on it.

They should do the right thing, and do it now, or risk losing everything.

Seems like an easy decision to you and me – but that’s why we’re not the NCAA.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Michigan Stadium’s Big Open House Fri, 28 Mar 2014 13:01:19 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

One debate I could do without is the question of who is a real Michigan fan, and who isn’t?

On the face of it, the question is pretty stupid. A Michigan fan is a fan of Michigan. And beyond the surface, it’s still pretty stupid. But let’s play it out.

The argument goes that only those who attended Michigan can call themselves Michigan fans. The rest? They’re mere “Walmart Wolverines” – fans who could have picked any school to cheer for, as well as any other, just like we pick the pro teams we want to follow, with no other connection than geography.

Why shouldn’t hard-cord alumni turn their backs on their non-degreed brethren?

There’s a history here, going back to James B. Angell, Michigan’s longest serving – and most important – president.

Angell took office in 1871 – eight years before Michigan’s first football game – and served until 1909, charting a course for Michigan that the university still follows, and other schools adopted. A Brown University alum and former faculty member, Angell’s vision for Michigan was to create a university that could provide “an uncommon education for the common man.”

He was thrilled to see the sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers becoming philosophers, but he couldn’t stand the game of football they – and everyone else – loved so much. Having seen first-hand the hysteria the sport created on campus, he wrote his fellow Big Ten presidents during that momentous 1905 season with great concern.

“The absorbing interest and excitement of the students – not to speak of the public – in the preparation for the intercollegiate games make a damaging invasion into the proper work of the university for the first ten or twelve weeks of the academic year. This is not true of the players alone, but of the main body of students, who think and talk of little else but the game.”

President Angell simply hoped to return college athletics to the English ideal, which allowed for more student participation and less notoriety for the victors. The idea of strangers with no connection to the university paying to watch them play struck him as odd and possibly dangerous.

But Angell failed to see football’s value in pitching his public school to the taxpayers, who picked up over 90% of the budget until the 1960s, missing the point that for many Michiganders, there were few other reasons to support the state school. If you were a farmer in Fennville or a factory worker in Flint, why would you vote for millage after millage to go to the state universities?

My answer is the Big House. As Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy once said, “A school without football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.” To which Bear Bryant added, “It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class.”

Football, then and now, serves as the one place on campus where everyone feels welcome. On any given Saturday, fully a quarter of the 100,000 folks who pack the Big House did not attend the school. They include some of the university’s most loyal fans, and biggest donors.

According to Nate Silver – yes, that Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state in the 2012 presidential election – the nation’s three biggest college football fan bases are Ohio State’s (3.2 million), Michigan’s (2.9 million), and Penn State’s (2.6 million), for a total of about 8.7 million fans, which is more than the entire Pac-12 combined. These three schools usually lead the nation in home attendance, too.

These stats teach a few less obvious but equally important lessons, too. If these teams depended solely on their students and alumni for support, they would have only about a fifth of their current following, since the “subway alums” constitute roughly 80% of their fan base.

Turning our attention back to the Big Ten’s “Big Three” programs, and the 8.7 millions fans who follow them: their gigantic stadiums hold more than three hundred thousand fans, but that still leaves 8.4 million of their followers on the outside looking in, which those fans eagerly do through TV and the Internet. If you want to know why the Big Ten Network was the first conference network, and is by far the most successful, that’s where you start: 17.5 million fans, dwarfing the next-biggest fan base, the SEC’s, at 13.6 million. And that’s why the Big Ten Network now reaches an estimated 53 million households: because it can.

The Big Ten’s 17.5 million fans undoubtedly include just about every demographic you can name in substantial numbers, but it’s what they have in common that’s most important here: a shared love of their favorite Big Ten schools and the conference itself, its history and traditions, right down to their memories of the same games.

Joining a hundred thousand like-minded strangers solves a modern problem, too. The Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa both noted that the great disease of Western civilization is loneliness. Yes, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd – but not this one.

Studies show our endorphins spike when we march in formation, sing in unison, or cheer together in a stadium. Where else can you be certain a hundred thousand other people are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, exactly when you’re feeling it? This is why such places are more important now than ever.

Think about it. The Big Ten’s twelve teams do not play one game that’s not televised. You can sit back in your easy chair right at home and watch every game. Likewise, every song in the world can be purchased for a few bucks, and every movie is on DVD. Yet we still go to concerts, movies, and games, just as our ancestors did almost a century ago. If Beethoven, Humphrey Bogart, or Fielding H. Yost visited those places today, they would think almost nothing had changed.

Why do we pay money to go to these places? Because we need to be together.

Ken Fischer has run the internationally acclaimed University Musical Society for years with a simple philosophy: “Everybody in. Nobody out.” If the UMS, which has played host to everyone from Marian Anderson to Leonard Bernstein to Yo-Yo Ma, can open its arms to everyone, you’d think a football stadium could do the same.

We need to share something we care about with strangers. And to fill that need, you could do worse than Big Ten football.

“We have too much pluribus,” filmmaker Ken Burns said twenty years ago, “and not enough unum.” If that was true then – before the flourishing of private schools, charter schools and home schooling; before the creation of 500 TV stations that allow us to pick what kind of news we want to hear; before the Internet allowed us to see only the information and people we want, and ignore the rest – it is surely more true now.

Dr. Ed Zeiders, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church right in downtown State College, has seen what the football team can do for the faithful in ways others might not.

“We are desperately needy,” he told me. “We need something to cheer about and rally around. Our culture is devoid of these things.

“We need a place to stand, and a people to stand with, and a cause to stand for. That is not original with me. That came out of World Methodism. And those three propositions hold the key to healthy and value-oriented living. I’ve taught and preached that for a lot of years.

“I have this belief that academics should be that unifying principle, but the evidence points to something else.”

While “Pastor Ed” has done a fine job creating that environment in his church, he joked with me that he couldn’t help but notice that the one down the street holds 108,000 true believers.

“Sports has the capacity to make that happen,” he said. “That can get skewed and twisted, especially in the marketing side of the equation, but my interest in sports is more in the community that forms around them. What my wife and I enjoy is the friendships we create in the stands. There is an ease with which sports fans connect with each other. And it has the potential to hold up something that is admirable and unifying.”

College football stadiums are now one of the few remaining places where we connect across race and religion, age and gender, economics and politics. And we do it with vigor.

When Fielding Yost opened Michigan Stadium in 1927, it seated 84,000 fans – three times the population of tiny Ann Arbor. It has played host to Heisman heroes, national champions, presidents, prime ministers, poet laureates, and over 40 million fans. It’s where Michigan fans showed the nation how to tailgate, and do the wave.

At one of the world’s great universities, this is the front porch. When you walk through the front gates, no one should care – and most don’t – about your age or income, or your race, religion or creed. Most don’t even care if you went to school there. They care about one thing: Can you sing “The Victors”? If you know when to throw your fist in the air, you’re in.

Welcome to the Big House. Hail.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Good Ideas, Flawed Process at AAPS Sun, 16 Feb 2014 20:33:04 +0000 Ruth Kraut Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen good news and bad news coming out of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

Good news has come in the form of a new, enthusiastic, positive-energy, forward-looking superintendent in Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift. Her “Listen and Learn” tour was thorough and well-received by the community, followed by some quickly-implemented changes based on feedback from parents, teachers and staff.

Swift also brought forward some longer-term initiatives that required approval from the AAPS board. Those include plans to address underutilized buildings, a new K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program, more language programming, and opening up AAPS to students outside the district through the Schools of Choice program. Those ideas are all positive.

The bad news is process-related, tied to actions by the AAPS board. Mistakes of past years are being made again, as the school board fails to follow its own policies when implementing major changes to the schools. Specifically, the board continues to make important decisions after midnight, with scant information about costs or implementation. Some final votes are rushed through at the same meeting when the items are introduced, not allowing time for sufficient public input.

In this column, I’ll look at both the positive actions by the administration as well as the board’s flawed process. And I’ll ask you to weigh in – letting the board and superintendent know what you think on all of these issues.

Good Intentions, Good Execution

Dr. Swift, who was hired in August of 2013, spent her first semester in the schools on a Listen and Learn tour. I will admit that when I first heard about this idea, I was unconvinced of the benefits. Yet after watching the Listen and Learn tour in action, and realizing what kind of commitment it takes to visit every school in the district – and at each school meet with parents and community members at one meeting, and teachers at another meeting – I changed my mind.

At the meeting I attended, another parent raised her hand and said, “This is the first time in years that I have felt like someone was listening.”

In her Listen and Learn tour, Swift did several things right. At each meeting, she set a tone of welcome and attention. She had copious notes recorded by volunteer recorders, and she engaged University of Michigan School of Education graduate students to do qualitative review and analysis.

Even before the analysis was fully completed, she had identified some key areas that she wanted to address immediately.

In December she tackled cleanliness, in a project she dubbed “Project Sparkle.” (My friend, on hearing this name, commented, “Well, you can tell that she was an elementary school teacher once!”) Swift had apparently heard from enough people who felt that the district had let cleanliness go, and decided to address that immediately.

Project Sparkle was essentially a decision to have the custodians spend more time in the buildings, focusing in particular on “corners and bathrooms.” I haven’t spent much time in any school buildings since winter break, when Project Sparkle began, so I don’t know if people can see a difference – but I’m curious.

Another thing she decided to address immediately was assessment. Assessment, broadly speaking, involves how one evaluates the work of students, teachers, and principals. Many people (including myself) have strong feelings about what kinds of assessment should be used, and for whom. In addition, state law around assessments has been changing and will also have an impact on what the district can do.

Swift and her staff have recruited applicants – parents, teachers, and community members – for an assessment task force. This is very welcome news to me, because over the past two years, a group of parents has repeatedly asked for an open discussion of testing – and the former superintendent, Patricia Green, refused.

In other welcome news, the assessment task force was opened to applicants in a public process. For years, I’ve wanted the district to have more ad hoc or long-term committees that community members could join. Dr. Swift has also created a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel made up of invited members. Full disclosure: I’m on the Blue Ribbon panel. [Here's a .pdf of the full list of members.]

Jeanice Swift, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jeanice Swift, superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. (Photo courtesy of AAPS.)

During the first two weeks in February, Swift conducted a series of meetings that shared what the district learned from the Listen and Learn Tour. If you weren’t able to attend one of those meetings, you can watch a video here, or read the summary report. [Here's a link to the written report and summary.]

As if that’s not enough, it turns out that Swift has a whole list of new initiatives waiting in the wings.

She heard parents and teachers complain about underutilized buildings, problem principals, the wish for another K-8 program, and the need for new magnet programs. And she responded with the idea of a K-8 STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) located at Northside Elementary School, which has been losing students.

She heard parents and teachers ask for more language programming, and responded with the idea of having multiple languages taught in elementary schools.

She recognized that Ann Arbor Tech and the Roberto Clemente Center are two distinct – but expensive – programs, and recommended keeping them separate but placing them in the same building.

She heard parents and teachers say that they were tired of cutting, cutting, and cutting from the budget, and that we should be generating income. She responded by proposing that the Ann Arbor schools become Schools of Choice to other students in Washtenaw County. In so doing, Swift implicitly acknowledges that the marginal cost of adding students from outside the district – who bring to the district per-pupil funding that’s less than the per-pupil funding for Ann Arbor resident students – is still worth it to the district.

That’s the good news.

I do think it’s good news.

I’m happy to see the superintendent respond to feedback from the community with plans that will likely add value to the district. I like to see new ideas. I am thrilled to see options for new revenue rather than simply proposals for cuts. I have even proposed some of these ideas in the past.

I’m happy to see the school board excited about new ideas, too. But I’m not happy to see the school board giddy about new ideas. Here’s where things get dicey.

Bad Process, Unclear Execution

I don’t, as it happens, have a major objection to any of these ideas. [1] I do have an issue with the process, though.

On Jan. 29, 2014, the Ann Arbor Public Schools board unanimously approved a massive array of programmatic changes, including opening a K-8 STEAM magnet program at Northside Elementary; developing new pre-K programs; and ensuring that Roberto Clemente and Ann Arbor Tech high schools are co-located at the Stone School building, where Ann Arbor Tech is currently located.

These approvals came despite the fact that little detail about implementation or costs was available. What was available was an assurance that more information would be forthcoming as staff developed more detailed proposals.

Most disturbing about these actions, however, was the timing. The board held a retreat on Jan. 22, 2014, and the agenda was distributed that morning. According to Amy Biolchini’s report of the retreat in the Ann Arbor News, the board was enthusiastic about these ideas. According to her report: “The board will hear a first briefing on the item at its meeting Jan. 29 and may vote on it in a special meeting Feb. 5.”

Based on that report, and based on board policy, I expected a vote on these items would take place in February. Instead, the vote took place a mere week after the retreat, on Jan. 29.  And as has too often been the case in the past, the discussion and vote took place after midnight.

These decisions came fast on the heels of another rushed decision. At the Jan. 15, 2014 board meeting, the board opened the district to many more “School of Choice” (out of district) students. Again, the school board made a hasty decision – which will have sweeping ramifications for the schools – taking a vote on this on the same night that it was presented. The school board voted, despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely clear how the administration developed the proposed numbers for School of Choice students.

That same night, the school board also changed the timelines for in-district transfers and created a situation where those in-district transfer requests are out of sync with kindergarten roundups – a significant outreach point for incoming kindergarten families.

At both board meetings, the votes were unanimous.

Pattern and Practice

I might have overlooked these issues with the process, if it happened once – especially when a new superintendent is involved. But when it happens twice in the space of a month, I start to think about patterns and practice.

Although the superintendent is new, the school board is not. The school board is the exact same board that voted, after midnight on Dec. 14, 2011, to give two administrators raises. Again, at that time, they combined the first and second briefings – initial consideration, then a final vote – into the same meeting.

At the time, the decision to award the raises did not sit well with many members of the public. But what didn’t sit well with me was not the idea of the raises, but rather the idea that the school board would ram through that decision.

In fact, the board itself has recognized this problem. On April 10, 2013, after a series of very long evening meetings, the school board adopted Board Policy 1200, which states, in part [.pdf of full Board Policy 1200]:

Regular Meetings

Items(s) of particular public interest shall be briefed at least once at a meeting held prior to the meeting at which a vote on the item(s) is to be taken.

Time Limitations
No Regular Meeting, Organizational Meeting, Study Session, or Special Meeting will be longer than 5 hours from the official start time. Standing Committee Meetings will strive to be no longer than 2 hours from the official start time. These time limitations are imposed regardless of the posted start time or the actual start time.

All meeting agendas will be arranged to place critical Board decisions and actions at or near the beginning of the agenda to ensure the smooth and timely operation of the District. Any agenda items incomplete at the time limit will be added to a subsequent meeting agenda at the discretion of the President, in consultation with the Superintendent.

Time limits are also addressed in a separate policy – Board Policy 1220. It states, in part [.pdf of full Board Policy 1220]:

Time Limits

When establishing the agenda for Regular Meetings and Study Sessions, the Board President and the Superintendent (the Executive Committee with the Superintendent) will place reasonable time limits on each agenda item to ensure the overall meeting time limit, as indicated in Policy 1200, can be maintained. Agenda items will be assigned a presentation length and a discussion length, and the time limits will be carefully enforced by the meeting chair.

Presentations exceeding the time limit may be granted an additional 5 minutes at the discretion of the Board President.

If Board discussion needs to continue past the set time limit, extension of that time limit may be voted on by the Board through normal voting procedure.

Because board meetings start at 7 p.m., any decisions made after midnight, generally speaking, violate the policy. Voting on items important to the public after midnight, and on the same day as they were proposed, violates the policy. [It's also worth noting that although the AAPS board meetings are broadcast live by Community Television Network on cable TV and rebroadcast periodically, these recordings are not available online – unlike the meetings of most public bodies. So unless you have stamina and a flexible schedule, it's difficult to view the proceedings. That's a major accessibility problem.]

Even worse? The board knew that they were violating their own policies. This was not an oversight.

At the Jan. 29, 2014 meeting, according to the Ann Arbor News report, trustee Glenn Thomas (who then voted for the changes) “advised his fellow board members that by voting on the issue that night, they would be violating their own policy.  … As Nelson pointed out, the board follows this policy for routine business items – like purchase agreements and contracts – but not for some of the more major programming changes that affect students. ‘In the School of Choice expansion which was one of the biggest things I’ve voted on in my time as a board, we didn’t follow the policy,’ Nelson said. ‘In this wonderful package, another one of the most major things that I’ve been a part of on this board – we’re not following our policy. … It is somewhat sobering to me that on the most important things we do, we don’t follow it.’”

As I said earlier, I do support most – if not all – of these changes. But that is not really the point. These were not emergencies. The board had the option to schedule a special meeting, or to wait two weeks for the next meeting.

There are people who think that the end justifies the means. Most of the time, I’m not one of them. I don’t really understand the point of undertaking a thoughtful, deliberative process to hear people’s ideas and concerns  – like Swift’s Listen and Learn tour – and then implementing major changes without public process. These are perhaps the most major changes I’ve seen since I’ve been writing about the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Yet the changes were enacted without notification to people who might have strong opinions about the changes, and were voted on before the Listen and Learn tour results were shared with the community.

I appreciate that the school board is enthusiastic about a superintendent who is coming in with new ideas, but I’d like to see the board ask for more detail before they give wholesale support to these proposals. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.”

I also believe better decisions are made through a deliberative process that involves the community.

The likelihood is that the school board will continue to make rushed decisions. What might deter that behavior? If the community gives the school board – and the new superintendent – feedback that there is a better way to conduct the school district’s business.

As Dr. Seuss says in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Send your feedback directly to the school board (including the superintendent) at



[1] I do have some questions. For instance, while I’m delighted with the idea of increasing second language education in the district, I am not clear on why might we teach multiple languages in various elementary schools without a clear path to how we will teach them in high school.

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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our local reporting and columnists. Check out this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: The Aftermath of Brendan Gibbons Fri, 14 Feb 2014 13:46:03 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan named a new president last month, and the football team landed another great class of recruits last week. But there’s another story that keeps eclipsing those two.

I’ve been reluctant to write about Brendan Gibbons, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.

A few things are clear, though, starting with this: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice of legendary athletic director Don Canham, “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”

This story starts back in 2009, when Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons had an encounter at a party with a female student. Ultimately, only two people know what happened, but we do know she contacted the Ann Arbor police, then decided not to press charges.

This put the university in a tough spot. In 2009, it was a tenet of university policy that it would not look into such situations unless the alleged victim came forward. But in 2013, the university revised its code, no longer requiring the alleged victim to start an investigation.

That’s why it wasn’t until November 20 of 2013 that the Office of Institutional Equity concluded that Gibbons “engaged in unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, committed without valid consent, and that conduct was so severe as to create a hostile, offensive, or abusive environment.”

From everything I’ve seen, the university played it straight, and the athletic department never attempted to interfere with the process. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, having gotten the hard part right, the athletic department seemed determined to get the easy part wrong. 

The various responses have given the appearance of skullduggery where none existed. We still don’t know when the athletic department found out about the panel’s ruling. But we do know three days after the ruling, on November 23, head coach Brady Hoke started Gibbons, who kicked three extra points in a 24-21 loss to Iowa.

Before Michigan’s next game, against Ohio State, Hoke – who might have been following orders – claimed Gibbons had injured his leg. Before Michigan’s bowl game, on December 28, Hoke said Gibbons had gone home due to a “family matter” – yet we know the university expelled Gibbons on December 20.

I understand that Hoke was trying to grant his player as much privacy as possible, but all he had to say was Gibbons had broken team rules. Obviously, lying for him breeds suspicion.

The public didn’t learn Gibbons had been expelled until January 28, when the university’s student paper, The Michigan Daily, broke the story. No one in the department has publicly questioned anything in the Daily’s story, or its excellent follow-up by Zach Helfand (a former student, in the interest of full disclosure), or asked for any corrections.

But a few days later, when Hoke addressed the Gibbons issue with a group of reporters, the Daily was not informed of the event, leaving many to conclude they were being punished.

The department has vehemently denied excluding the student reporters, claiming the other reporters had asked for the interview days in advance. For that reason, they say, it was not a formal press conference – which seems to be a distinction without a difference, especially when Hoke released a prepared statement at the event, whatever you call it.

But even if we take them at their word, they were naïve not to predict the public wouldn’t believe them, especially given this administration’s habit of backpedaling after public relations gaffes with explanations that are disingenuous at best. The list includes the initial decisions not to bring the marching band to the Cowboy Classic in Dallas; banning the seat cushions they sold to fans for $20 at the spring game; displaying a giant Kraft macaroni noodle under the scoreboard the day before a home game; and paying thousand of dollars for the skywriting stunt over Spartan Stadium. Each time, the department’s attempts to backtrack fueled fans’ anger, instead of extinguishing it.

It doesn’t help that the department also has a recent history of bullying the media. Under athletic director Dave Brandon, the staff habitually calls reporters to chastise them for printing what they consider negative stories, or simply unflattering statistics. They’re not above threatening to cancel exclusive interviews.

One writer told me, “Every interview and press conference the department sets up is presented as a huge favor, not just them doing their jobs. They show amazing contempt for the media.”

What happens next? Gibbons is gone, the police consider the case closed, and the Daily reporters have returned to official media events.

Brandon recently told The Detroit Free Press that the relationship between an athletic director and a university president is “tremendously important.” That is particularly true at Michigan, where the athletic director answers only to the president.

Michigan’s president-elect, former Brown provost Mark Schlissel, has not commented on this situation, and wisely so. But it’s hard to imagine his first brush with the athletic department was the honeymoon either side had hoped for.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Is Public Education A Charity Case? Sun, 29 Dec 2013 15:24:28 +0000 Ruth Kraut If you’re like me, then every January you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to spread out my charitable giving over the course of twelve months. It would be so much better for my cash flow, and probably it would be better for the nonprofits as well.”

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

And then, come November and December, I realize that once again, I failed to spread out my giving – and I had better pull out my checkbook. Writing the bulk of these checks at the end of the year has a benefit, in that it allows me to look at all of my donations at once. But it also means that I’m in a rush and I don’t always take the time to reflect. So this is my opportunity.

Like many of you, we make donations to local, national, and international groups that focus on a wide range of issues. For us, those organizations do work related to health, the environment, politics, women’s issues, Jewish groups, social action, human services, and more.

Although I do give to some groups that, loosely speaking, fit the category of “education,” those entities do not make up a significant proportion of our donations. I confess to a certain ambivalence to giving to such groups – because, in many ways, I’m already a big contributor to public education. And it’s likely that you are, too.

In this column, I discuss the concept of donations – both voluntary (to charitable causes) and involuntary (through taxes). I talk about ways that most of us are already contributing, and provide some information that will help you give even more, if you’re so inclined.

When I sent an early draft of this piece to Steven Norton, an Ann Arbor resident and executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, he shared this thought: “I’m not sure I agree that we are ‘donating’ to the schools, in the sense that this means an optional charitable contribution. I don’t feel like I’m donating when I help pay for police or fire services, or road maintenance.” He then referred to a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

His comments sent me straight to the dictionary – several dictionaries, in fact – looking for the distinction between donate and contribute. It wasn’t an easy search to find exactly what I was looking for.

For instance, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines donate as a verb that means “to give (money, food, clothes, etc.) in order to help a person or organization,” and “to make a gift of, especially: to contribute to a public or charitable cause.” That certainly implies a voluntary aspect. Yet a synonym for donate is contribute, “to give or supply in common with others.” In other words, contribute may or may not have a voluntary aspect.

Certainly, taxes are not voluntary, but they are contributions to a common cause. So in this column, when I use the term donor, donate or donation, I mean it in the sense of contributing to an important common good – public education.

The Property Tax Conundrum: I’m A Big Donor

I already give thousands of dollars to the vast educational enterprise that is Michigan’s public education system – as do many of you. Most of the sales tax I pay, a portion of my income tax, and the majority of my property taxes go to education. If you live in Ann Arbor, your tax bill includes line items for the State Education Tax, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and Washtenaw Community College.

More than 20 years ago – when I first became a homeowner – the taxes I paid for public schools actually went directly to the Ann Arbor Public Schools. In 1994, though, all of that changed with the passage of Proposal A.

The goal of that 1994 statewide ballot initiative was to create more equitable funding across all districts and to keep property taxes from escalating dramatically. But Proposal A took away most local control over school funding, though districts can still request voter approval to levy local millages for building construction, repairs, and maintenance – not, however, for operating expenses.

The state collects taxes directly from residential and non-residential property owners – 6 mills each, annually – and pools that money into the state’s School Aid Fund (SAF), which also includes revenues from sales and income taxes, state lottery revenue and other sources. Out of this fund, the state pays local school districts a per-pupil allotment – a variable amount set by the state legislature that can increase or decrease each year. In addition, state law controls the amount of taxes that school districts can levy directly – those that are not pooled into the SAF. Beyond the 6 mills that go into the SAF, for example, there’s an additional tax on non-residential property owners, but the state caps that tax at 18 mills.

Both the funding from non-SAF local property taxes and from the total School Aid Fund are factored into an amount called the per-pupil “foundation allowance.” This amount varies by district. Ann Arbor’s per-pupil funding for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, is $9,050 for each student. It accounts for most of the district’s revenues, with other revenues including the district’s share of a countywide special education millage and from federal grants. The per-pupil funding has been stagnant or falling for the last decade.

Michigan school funding, Michigan Parents for Schools, Ruth Kraut, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

State per-pupil funding chart. (Source: Michigan Parents for Schools)

Because of Michigan’s complex system of funding public schools and the fact that Ann Arbor is a relatively affluent community, today Ann Arbor is – as AAPS board member Christine Stead is rightly fond of explaining – a “donor district.” That is, Ann Arbor taxpayers are paying more into the statewide system than the district receives back in state aid. Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools told me that AAPS gets back from the state less than half – about 47% – of what local taxpayers actually pay to the state for education.

I find the “per-pupil” approach to funding to be particularly frustrating. It’s often an unfair way to allocate funding, because although incremental costs change with the addition or subtraction of kids to a school, many of the base costs don’t change. For instance, when Pfizer closed its large research operation in Ann Arbor several years ago, many families moved out of this community. The children in those families left AAPS schools – along with the per-pupil funding for those students. Although funding dropped because of those departures, the fixed costs for educating the thousands of remaining students didn’t decrease proportionately.

When it comes to per-pupil funding, my family has been an exceptionally big contributor. For the past 15-plus years, I’ve had 1, 2, or 3 kids enrolled in the public schools, and each of my kids has brought their per-pupil “foundation” allowance. So my family is a “donor” to public schools in two ways – as part of the larger property-taxed community, and as a family that has chosen to stay in the public school system.

In some ways, I don’t mind being a “donor” to the state’s public school system, which includes supporting districts that are much poorer than AAPS. For example, my taxes are supporting the Kalkaska schools [1] – and really, I don’t mind (too much) paying for that.

But I do mind that Ann Arbor taxpayers can no longer levy additional millages to pay for operating expenses for our own Ann Arbor Public Schools.

And as an aside, I also mind that my taxes are supporting the Education Achievement Authority, an entity that the state uses to take over schools that are designated as failing. For a longer and fairly neutral analysis of the EAA, I’d suggest reading this piece from the Michigan Policy Network. You’ll find a more critical view at the Inside the EAA website – which includes EAA documents obtained through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act by state legislators and others trying to counteract the authority’s secrecy.

The Parent Conundrum: I’m (Still) A Big Donor

But taxes aren’t the only way I contribute to local education. As a parent, I’m constantly being asked to donate to school-related activities. Certain expenses that I pay have directly or indirectly benefited my children. Those costs include paying $500 for my son to play high school basketball ($280 for the district’s registration fee and pay-to-play, plus other team-related costs), field trip expenses, and PTO dues.

I feel like I get milked dry by these costs – and it doesn’t make me want to jump up with donations for other activities. Over the past several years, I have spent thousands of dollars on school-related activities. Luckily, I can afford these expenses – and I understand that many families aren’t so fortunate.

Yes, I know. I signed up for having kids, and my kids are lucky to have these opportunities. So no, I’m not complaining. I’m just explaining why it is that when someone suggests I pay even more, I think: Wait a second – I’m already paying for the essentials, as a taxpayer, and as a parent who sends my kids to these schools. And I’m already paying for the extras – at least, those that involve my children. You want me to pay even more?

Must I Donate Again?

One way that we’re asked to pay even more is through donations to nonprofit foundations. Most of our local school districts, for example, have affiliated nonprofit educational foundations that solicit contributions. Historically, these foundations have been used for enrichment activities – not for core operating expenses.

Locally, that started to change in 2009 when a countywide operating millage – the only kind permitted under Proposal A – was defeated. (It passed in Ann Arbor, but failed in much of the rest of the county.) After that defeat, the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation decided to try to take up the slack with its “A Million Reasons” campaign. The name came from the idea that if everyone who supported the millage just gave the foundation the same amount of money that they would have paid in new taxes, the district would be in good shape. But that didn’t happen – and the campaign fell short of its fundraising goal that was intended to help with the basics of public education.

“Oh no,” my friend Laurie said to me as we discussed this on my annual Thanksgiving trip to my hometown. Laurie is on the board of her local educational foundation. “That doesn’t make any sense. Taxes are meant to fund schools. Local school foundations should focus on the extras.”

Now in fairness to the AAPS Educational Foundation, Laurie lives in a state that funds schools more generously, and in a district that probably gets more than twice as much as Ann Arbor does, per pupil.

But I’ll admit to sharing Laurie’s squeamishness. And the idea of the foundation spending so much social capital to raise only one million dollars – when the Ann Arbor schools budget is around $180 million – was never persuasive to me.

On the other hand, when I shared this perspective with Steve Norton via email, he noted that “personal donations are a last resort when the normal course of public policy has failed completely to meet the needs of our communities.” While he agreed with my friend that education foundations should pay for the “extras,” he also pointed to California, where local education foundations often pay for basics like salaries of whole programs – such as gym, music and art. The cause for California’s situation is similar to Michigan, he noted: a state tax system that was changed to strangulate public services. (In the case of California, their crisis was prompted by Prop 13.) “I hope we never get to that point,” Norton wrote to me, “but we are certainly headed in that direction.”

To me, the idea of asking educational foundations to make up a shortfall in public funding is a tough sell. However, the ideal that schools should be publicly funded is being challenged – and that’s still my ideal, and my values. And charitable giving is all about reflecting your ideals and values.

Multiple Ways to Give Even More

None of this is meant to imply that you shouldn’t donate to public schools, or to the broader educational enterprise. It is possible to donate directly to your local school district, without an educational foundation as an intermediary. The Ann Arbor Public Schools system has a donation policy, and probably most other local school districts do as well.

Many music teachers, for instance, will happily provide a new home for a serviceable instrument. (We donated my husband’s cello, which he stopped playing many, many years ago. His mother had maintained it in meticulous condition, hoping against hope that a grandchild would pick it up. They didn’t.)

The basic rule of thumb is, if you are interested in donating an item to a school, check with the building administrator to make sure it would be useful. And, of course, the schools also will gladly accept direct financial support – last year, for example, the Argus Planetarium at Pioneer High was renovated using a direct donation.

Or if you want to donate to one of the local educational foundations, here are links to several in Washtenaw County: the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation; the Chelsea Education Foundation; the Educational Foundation of Dexter; the Manchester Community Schools Foundation; the Foundation for Saline Area Schools; the Whitmore Lake Foundation for Educational Excellence; and the Ypsilanti Community Schools Foundation.

Nearly every school – maybe every school – has a parent-teacher organization (PTO), and generally they are also 501(c)3 nonprofits. So if you want to support your local school, you can give directly to the PTO. The PTO directs its funds to the programs or activities that the parents and teachers want to support. Some of the PTOs have very elaborate fundraising activities. The Burns Park Run, for example, raises money to support the Burns Park Elementary PTO programs, and Ann Arbor Open has turned Scrip into a high art form. Even if they don’t have organized fundraising efforts, all PTOs can use your support.

Perhaps you have a special place in your heart for the arts, or for environmental issues. Most of the schools have special funds (or a special nonprofit – yes, many of these are auxiliary groups with nonprofit status) to fund music, theater, athletics, and more. And the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation has an environmental education fund that is meant to support the Ann Arbor schools.

Finally, there are many organizations that support kids and families, in ways both academically-related and in fighting poverty. For instance, groups like Peace Neighborhood Center, Avalon Housing, and Community Action Network support low-income families in particular neighborhoods with after-school tutoring. The Student Advocacy Center fights for kids at risk of, or threatened with, suspension and expulsion. And other organizations, like 826 Michigan, bring after-school tutoring to the masses. (A special shout-out to 826 Michigan for pairing up with the Ypsilanti cafe Beezy’s, which is open for breakfast and lunch, and then provides a space for 826 Michigan’s after-school tutoring.)

I don’t mean to give an exhaustive list, but rather to share some examples. Please do add to these ideas in the comments section.

Giving, Getting, and Governing

I’ve explained how I’m already a big contributor to the schools. But it’s not just that we give a lot. We get a lot, too – and so do residents who don’t have kids. I don’t mean that in a high-level, theoretical “we-want-good-schools” way. I mean that in an economic sense. That’s because perceptions of schools are major drivers of property values, and property values affect much more than schools.

So in the next few days, we will give to some school-related causes, and you might too. But remember – the bulk of school funding comes through the state, and that funding has been slashed over and over again in the past decade.

Perhaps the most effective donation you can make is your donation of time and effort to convince legislators to provide more funding to public schools. That’s how public schools get funding, and where reform will need to occur if we want the current situation to improve.

Keeping our public schools both public and nonprofit, at this point, requires a lot of advocacy. In my opinion, two excellent sources of information are Michigan Parents for Schools and the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

I’ve been writing about year-end donations, and when the year ends, a lot of people turn to New Year’s resolutions, too. While you are making your list of resolutions, I hope you’ll make room for one more thing: advocating for public, nonprofit schools. I hope you’ll advocate for schools that are for children, not for corporations or for-profit charter chains. And I hope you’ll advocate for adequate funding.

Whether you’re a donor, an advocate, or both, this I believe: together, we can make a difference.


[1] I’m not picking on the Kalkaska schools. Kalkaska became the poster child for school funding reform when it closed its doors early in the spring of 1993 after the latest of several attempts at passing an operating millage failed. [For more background, read this March 6, 1993 article in the Ludington Daily News.] Proposal A was the product of efforts to equalize school funding regardless of local tax base, coupled with then-Gov. John Engler’s promise to reduce property taxes.

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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our local reporting and columnists. Check out this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: How Football Helped Build MSU Fri, 13 Dec 2013 14:28:34 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Every university has its giants, of course, but those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions – and to do it all in mere decades.

The list of icons includes the University of Chicago’s President William Rainey Harper and Amos Alonzo Stagg, who put their new school on the map; Michigan’s James B. Angell and Fielding Yost, who made Michigan what it is today; Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, who made Notre Dame famous, and Father Ted Hesburgh, who made it great.

At Michigan State, that man is John A. Hannah.

Born in Grand Rapids in 1902, he was a proud graduate of Michigan Agricultural College in 1923, earning a degree in poultry science. He rose to become the school’s vice president, whose job description included serving as the state’s secretary of agriculture. He married the president’s daughter, then succeeded him as president in 1941.

Hannah’s timing was unusually good, with the G.I. Bill opening the doors for 2.2 million returning veterans nationwide, and the state’s auto industry entering its golden era, generating unprecedented wealth for the state’s citizens, who dreamed bigger dreams for their children. Seemingly unrelated, the University of Chicago’s football team dropped out of the Big Ten in 1939.

Hannah cleverly exploited all three opportunities.

Back when state schools were actually funded by the state, Hannah knew he needed more help from Lansing, which had long favored the flagship university in Ann Arbor. So, while UM’s President Harlan Hatcher rolled up to the capital in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car, the unassuming Hannah hopped in his pickup truck for the trip up Michigan Avenue to the statehouse – and got more money each time from his old friends in the legislature.

When Hannah gathered enough funds for a new dorm, he built a beautiful brick building with green trim, filled it with former GIs, then took their tuition and built the next dorm – and kept doing it, for decades. At the same time, he lobbied hard to take Chicago’s place in the Big Ten. He had to, because Michigan’s coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler, a proud Chicago alumnus who had played for Stagg, didn’t want to see the Spartans replace his Maroons.

In 1947, President Hannah fought back by hiring Clarence “Biggie” Munn, who had been Crisler’s former captain at Minnesota, and his former assistant at Michigan. To gain stature, the next year Michigan State started an annual rivalry with Notre Dame, which was only too happy to help the upstart Spartans stick it to their mutual enemy, Michigan.

When the Spartans finished both 1951 and 1952 as undefeated national champions, nobody could deny they could play football in the Big Ten. The Spartans enjoyed their greatest success during Hannah’s last two decades, claiming four more national titles and a 14-4-2 record against Michigan.

Hannah attended every Spartan football game, home and away, for years. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” even published a piece on his streak. He recognized the central role the Spartans’ success played in raising the profile of the former cow college, which in turn helped attract more state funding, more skilled students, and more first-rate professors to East Lansing – following a familiar formula.

Hannah’s strategy transformed the humble Michigan Agricultural College of just 6,000 students into the 40,000-student Michigan State University, a major research center good enough to be admitted to the prestigious Association of American Universities – and he did it all in about two decades, arguably the fastest growth in the history of higher education.

Perhaps most impressive, what President Hannah built has endured, surviving Michigan’s turbulent economy, the Big Three’s troubles, and the Spartan football team’s sporadic performance. In the 43 years since Hannah retired, they have won only five Big Ten titles and no national crowns – but the stature of the university he built continued to grow.

In President Hannah’s penultimate State of the University address, on Feb. 12, 1968, he stated: “The university is an integral part of a social system that has given more opportunity, more freedom and more hope to more people than any other system.”

President Hannah greatly increased all three through improved state funding, the G.I. Bill – and football.

Michigan State University would not be half of what it is without him – or the Spartans.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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