The Ann Arbor Chronicle » schools 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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AAPS Lays Off 191 Teachers Thu, 22 Apr 2010 21:45:15 +0000 Jennifer Coffman Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education meeting (April 21, 2010): In one swift action item on an otherwise skeletal agenda, the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education voted unanimously to lay off all 191 of its probationary teachers, starting in June. Probationary teachers are commonly called “un-tenured.”

Todd Roberts Ann Arbor Public Schools

Todd Roberts, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools. (Photos by the writer).

While introducing the item, AAPS superintendent Todd Roberts noted, “This is certainly a very difficult thing for myself and for this board to be recommending tonight,” but said he was hopeful that AAPS will continue to work collaboratively with its employee groups to end up with “as few job reductions as we possibly can.” District officials hope that many of the layoffs will be rescinded before the start of school in the fall.

Last night’s meeting also contained the first of two public hearings on recommendations from the district’s sexual health education advisory committee regarding materials to be used in elementary-level sex education.

Layoffs Ordered

The main item of business before the board was to lay off nearly 16% of the district’s teaching staff starting in June. After board president Deb Mexicotte introduced the item to trustees as a “personnel action,” she offered, “If there is any discussion anyone would like to have before I move this motion, this would be the time to do it … Dr. Roberts, is there anything you’d like to say?”

Roberts began, “I wish there was nothing to say,” and then defined the personnel action the board was being asked to take as “the decision to lay off 191 teachers, all probationary teachers in the district.” He described the action as necessary to deal with the possible elimination of up to 90 teaching jobs outlined in the 2010-11 budget plan.

The list of 191 teachers receiving layoff notices was not made public, but Roberts and teachers’ union president Brit Satchwell confirmed to The Chronicle after the meeting that it contains all probationary teachers except for those who will be receiving tenure this June. Tenure is usually granted in the fourth year of teaching.

The reasoning behind laying off roughly 100 people more than needed is based on the complicated algorithm used to determine teacher seniority, which is outlined in the collective bargaining contract between teachers and the district, and mandated in part by state and federal law. Article 4.813.4 of the contract states, “Probationary teachers shall be laid off on the basis of certification, qualification, degree and experience.”

“Certification” refers to the specific grade levels and subject area endorsements listed on a teacher’s state of Michigan teaching certificate. “Qualification” refers to a teacher’s status as “highly qualified” to teach a specific subject, as delineated in the federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB mandated that, by 2006, all teachers – new and old – of core subject areas (including foreign languages, and the arts) would have a bachelor’s degree, be certified to teach what they are teaching, and meet one of the following provisions:

  • Have a major (or at least 30 credits) in the content/subject they wish to teach; or
  • Pass a state-level subject area test; or
  • Create a comprehensive teaching portfolio to prove competence in a certain subject; or
  • Hold national board certification in the subject they wish to teach.

“Degree and experience” refers to a combination of the highest degree a teacher holds (up to a master’s), the number of years the teacher has taught (state seniority), and the number of years the teacher has taught in AAPS specifically (district seniority).

Brit Satchwell

Brit Satchwell, president of the teachers' union, just after Wednesday's Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting.

In an interview with The Chronicle directly following the meeting, Satchwell explained that the complexity involved in properly applying the contract language essentially makes it very difficult, even impossible, for the district to know exactly which teachers they will not need in the fall before the state-mandated April 30 deadline for issuing layoff notices.

So while teacher retirements, pending state legislation, fluctuating health care costs, and bargaining unit negotiations are still being worked out, the district is essentially forced to lay off a larger number of teachers than it needs to let go up front, and then “call back” as many as it can.

This process of rescinding layoff notices, referred to by Satchwell as “human Tetris,” involves calling teachers back one by one, in order of district seniority, to positions for which they are highly qualified – even if that means involuntarily moving the teachers currently in those positions to other positions for which they are highly qualified. In the end, regardless of how many or which teaching positions are eliminated (which at this point is still uncertain), district seniority is the leading factor determining who gets called back and who remains laid off.

Before the vote at Wednesday night’s meeting, Roberts said that negotiating this situation was the most difficult part of his 21-year career in education, 16 of which he has spent as an administrator. He called the current state of education funding in Michigan and lack of state-level political leadership “unacceptable,” and noted that 3,000 teachers have received layoff notices in Michigan this year.

Though Roberts offered to have Dave Comsa, assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services, and Cindy Ryan, director of human resources, answer any questions board members had regarding the layoff or possible callback process, no questions were asked at the public meeting.  Instead, three board members – secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Christine Stead, and Mexicotte – made comments before the vote.

Nelson’s comments echoed and expanded on the concerns he had stated at the previous board meeting regarding class sizes increases. He reiterated that if the problem is addressed through layoffs, class sizes would increase on average 8% in elementary grades, 15% at the middle school level, and 18% at the high schools.

As a parent, he said, he has observed that larger class sizes have the following effects: there is an increase in the likelihood that one difficult student in the class changes the class atmosphere; assignments cannot be as involved since the teacher has more students to evaluate; teachers can be less proactive about offering guidance; teachers are unable to be as reactive in answering questions; and teachers are less able to work creatively with every set of parents or guardians.

“I just hope from the bottom of my heart,” Nelson said, “that we figure out a way to do this without saying that the solution is layoffs.” He added, however, “If we have to, of course, we will. We have a mandate to balance the budget.”

Stead commented on the political climate, and the community’s responsibility in solving the funding crisis. Saying that the stress on staff caused by these layoffs is unacceptable, Stead named the long history of inadequate state education funding as the cause of the current “turmoil.” She then argued that private giving should be encouraged as a way to counter the state’s inadequacies and move the district down a sustainable funding path. Speaking to those being laid off, she asked, “Please bear with us – hopefully, we will get to a good spot.”

Mexicotte then confirmed that there were no further comments or questions, thanked Roberts for speaking to this, and also for his work on this difficult issue, and made the following motion:

“WHEREAS, the largest portion of the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ expenditures are used to pay for employment of its teaching staff, and

WHEREAS, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, for economic reasons, must reduce its teaching staff to reduce costs.

NOW, THEREFORE, be it resolved that:

1.   The teachers listed on Attachment A shall be given notice that the Board of Trustees has laid off said teachers effective June 30, 2010.

2.   The Administration is hereby directed to give teachers listed on Attachment A, a copy of this Resolution and a copy of the Teachers Tenure Act, which includes Article VI, Right to Appeal.

3.   All resolutions and parts of resolutions insofar as they conflict with the provisions of this resolution be and the same are hereby rescinded.”

Vice president Irene Patalan seconded the motion. There was no further discussion.

Outcome: The motion to lay off 191 probationary teachers carried unanimously.

Elementary Sexual Education Materials

Roberts began by describing the district’s sexual health education advisory committee (SHEAC) as a collaborative effort between staff and parents. He explained that the committee’s charge was to seek out and review instructional materials to be used in sex education throughout the district, and commended their work, calling it “outstanding.”

Margy Long and Debby Salem, two parents on the SHEAC, came to the podium, and briefly commented on the recommendations, which had been outlined in a memo included in the board’s agenda packet. The recommendations all concern materials to be used in the elementary grades. They include letters and “resource sheets” to be sent to parents, six videos, and a set of lesson plans addressing “life/body changes, puberty, the male and female reproductive systems, human reproduction, personal hygiene, healthy habits, media messages, and postponing sexual intercourse.”

Long mentioned that many of the materials they were recommending had been used in the past, and that the SHEAC’s attempts to find appropriate updated materials were unsuccessful. “Frankly,” Long said, “we have looked country-wide, and it seems many, many schools use these particular videos.” Salem pointed out that the materials are currently in the district’s administrative offices if any member of the public would like to review them. She also reiterated, “Our goal is to keep looking … some of them are very dated.”

Simone Lightfoot asked how a community member could suggest materials to the committee for review, and Amy Osinski, board secretary, confirmed that suggestions could be sent to the SHEAC via the board office.

Nelson thanked the SHEAC members, pointing out the importance of being sure the district’s young people were well-informed about this “matter of life and death.” He asked Long and Salem to say a bit about the composition of the SHEAC, “so we can know … who we are appreciating.”

Long answered that by law, the SHEAC must be 50% parents, which it is. The nine committee members also include a physician, a member of the local clergy, and community health specialists. She also pointed out the goals and objectives of the sexual health education program in middle and high schools were included in the board’s agenda packet because the SHEAC “wanted to get any feedback [the board] might have.”

Patalan stated her appreciation of the SHEAC’s work, saying “It really can be a life-changing piece of our students’ education … You really leave no stone unturned … You want to make sure our kids have the best information, and I really do appreciate that.”

With the brief commendation that “your work is great,” Mexicotte asked Osinski to open the public hearing. Osinski stated that no one had signed up to speak before the meeting, but opened the floor to “anyone here who would like to speak” to the SHEAC’s recommendations. There were no speakers.

Mexicotte encouraged the community to take a look at materials at the board office before the second public hearing on these recommendations, to take place on April 28.

Outcome: This was a first briefing item. Approval of proposed materials will be up for a vote of the board after a second public hearing at the April 28 regular board meeting.

Open Seat on the Board


In reviewing the upcoming board agenda, Mexicotte reminded the public that the board will hold interviews for a candidate to fill its vacancy on May 6. Information on how to apply is on the district’s website.

Minutes Approval

Mexicotte asked for the board’s approval of the minutes of the executive session held on April 14. The motion to approve was made by Stead and seconded by Nelson.

Outcome: The minutes of the April 14 executive session were unanimously approved.

Items from the Board


There were no association reports, and no public commentary at Wednesday’s meeting, but board secretary Nelson did offer two items.

First, Nelson praised the Neutral Zone for their recent “Wine, Word, and Song” fundraiser, which included music and poetry performances by members of the Ann Arbor youth poetry slam team. Nelson mentioned the “wonderful partnership” between the AAPS and the Neutral Zone, and called the performances “absolutely fabulous.”

Secondly, Nelson invited the public to view the exhibit of student art currently on display at the downtown library at 343 S. Fifth Ave. He listed the many AAPS schools who have student work included in the exhibit, and encouraged the community to “make a special trip downtown, or stop in when you’re nearby” to see the “absolutely wonderful art” produced by AAPS students.

The 40-minute meeting was adjourned by president Deb Mexicotte.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Christine Stead, trustee Susan Baskett, and trustee Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Todd Roberts, superintendent of AAPS.

Absent: None

Next regular meeting: April 28, 2010, 7 p.m., at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 4th floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

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