AAPS Board Praises Superintendent

Also: Public comment on class size, theater program

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting (June 27, 2012): After recessing to a five-hour closed session to conduct its first formal evaluation of AAPS superintendent Patricia Green, the board reconvened its regular meeting and unanimously voted to release a statement summarizing Green’s successes as she completes her first year with the district.

Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Patricia Green

Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Patricia Green.

The board’s evaluation was uniformly positive, and counted among her successes the filling of vacant cabinet positions, dealing with funding cuts, helping to get the technology millage passed, and developing a strategy to address the “achievement gap.”

Green’s evaluation had included input from a set of roughly 70 community members suggested by board trustees. See previous coverage by The Chronicle on the evaluation’s structure and process: ”AAPS Begins Superintendent Evaluation.”

Green joined the district July 1, 2011, and is working under a five-year contract.

Also at their meeting, the board heard public commentary on two topics: second grade class sizes at Lawton elementary; and teacher release time used to support Skyline’s theatre program.

Superintendent Evaluation

When the board emerged from its closed session, board president Deb Mexicotte stated simply, “We have completed our work and we have a statement.” Board vice-president Christine Stead moved that the statement be accepted by the board, and read it aloud:

Dr. Patricia Green joined the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) as Superintendent at the start of the academic year 2011-2012. Upon Dr. Green’s arrival, there were several open positions in the Executive Cabinet and direct reports thereof; creating both a challenge and an opportunity for Dr. Green to bring in new talent and leadership as part of her first year with the AAPS. Dr. Green has demonstrated excellent judgment in her ability to attract and retain a very capable leadership team for the AAPS.

At the same time, Dr. Green was faced with the second year of the most drastic cuts in education funding that the AAPS has experienced. The funding crisis established by the state exacerbated an already difficult decade of declining funds for the AAPS. Dr. Green demonstrated an ability to make recommendations to the Board that allowed the AAPS to preserve our core educational mission while addressing significant funding issues. Dr. Green was also successful in breathing new life and accountability into our systems, policies and procedures; using our strategic plan as a guidepost.

Dr. Green was personally and significantly involved in the successful passage of the Technology Millage from early due diligence to providing advocacy to our community on the district’s behalf. Dr. Green reinvigorated efforts to address the AAPS achievement gap, including a substantive effort on the role that discipline and behavior play in addressing this issue. Dr. Green has engaged in significant change management activities throughout her first year; an area of great interest to the Board.

We appreciate Dr. Green’s extensive work with groups within the community in her first year, and we support and endorse her continued commitment to visible leadership throughout the district in the future. These accomplishments are highlights, among many, from her first year of service.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education looks forward to continuing to work with Dr. Green in advancing the success of the AAPS for all students in the years to come and congratulates her on a very successful first year in the AAPS in a very challenging environment.

Trustee Irene Patalan seconded the statement, and it was approved unanimously by the board.

Trustee Glenn Nelson then added that that during its discussion, the board had also thanked Stead for her efforts to coordinate the evaluation, and for leading the board through the process. “Managing this process is not a simple thing, and she did it well,” Nelson said. [That process included surveying about 70 community members: .pdf of survey form contents]

Green then thanked the board for the “tremendous support” she felt from them throughout the school year, and said she looks forward to a “very close affiliation in the future.”

Public Commentary and Board Clarification

Under the Michigan Open Meetings Act, closed sessions must be conducted in the context of an open meeting, which must include an opportunity for members of the public to address the public body. Two topics were addressed at public commentary at the June 27 meeting:  second grade class sizes at Lawton elementary; and teacher release time used to support Skyline’s theatre program. The board chose to respond to constituents regarding both matters at this meeting, as described below.

Public Comment: Lawton’s Second Grade Class Size

Anne Ristich, a parent of two second graders at Lawton, addressed the board. She argued that the increase in class sizes at Lawton is undermining parents’ trust of the district, and threatening students’ success. “If a solitary second grade teacher is expected to maintain a class of 27-32 students on his/her own, the functional system once designed for these students to flourish is now damaged and only exists to be endured,” Ristich said. She shared quotes from a stack of letters written by Lawton parents that asserted the larger class sizes will make students less globally competitive, and prevent them from reaching their full potential as “their eagerness to learn will be replaced with an eagerness to escape the mob.”

Ristich acknowledged that the exact class size numbers for the fall have not yet been determined, but noted that as recently as two years ago,  first and second grade classrooms averaged only 21 to 23 students. She closed by asked the board to reflect on whether these children should be made to endure instead of flourish, and to share their rationale behind setting the class size targets they do. In addition to a set of letters from parents, Ristich gave the board an article from the Michigan Department of Education website supporting the effectiveness of smaller class sizes.

Timothy Wilhelm also addressed the board about the sizes of Lawton’s second grade classes. He said the trend of increasing class sizes is detrimental to children’s education, and noted that research has shown that smaller class sizes have a measurable effect on effective education. Wilhelm said that Lawton parents are asking the board to allocate resources for a third second-grade class to be put in place at Lawton in the fall. He said his numbers indicate there will be roughly 60 students attending second grade at Lawton next year, and that “we think 30 students in a class is too large, and that it is contrary to the district’s goals.”

Wilhelm pointed out that the incoming second graders at Lawton are unusual in that they are a slightly smaller group than the group of incoming third graders above them or the group of incoming first graders below them. He said he knows there are budget cuts, that the information parents have may not be complete or accurate, and that the actual number of teachers may not be allocated until the later in the summer. But, Wilhelm continued, parents are looking for transparency and reassurance that the quality of students’ education is placed first and foremost in decision-making, and said that if approaching the board was not the correct process to use to be heard, to please let him know.

During the clarification section following public comments, Green said the class size numbers are “very fluid” right now and that the “data is still in transit” from individual schools. She said that no decisions have been made yet about the situation, and said that AAPS director of elementary education Dawn Linden has been in touch with Lawton’s principal about the concerns. Green commended the small set of parents present for caring so much about their children. “We feel your pain, and it’s important that you know that,” she said. “We want to be transparent with you … I cannot give you an answer right now.”

Mexicotte added that the best point of contact for parents to follow up on this issue would be their building principal, saying that advocacy regarding class sizes is done through the principal to central administration. Wilhelm said he has questions about the scope of the principal’s authority in the situation, and Mexicotte suggested he direct his questions to Linden.

Stead added that class sizes always fluctuate over the summer, and that the district tries its best to anticipate expected attendance by class and grade level. She said that she has experienced the same questions noted by Lawton parents when her own two AAPS students have been in larger classes. Wilhelm said that as a group, Lawton parents have discussed the options available, such as getting a teacher’s aide or having a split class, and they would love to have that dialogue.

Mexicotte reiterated that such dialogue should be at the school level at this point, and that it was premature, given that numbers are not set yet for the fall.

Another Lawton parent said that she had not signed up to speak but wanted to add that class sizes having seemed to creep up every year, and that parents do not want this to go on every year until fifth grade. “That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Mexicotte responded that the board also feels class sizes should be low, and pointed out that no cuts to teaching positions were made as part of the 2012-13 budget. “We are trying to hold the line,” she said.

Public Comment: Teacher Release Time, Skyline Theatre

Skyline student Seth Bear spoke to the board about the release time of Ann Marie Roberts, Skyline’s performing arts teacher and theater director. Bear noted that he was speaking on behalf of a group of Skyline students who were attending the meeting, all wearing light blue “SAVE SKYLINE THEATRE” T-shirts.

Skyline High School student Seth Bear addressed the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of trustees at their June 27, 2012 meeting.

Skyline High School student Seth Bear addressed the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of trustees at their June 27, 2012 meeting.

He explained that Roberts uses her two prep hours to work on various components for Skyline theater productions that take place after school. However, in this coming year the district does not want to allow Roberts to have the second prep, but instead will assign her to teach another class during that time. Bear argued that taking this second prep away from Roberts would jeopardize the theater program, and cause students to lose “the most important part of our lives.”

Bear then read a list of awards and accolades received by the Skyline theater program and some of its individual students, including high academic achievement. He also shared quotes from some of the students in the theater program who said that being in theater has: led to other good experiences; been their passion; helped them to grow as human beings; and shown them what it means to be part of something bigger than themselves.

During clarification on public comment, Green said she had been baffled when she had received e-mails about what Bear had just described, and said that she is still trying to get to the bottom of it. The best she can say right now, she said, is that there is a contract with the teachers’ union that covers release time and that the decisions about release time are made at the building level.

Green added that the teachers’ union contract gives school principals discretion about how to allocate 70 days of release time among all department chairs, and that Roberts is the department chair for arts, music, and theater. She told the students that Skyline principal Sulura Jackson was the person to whom they should address their concerns.

Bear said that it was his understanding that Jackson no longer had the authority to grant Roberts the second prep period. Green said she does not have all the details, and that Jackson and other Skyline administrators are all currently unreachable as they are away at a conference. Green also pointed out that a memorandum of understanding between the teachers’ union and the district states the release time granted in the past is being phased out, and replaced with the 70 days of time to be used at the principal’s discretion.

Baskett asked how much release time was given to all high schools this year, and Green said she did not know. Baskett asked the students if they had spoken to Roberts and Jackson, and they said they had. Then Baskett clarified with the students that they had come to the board because they were under the impression that Jackson is no longer in charge of the decision.

Bear thanked the board for taking the issue seriously, and said “We are not done fighting …We did not come here trying to attack anybody. We are just trying to defend what we love.” Mexicotte responded that both of her degrees are in theater, so she is very sympathetic, but that the outcome will depend on what the contract actually says.

Bear asked if the board could keep the students updated via e-mail about how the situation is resolved, and Mexicotte said she would. She asked Bear to send the board an e-mail with a person the board could use as a point of contact. Green added that a lot of people are going to be away on vacation for the next several weeks, so if the students don’t hear from the board right away, “don’t think we forgot about you.”

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Glenn Nelson.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, July 25, 2012, at 7:00 p.m. in fourth-floor conference room of the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.

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