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Wednesday, March 25,2009

Sizing up the schools

What experts say about a radical plan to re-tool the Lansing School District

by Neal McNamara
When Lansing schools’ Superintendent T.C. Wallace took the stage in the auditorium of Eastern High School last Wednesday at a community forum on the recommendations put forth by the Community Advisory Task Force for Right Sizing, he seemed to take the tone of an earnest high school principal. It was like he was addressing an incoming class of freshmen, trying to advise them on the academic journey ahead of them.

And in a way, he was addressing a group of the un-indoctrinated. It just happened to be parents, teachers and students from a range of grades; and he wasn’t talking about locker combinations or study habits, but a set of earthshaking — and perhaps scary — recommendations for the school district that have been put forth by the right-sizing committee.

“It is intended to be a set of recommendations that we consider” — he said with much emphasis on “consider” — “to reshape and reposition the Lansing School District.”

If you attended last Wednesday’s meeting at Eastern, or the one two days prior at Pattengill Middle School, or have seen news reports about the committee’s recommendations, you’re probably familiar with some of the juicier, headlinegrabbing bits: closing Moores Park Elementary and either Woodcreek, Wainwright or Riddle Elementary by the beginning of the next school year; eventually closing 10 to 13 more elementary schools, to be replaced by a large new elementary school in each quadrant of Lansing; closing two high schools, to be replaced with one new high school; placing an academy for ninth-grade students in an existing high school; and creating a “strict discipline” school, which would not be operated by the district, to capture expelled or otherwise behaviorally challenged students.

The parts of the plan that involve school closings and financing the construction of new schools — which would involve the dreaded, politically dangerous “bond issue" — are getting the most attention. But taken as a whole, the plan is a broad rethinking of the entire school system because it seems to address the many problems that the LSD is faced with: a steady historical and projected decline in enrollment (which means less money per student), a palette of aging buildings, the failure of the high schools for the last six years to meet adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind standards, increasing legacy costs for retired teachers, and on and on.


The wonkier recommendations in the plan, however, are just as important as the school closings and potential new millages. The recommendation to align curriculum horizontally and vertically (which was last done almost 10 years ago) might be overlooked because it sounds like jargon.

Aligning curriculum horizontally means making is to make sure that students in, for example, a physics class are also enrolled in a math class that would allow them to comprehend physics. And to align vertically is to ensure that students take physics only after excelling in prerequisite classes. And maybe the prospect of building new schools wouldn’t be so scary if the recommendation of seeking extreme philanthropic funds, from, say, Eli Broad or Bill and Melinda Gates, were paid more attention.

Pick an urban school district in America and you’ll likely see a situation similar to Lansing: declining enrollment, failure to meet federal standards, etc. But, say experts, a lot of schools districts aren’t rethinking the entire package. A high school is restructured here, or a few middle schools are shaken up there and great changes are expected. But piecemeal changes usually fall flat.


“Flint is going through similar changes, Cleveland has done something similar,” says Sharif Shakrani, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. “Many places are going through rethinking about how they deliver K-12 education. The ones that aren’t being successful are the ones that only key in on one level.”

In trying to find out whether the right-sizing committee’s recommendations have weight or are useless, City Pulse passed the report around to education experts around the country like Shakrani and asked them their opinion. The plan received high marks for its gumption in wanting to reshape the entire district, not just a few pieces — if there’s a time to change the way we run our public schools in Lansing and across the country, now is the time, the experts said — but also received remarks of caution because of its gumption.




Caution


After Wallace gave his remarks last Wednesday, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister took the stage to, again, present the committee recommendations.

Hollister, along with former state education official Don Weatherspoon and Michigan State University professor Ruben Martinez, head of the university’s Julian Samora Research Institute, were the report’s three chiefs. One hundred and six members of the community, including the entire Lansing Board of Education, joined them in creating the plan.


Hollister’s explanation of the plan was detailed, perhaps a little too much. He took the better part of half an hour to explain it (the community forum was scheduled to be two hours), and the anxiousness of the crowd to comment was evident — toward the end, a woman in the crowd began to urgently wave her hand in the air like an elementary school student trying to get permission to go to the bathroom.

Further, it seemed that some of Hollister’s explanations went over the heads of some in the community: One of the first people to speak during the public comment section of the meeting asked, very pointedly, “Which high schools are you going to close?”


Former school board member Denise Chrysler, who left the board in 2003, said that the issue of closing schools is especially tough for parents and may in fact be the impetus for some parents’ taking their children out of schools.

“Elementary schools are glue in the neighborhoods,” Chrysler said. “The community gets up in arms about closing schools. But who in the community is going to step forward to pay the price of operating schools that are under-enrolled?” she said.


Shakrani says that communicating the recommendations to parents is going to be one of the biggest hurdles. The message delivered with all the plan’s gumption is that change like this is urgently needed — which both Hollister and Wallace touched on in their talks Wednesday and in past.


The school district “needs to tell parents that the plan is aimed at improving the schools, not shuffling the kids to different schools. “That should be the crux of communication with parents,” he said.


Jonathan Plucker, a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University, says much the same.


The school district is “falling on its sword and saying, ‘we acknowledge that there are problems and
saying we’re going to do something about it,’” Plucker said. “They’re
not doing this just to piss people off. They’re doing this to make a
much better school district. Plucker’s advice is to reach out to
community leaders to sell the plan, which has apparently been done by
Hollister in several public presentations and the large group of
community members involved in the plan.


“If it’s the best plan in the
world, people are still going to be upset by it,” Plucker said. “It has
to be a community effort to sell this plan.”


But good PR, of course,
isn’t the only hurdle. Shakrani — who is actually involved in the plan,
helping to construct achievement guidelines for teachers and students
in the district — is precise in his critique. Shakrani questions the
cost of building entirely new buildings and whether it would be cheaper
to renovate old ones. Reliance on federal stimulus funds being made
available might be shortsighted, because the money will be around for
only two years. The district should focus on getting a piece of the $25
billion in discretionary funds that have been given to U.S. Department
of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, he said.


Shakrani also says that as
much as there is a focus on building new buildings, there should be one
on making sure the curriculum is just as fresh.





“There has to
be tangible change in curriculum instruction and program offering,” he
said. “Infrastructure alone is not going to bring about change.
Improving the quality of education reduces the number of exiting
students; it eliminates the reason they leave because of quality of
education.”

Plucker says that all the organizational change in
the plan simply must be matched with better teaching. He pointed to the
horizontal and vertical alignment of curriculum and the ninth grade
academy (ninth grade because that is the grade in which students are
most likely to drop out of school) as good examples of efforts at
better instruction.

“If classroom instruction doesn’t change,
then all the organizational changes will have no effect. If the same
teaching is going on, then why would we expect student outcomes to be
different?” he said.


Maris Vinovskis, a professor of public policy at
the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and
a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Office of Educational Research
and Improvement in both the first Bush and Clinton administrations,
warned of the importance of considering not only racial integration in
the school, but also eco nomic integration.

The report points
to a “misalignment between school cultures and student demographics,”
and goes on to explain that Lansing has “experienced a demographic
shift which transformed it from a white-majority to a minority-majority
school district.” The report recommends a focus on a “multicultural
organizational culture.”

“Studies show economic integration is
very important,” Vinovskis said. “They don’t seem to pay much attention
to that. The reason they need to is that disadvantaged students benefit
from being in the same class as students who are better off
economically. Since they’re going to have to close down a lot of
elementary schools, they could think about realigning the district to
maintain the economic integration.”


Magnet schools help with economic
integration, Vinovskis said, but wasn’t sure that the plan did enough
to encourage more affluent students to stay in the district.

Plucker
also pointed out that there wasn’t much in the plan to back up the
district’s desire to align school culture with the community culture.

“How
do you do that?” he said. “They never come back to that; its sort of,
‘this is a problem, we’re going to focus on organizational stuff:
building new buildings, new programs.’ But that doesn’t change
culture.”


Vinovskis also predicts that No Child Left Behind will very
soon change, not only in name but also in its standards. While
the school district wouldn’t be able to shirk the standards, it might
buy some time in preparing the school system to meet an updated version
of the law.


Jerry Swartz, head of the Lansing teachers union, offers
criticism of the right-sizing plan because he says the district is
already implementing many of the ideas put forth in it, including
seeking philanthropic funds and aligning curriculum.


“We’re treating
the Lansing School District as abysmal and struggling, but that
couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.


One recommendation seeks
to implement “rigid accountability measures” for teachers and
administrators, and another part seeks to create more wiggle room for
the district in teachers’ contract for more accountability, which might
impact teacher union/district relations. Swartz is also upset that the
community forum at Pattengill two Monday’s ago was shutdown as teachers
were still giving views on the plan.


“The (teaching) staff has not been
informed or invited to be part of this conversation,” Swartz says.


There should be more transparency in the plan if the 1,700 teachers in
the district are expected to be brought into the fold, he said.



The positives


Jack
Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy,
an education advocacy think tank, immediately called the plan “bold and
thoughtful.”

“Generally, school districts lurch from crisis to
crisis,” Jennings said. “Therefore ,their plans tend to be in the short
term. This is a long-term plan, and it’s a plan that deals with all
aspects of the school system, not just with finances; it’s bold.”


The
idea to turn all Lansing high and middle schools into Title 1
schools (federal Title 1 money is given to schools that under-perform
on standardized tests and is meant to improve academics) is good
because the pot of money just grew by 70 percent.


The idea of creating
a discipline academy is good because it would be meant to catch at-risk
students.






“Their vision
has to be subject to debate,” Jennings said, noting that the plan’s
“Achilles’ heel” is asking taxpayers for money to build new schools in
this economic climate.” “But it’s certainly a wonderful beginning.”

Jennings
said his organization has studied several school districts in Michigan.
Most comparable to Lansing would be Flint, he said, but that school
system has only sought to restructure middle schools and create
specialized academies.

Flint “might be somewhat comparable.
But I don’t think they have a plan as comprehensive as this,” he said.


Shakrani gives grades the plan “B ” — if it’s implemented as is.


“If
they start cutting things out, if it’s expedient, then I’ll grade it as
it is,” he said.


But a plan like this is needed in a place like Lansing
because the world is changing. It was once where a high school graduate
could walk into a job at General Motors Corp. and make a good living.
But that’s not longer a reality, Shakrani said.


“Basically, the plan is
based on the reality of the funding available to the district, which is
a function of how many students it has,” he said. “If that drops, they
can’t maintain the same level of educational programs.”

And
the funding level, which is tied directly to the number of students in
the district, is dire. Hollister has said that if something is not done
to stem the students leaving the district, then Lansing could hollow
out to a K-6 district. According to the right-sizing team’s
“assumptions,” the district is predicted to bottom out at around 12,500
students. The district is hovering at just under 15,000 students, down
from nearly 26,000 in 1984.


“What I do see is a willingness to face up
to hard questions and do some hard thinking,” Vinovskis said. “This is
the beginning of a serious dialogue that needs to take place. The
superintendent should further that dialogue.”

Plucker gives
the plan an “A” for its organizational changes.


“It’s clear that the
Lansing School District is very different than it was a few years ago,”
Plucker said. “It’s a very different-sized school district. But it
appears to be roughly organized the way it always has. And it has to
change.”

The best changes, says Plucker, will be
instructional, pointing to the 9th grade academy and the “middle
college,” which would allow high school students to complete college
courses.

Wallace was supposed to make his recommendations of
the right-sizing committee’s recommendations to the school board at a
special March 26 meeting. However, Wallace rescheduled that
meeting for April 6, at which time he will also make recommendations
for possible school closures. Wallace said in a statement that he
rescheduled the meeting to be “thorough, deliberative and responsive”
to all the public input on the plan.


“It is clear that this transparent
and public process has engaged the entire school district community and
beyond, especially given the scope and magnitude of [the right-sizing
committee’s] bold and far reaching recommendations,” Wallace said in
the statement.

Attempts to reach Wallace for comment on which
recommendations — or maybe all of them — he’s leaning toward were not
returned. The school district also did not respond to a request to tour
Moores Park Elementary.

For Chrysler, she’s glad she’s no
longer on the board. Closing schools, she said, was the most painful
experience she had while serving and decided not to run again because
she was discouraged by the leadership.

“I’m troubled by the
use of the term ’right-sizing,’” she said. “I don’t think that anything
that calls for closing schools should be considered right-sizing. It
should be necessary and regrettable, but there’s nothing right about
it.


“I’m not able to give it a grade. But it helps to have fresh
perspective. Any task force that brings in new minds and viewpoints
from outside the school district is essential.”






If it’s the best plan in the world, people are still going to be
upset by it. It has to be a community effort to sell this plan.’ - Jonathan Plucker, professor of education, Indiana University

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