Michigan’s Renaissance Starts with Reinvesting in Public Education
History has looked favorably upon Michigan, from the booming fur trade of the 18th century to the prosperous copper mining industry of the 19th century. More notably, Henry Ford’s Model T marked Michigan’s legacy as a thriving auto industry, providing millions of jobs for much of the 20th century and for building America’s middle class through affordable transportation, employment, and job security via unions.
Small towns flourished under Michigan’s prosperous economy – small towns such as Saginaw, which originally thrived as a lumber town. Generations later, the auto industry became the dominant source of employment with manual transmission assemblies, steering gear boxes, and power steering pumps.
Michigan is now known as ground zero for the struggling auto industry. Since 2000, the state has lost approximately 18 percent of the total workforce, and in August 2009, the unemployment rate hit a distressing double-digit number of 14.1 percent.
For Saginaw, this meant a steep decline in manufacturing, which spurred a significant amount of the population to abandon the city. In a ten year span (2000 to 2010), Saginaw’s population went from 61,799 to 51,508 – a 16.7 percent decline.
The high unemployment rate turned Saginaw into one of the most impoverished cities in America. In fact, Saginaw is ranked as having one of the highest crime rates in America and is on the list of top 100 most dangerous cities in the United States.
The country and the state’s economic collapse also impacted the Saginaw School District. The exodus of families seeking jobs in other states instigated a decline in student enrollment and over a ten year span the district has lost an annual average of 400 students.
The rebirth of Michigan will take much more than a recovered auto industry. Its renaissance starts with reinvesting in public education. And, it starts in Saginaw.
SIG in Saginaw
Twenty-eight schools in Michigan received federal grant money from the Recovery Act of 2009. Saginaw received $10.3 million in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, with $3.4 million going to Willie E. Thompson Middle School and $4.4 million to Arthur Hill High School. Both schools were placed on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of persistently low-achieving schools for not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Prior to receiving SIG funds, educators, school administrators, and the local union were already collaborating, setting common goals and restructuring classroom instruction.
“No decision was made without union involvement – we all had to figure it out,” said Leann Bauer, president of the 523-member Saginaw Education Association.
A bonding agent used to help the school community “figure it out” was the National Education Association’s Keys to Excellence for Your School (KEYS) program, which allowed educators and school administrators to focus their attention on making critical improvements that can help boost student achievement.
KEYS is a comprehensive, research-based, data-driven program for continuous school improvement. Developed by the National Education Association (NEA), it is the product of a 15-year collaborative effort involving educators, school district administrators, parents, and business and community leaders.
Normally, this service is a big-ticket expense for schools and school districts. However, it came at no cost to Saginaw because of NEA’s commitment to help struggling schools.
The Saginaw school community also benefited from a three-day forum sponsored by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which provided leadership from the Saginaw Education Association with a platform to work with their school administrators and share winning strategies with more than 300 teachers, education support professionals, union leaders, and district administrators and parents. This group represented 36 Priority Schools from 17 states.
“The recession hit us hard and our schools suffered. But we’re committed to weathering this out and we’re committed to providing quality education for every student,” said Bauer. “The resources we’ve received so far have allowed us to strengthen our practice and lead us in a direction that is more student centered.”
In a study released in June 2011, the National Bureau of Education noted the direct correlation between job losses and decreasing student test scores – especially the high-stake test scores that have become synonymous with NCLB.
Children Left Behind: The Effects of Statewide Job Loss on Student Achievement cites the economic forces – wild fluctuations in the stock market, austerity measures, and globalization – that can cripple communities and hamper student achievement. These are factors that are obviously beyond the control of teachers and school administrators.
“The economic situation in Saginaw created a snowball effect. A student’s most urgent needs are not reading or writing at grade level. It’s ‘where am I going to live?’ said Julie Kolobaric who was teaching 7th grade science and English at Thompson prior to becoming the school’s coordinator of accelerated and extended learning – a SIG funded position.
She continued: “Our students often deal with bigger issues, and those issues are bigger than MEAP tests,” referring to the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the state’s standardized test.
As the accelerated and extended learning coordinator, Kolobaric supports teachers in creating a more rigorous, relevant, and inquiry based model of teaching and learning for all students. She creates programs and opportunities for students to grow and develop at their pace. Moreover, she identifies and supports students to showcase their talents and extend or enrich their talents in the community and beyond.
“When I first heard we were a SIG recipient, I knew this would be a great opportunity for our students, parents, and teaching staff,” said Kolobaric. “We’ve already seen positive outcomes.”
The redirection in focus via SIG has allowed Thompson to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two consecutive years, and what was once a school labeled as “persistently low achieving” is now well on its way to becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School.
Like most educators, Kolobaric takes on multiple assignments. In addition to her educator support role, she is also the International Baccalaureate coordinator, which is also funded with SIG dollars. Under this capacity, Kolobaric works with supporting teachers with IB training and unit writing. She provides in-house professional development on IB, and facilitates the growth of an internationally-minded culture at Thompson.
“[An IB curriculum] allows students to think instead of memorize facts,” said Kolobaric. “It’s about getting the kids that international exposure where they can see there’s something outside of Saginaw – even if they don’t have an opportunity to be outside, the curriculum itself presents a global perspective.”
When approved as an IB school, Thompson will be the second IB school in Saginaw.
Most of the schools across the country that have received SIG funds are middle schools. According to Kolobaric, middle school is a hard period in a student’s life.
And, Debra Crevia couldn’t agree more.
“Middle school is a critical time for students. It’s an age where we don’t want to lose them,” she said. “Students come into middle school with a lot of enthusiasm and we want to capitalize on that positive energy.”
As Thompson’s literacy lead teacher, another SIG-funded position, Crevia’s role is to incorporate literacy into all content areas. She meets with educators during prep hours to help strengthen their work or brainstorm ideas. She’s also instrumental in promoting literacy throughout the school.
The SIG grant has afforded Crevia the opportunity to be creative while maintaining high achievement and expectation. One of her most recent successes included a school-wide book reading.
Every student read Touching Spirit by Ben Mikaelsen for thirty minutes a day for four weeks. Crevia turned traditional P.A. announcements into live reading sessions. Halfway into the book, students were asking about the sequel and cafeteria workers were asking for copies of the book to read along and help continue the excitement.
“It was fun,” Crevia said, adding that reading is the basis to everything. “If you’re not literate, you’re not going to be able to function – it’s the foundation of being a true 21st century student.”
The goal for Thompson is to get students ready for high school, with an eye on college.
Last year, 50 college advisors visited and shared information with students, and many of these middle school students went on college tours.
“By providing strong study skills and work habits in middle school, we’re preparing students for the rigor that’s expected in high school and in college,” said Mit Foley, principal of Thompson. “We’re creating a college culture.”
It’s all connected
Like the rest of Saginaw, Arthur Hill High School experienced widening economic inequalities among its student population, as well as significant changes in student demographics. Graduation rates were low, and the high school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress for three years straight.
“We weren’t ready for these changes,” said Sharon Richardson, a professional development coordinator and former special education teacher who taught for 32 years. “When students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds you have to think differently, and you have to teach differently to get students interested and parents engaged – you’re not lowering expectations, you’re just doing your work differently.”
Richardson continued: “It’s really about collaboration and setting common goals together. And, the amount of professional development is almost crazy, but it’s all good stuff.”
Through the infusion of federal dollars, educators and school administrators developed new anchors and focused on a Rigor and Relevance Framework, which is a tool to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It’s based on high standards and student achievement, and is a tiered system that takes you through A, B, C, and D. The goal is to move a teacher from A to D.
“The tiered system helps move a teacher who stands in front of the class expecting students to memorize information to one that creates a deeper understanding of the material,” said Richardson.
Also new to Arthur Hill is a support system for freshman students through what’s called a ninth-grade academy. There are two academies. One focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) while the other academy centers on Innovation.
When school leaders assessed the challenges facing Arthur Hill, they discovered that 50 percent of summer school students were freshman and 92 percent of the students earned credit during summer school for credit recovery, which is a program that allows students with credit deficiencies to earn credits at an intensive pace.
The academies focus on transitioning middle school students into high school while applying the same type of rigor that the rest of the student population gets.
“Many of the resources provided by SIG, such as literacy and math coaches, as well as behavior specialists were directed toward ninth graders,” said Matthew Wenzell, dean of the ninth-grade academy. “We’ve created an environment where we can increase the number of students who become full-fledged sophomores.”
Supporting incoming students also helped lower behavioral incidences.
Interventions were put in place, such as Saturday School. This is a three-hour session where educators speak with students about life skills, the value of setting goals, and looking at people as role models. The program was designed to help students with behavioral issues, but it has since shifted to include all students, in large part because of the program’s value.
“Kids enjoy Saturday School,” said Wenzell, emphasizing that on one particular Saturday 80 percent of the students had volunteered to spend three hours of their weekend at school. “We’ve seen incredible results.”
The high school also works closely with Thompson, which is one of its feeder schools. Staff coordinates high school visits designed to introduce middle school students to high school life.
Middle school students go into classrooms, visit the STEM and Innovation academies, and are introduced to the college coordinator, who builds upon the college-culture mindset.
“It’s a five hour day for these students. Kids leave us feeling overwhelmed,” said Wenzell. “But the first step into high school is serious business.”
The new mindset and culture at Thompson coupled with Arthur Hill’s support for ninth-grade students are creating patterns of academic behavior that lead to high achievement and college readiness.
This year’s senior class has received more than $770,000 in scholarships. Last year’s seniors received $1.5 million in scholarships, and school leaders are certain they will exceed that amount this year. Moreover, 100 percent of seniors have registered for college, with many of them already accepted into schools.
“We’ve seen kids who had difficulty adjusting socially and academically to the increased demands from high school curriculum completely turn their circumstances around,” said Wenzell, who proudly highlighted that one of his students went from having a troubled background to having to decide which of three colleges she should attend.
Saginaw’s economic realities are harsh, but those realities are not housed within Thompson or Arthur Hill. The days of teachers versus school administrators are gone, and everyone is working collaboratively to create a learning environment that will not just help students, but will pull Saginaw out of further decline through a strong and educated workforce.
“The money from the federal government has helped guide our work, but it’s the hard work and creative thinking from teachers that catalyzes change,” said Bauer.