Flint schools chief Bilal Tawwab facing challenging course

by Harold C. Ford

The year 2020 is the target date for a new, consolidated Flint high school at the site of the now-abandoned Flint Central High School campus, Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab said in a wide-ranging recent interview with East Village Magazine.

Reflecting upon the close proximity to Flint’s college and cultural center that Flint Central students once enjoyed, Tawwab deemed the possibility an “exciting” one. “We’re looking to be able to provide our kids with that same type of experience,” he said. “We’ve even started to have conversations with Mott Community College.”

At 43, Tawwab has plunged into his first superintendent position, having arrived in Flint from Detroit, where he grew up, and where he was most recently assistant superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools. He has embraced downtown Flint life, having moved to a loft apartment even before he signed his contract.

A distance runner, Tawwab’s professional course is challenging as he races to rescue the district from a plethora of countervailing forces: declining student enrollment; a water crisis; an eroding tax base; low test scores; and a huge deficit.

Flint Community Schools Superintendent       Bilal Tawwab (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

Flint schools enrollment topped 40,000 students in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s with a peak enrollment of 47,867 students in 1968. At present, Genesee County’s fourth largest school district—behind Grand Blanc, Davison, and Carman-Ainsworth—is struggling to maintain 5,000 students, an approximate loss of 90 percent of its student population in the past five decades.

Flint’s student population, which once filled 54 school buildings, now requires only 11 schoolhouses. And that number is likely to shrink in the next few years, with the anticipated closure of the Northwestern High School campus that currently enrolls students in grades 10 thru 12, Tawwab said.

“Prior to my arrival, there was this sort of phase-out approach at Northwestern,” he said, predicting that Northwestern students will likely eventually end up at Southwestern Classical Academy which enrolls students in grades 7 thru 12.

The new profile at Southwestern is likely to exclude younger students. “All high schoolers are going to end up in one building,” Tawwab predicted. “We would like to bring the kids together…into a new building.”

East Village residents voicing concerns

Residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the old Flint Central campus have caught wind of the rumors about plans for construction of a new building and consolidation of Flint’s secondary students at the site. Representatives from the Central Park Neighborhood Association in particular expressed their concerns at community meetings and in writing to Tawwab directly. They are requesting clarification about plans to manage vehicular and student traffic, demolition of the old high school and middle school buildings and environmental safeguards, and funding for the project in a school district that wrestled with a $22 million deficit as recently as 2014.

‘Nothing is final,” Tawwab said. “Ultimately, we’re going to make decisions that are good for the kids at the end of the day. I’m not running a jail.”

Tawwab said he has begun to meet with neighborhood residents about plans for the Flint Central site. “All the necessary precautions will be taken,” he asserted. “We don’t want folks to hear things through the rumor mill…I do plan to sit down with people and engage in numerous conversations as we move closer, hopefully, to a 2020 opening…We’ll make sure we’re good neighbors, for sure.”

As to the retirement of a $22 million deficit in two years and the whereabouts of funding for the new high school, Tawwab played it close to the vest.

“I’m not at liberty at this point to speak on the financial side,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m alone…as I engage folks in the community and get to know a lot of the players here,” he continued. “Some folks even want to see the district return. And so that’s good.”

The layoffs and retirements of more than a hundred employees in the past two years, a seven-year wage freeze agreed to by two employee unions, and other concessions have contributed to retirement of the deficit.

Tawwab also credits an improved relationship with the Michigan Department of Treasury. “Prior to my arrival, the district had started developing a relationship with Treasury and when I arrived I continued that strong relationship,” he said. “I think that type of partnership is key to the financial stability of the district.”

Student retention also is key to the financial stability of the district, he said.

Trying to reclaim “market share”

“Flint Community Schools currently has about 5,000 kids,” Tawwab said. “There’s a total of 15,000 school-age kids in the City of Flint. We have a third of the market share,” with about two-thirds of Flint’s school-age children attending other schools.

Of those two-thirds, about 5,000 students take advantage of the State School Aid Act for Schools of Choice and enroll in school districts other than Flint. According to an M-LIVE report, “Of Westwood Heights’ 1,344 full-time equivalent students in fall 2014, 840 were from outside the district, including 699 who lived in the Flint school system.” In other words, 52% of Westwood Heights students came from Flint.

Another 5,000 students that live in Flint opt to attend charter schools, reflecting concerns by some parents that Flint’s school children are underachieving.

Recent test scores appear to support those worries. Test data from the website of Michigan School Data, mischooldata.org, includes the following:

  • 2015-2016 M-STEP Math test, all grades 3-8: 125 students, or 5.4%, tested At or Above Proficiency;
  • 2015-2016 M-STEP Science test, grades 4 and 7: 701 of 710 students tested Partially (55 students) or Not (646 students) Proficient;
  • 2015-2016 M-STEP ELA (English Language Arts) test, all grades 3-8: 2,126 students were tested; 320 students, or 14.7%, tested At or Above Proficiency; 565, or 26.5%, tested Partially Proficient; 1,241, or 58%, tested Not Proficient;
  • 2015-2016 M-STEP Social Studies test, grades 5 and 8: 612 Flint students were tested; 12 students, or 2%, tested At or Above Proficiency; 212 students, or 35%, tested Partially Proficient; 388 students, or 63%, tested Not Proficient; 43% of the students in the Genesee Intermediate School District tested At or Above Proficiency; 44% of students in Michigan tested At or Above Proficiency;
  • 2015-2016 M-STEP Science test, 11th grade: 6.5% of Flint students tested At or Above Proficiency; 18.2% tested Partially Proficient; 75.3% tested Not Proficient;
  • 2015-2016 SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), Mathematics, grade 11: 10 Flint students, or 4%, of 232 students tested At or Above Proficiency;
  • 2015-2016 SAT EBRW (Evidence Based Reading and Writing) test, grade 11: 37 Flint students, or 16%, tested At or Above Proficiency; 2,575 of 4,536 students tested in Genesee County, or 56%, tested At or Above Proficient.

“We have the high stakes tests across the country,” Tawwab said, noting that in Michigan, it’s M-STEP, which he called “a lagging indicator.” Suggesting testing is not the only way to assess learning, he strongly favors rigorous use of formative assessment, a method of measuring student learning not just by once a year tests but step-by-step throughout a course and school year. In formative assessment, feedback is provided along the way – to both students and teachers — so that finding out what students are learning is more closely matched in real time to the skills they are being taught and to the teachers’ methods.

“I’m trying to get our teachers and our leaders to focus on the effective use of formative assessments to really drive the work they’re doing with kids. You need to know daily where that child is…and begin to adjust your instruction to be able to meet that child’s needs.”

“So I just want to develop this culture where…we’re constantly monitoring for learning,” Tawwab continued. “And if you do that, you’re going to perform on these high stakes tests.”

In the meantime, however, the precipitous and continuing loss of students to charter schools and Schools of Choice means a concomitant loss of state aid. The current per pupil amount of financial aid from the State of Michigan, for most districts, ranges from $7,500 to $8,200. Rounding that amount to $8,000 means that a loss of 10,000 students results in a revenue loss to Flint schools of some $80 million. And that does not include the loss of financial aid from the Federal Government.

Asked if the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education adds fuel to the fire of financially challenged public school systems, Tawwab replied, “They [the Trump administration] are projecting some decline in federal dollars. We’re just going to stay tuned.”

Spreading the word about public education

“I’m always going to be an advocate for public education,” Tawwab said.  “I’m a product of public education. My siblings, my friends, we’ve all done well. We in public education, we’re going to have to come together and tell our own story…From my perspective, there is competition. We can’t now sit back and say we’re the number one choice…It’s important that we come together and tell the story, tell the great things that are going on in our public schools.”

Compounding the difficulty for Tawwab in attempting to retain his students and attract others is, of course, the Flint water crisis. He arrived as Flint’s new superintendent in August of 2015 just as the full scope of the crisis was unfolding.

School officials, alarmed by the emerging details, shut off water in Flint schools by the third week of September. In October 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality disclosed that three buildings within the district—Eisenhower, Freeman, and Brownell/Holmes—had tested above the federal limits for lead in the drinking water.

“One thing I was happy about was that the schools had settled,” Tawwab recalled. “We had already adjusted to providing our kids with bottled water; we had changed our meal plan; we were shipping in water to prepare their meals; we had already started providing more peeled fruit instead of fruit they were required to rinse.”

It’s likely that no other newly-installed superintendent in the nation has ever had to wrestle with such a crisis.

“Folks do look at me and say, ‘Man, you’ve got a lot of work to do.’” (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

“I didn’t really have a sounding board,” he recalled. “Folks would listen, (and say) ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable!’ But no one could advise…no one had an experience of this magnitude. We did OK, but it was definitely an interesting start to a superintendency.”

Students are still not drinking out of the fountains, according to Tawwab. “Some are using the showers,” he said. “Overall, there’s a lack of confidence in the water quality…Actually, the quality of the water in the schools has improved.”

Tawwab indicated that faucets and other fixtures have been replaced, but he won’t resume use of Flint water for drinking or food prep until he gets full assurances from the medical community that the water is safe. “Right now, I don’t think the medical community is willing to sign off on such a decision,” he said.

Asked about predicted increases in challenging behaviors by Flint children as a result of lead ingestion, Tawwab said, “Right now we can’t say that we’re seeing a change in our children,” he said. “We’ve just been working at putting our…multi-tier system of support that addresses behavior in a very positive and proactive way and that addresses the academic demands or deficiencies in some cases. That’s the piece we control.”

Addressing an ACLU lawsuit

Something beyond the direct control of Superintendent Tawwab are lawsuits, like the one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan in October, 2016. M-Live’s Roberto Acosta reported that “the 130-page complaint seeks injunctive relief—not a monetary judgment—including the following corrective actions:

  • Identifying and meeting the academic and behavioral needs of all Flint students in the FCS school district.
  • Positive behavioral interventions implemented in every school with training provided to all administrators, teachers and staff, including school resource officers.
  • Prevention of unnecessary and illegal suspensions and expulsions.
  • Require all Flint schools to identify and provide for special education services and accommodations for children with disabilities.
  • Ensure all necessary resources to comply with requirements of federal law.
  • Oversight and monitoring of corrective measures needed to meet the educational needs of all students.
  • Convene a panel of experts to evaluate current special education services in Flint.”

ACLU staff attorney Kristin Totten provided the ACLU rationale for the lawsuit: “I was very concerned that kids with special ed needs that were exposed to lead are going to have worse disabilities…that they’re going to have struggles with behavior and learning challenges, and health issues…that are going to be undetected if the school district isn’t supported and able to adequately address those needs.”

Tawwab hardly sees the lawsuit as supportive. “I don’t feel it was the best approach,” he said. “So I am working as superintendent to improve the public’s confidence in Flint community Schools with the hopes that we will become the number one educational asset in the city,” he continued. “When you have a lawsuit like this, some of our citizenry will think, ‘Flint Community Schools, here we go again, they don’t have their stuff together; they’re not going to be able to meet the needs of our kids; let me go to some other option.’”

“We filed this (lawsuit) with the Flint Community Schools because we knew they were going to need some resources, they were going to need help and support,” Totten said. “We heard Superintendent Tawwab speaking to the congressional panel, stating that what keeps him up at night is the special education needs that he’s going to have to address for years to come…but when the 75-point plan from the governor rolled out it didn’t have any special education supports for further screening or identification of children with needs that could have developed because of the exposure to the neurotoxins.”

Tawwab contends the district is working proactively to be ready, noting the district “has received a lot of grant dollars from the state and federal levels that’s allowed us to hire additional social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists—key staff members that would be responsible for responding to the needs of all our kids.”

So the Detroit-born Tawwab, an avid runner, is in the race of his life to rescue the besieged school district he now presides over. The grit and dogged determination required of long-distance runners like Tawwab may serve him well as he tackles the challenges faced by Flint schools.

Offering a wry smile, he noted, “Folks do look at me and say, ‘Man, you’ve got a lot of work to do.’”

EVM staff writer Harold Ford can be reached at hcford1185@gmail.com.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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