by Harold C. Ford
Amid uncertainty and change as the Flint Community Schools (FCS) move into the 2019 calendar year, a host of initiatives, actions, and accomplishments were announced as part of a packed agenda at the regular meeting of the FCS board of education Dec. 19.
Among them were securing $3.2 million in project funding, district-wide staff training to assure positive learning environments, and adoption of a “balanced calendar” starting in the 2019-2020 school year that will start the year earlier and end later, along with creating “intercession” sessions with no classes when various programs would be offered.
Underlying many of the actions is pressure on the district to fulfill a three-year partnership agreement imposed last spring by the State of Michigan after the district fell into the bottom five percent of districts statewide. The agreement challenges the district to make significant improvements in three areas:
- increase student attendance to 90 percent;
- reduce suspensions by 10 percent
- improve state test scores by 10 percent.
If the efforts fail, the district could face three possible consequences: being absorbed by another district,being reconstituted,or being shut down.
Derrick Lopez, marking the end of his fourth month as district superintendent, urged FCS stakeholders to celebrate recent developments. “I would use the word ‘celebrate’with intentionality,” he said, “because we have really begun to right the ship and restore Flint Community Schools to the place that it once held in high distinction across the state and across the nation.”
Lopez attributed the accomplishments of “Team Flint”— members of the Flint Board of Education and his administration staff — to “working collectively.”
“We’ve done several things that are pretty cool,” he said. Near the top of his list was securing $3.2 million from various sources to fund the following projects:
- $480,000 from the [Elon] Musk Foundation to provide ultraviolet water filtration systems for all 12 Flint schools;
- $180,000 from the State of Michigan to implement a new partnership agreement;
- $887,000 from the CS Mott Foundation for implementation of a revised model of instructional delivery;
- $423,600 from the Musk Foundation for the purchase of laptops for seventh- and eighth-grade students;
- $1 million, “pending,” Lopez said, from the State of Michigan, for the reopening of the old Flint Northern High School building.
Student discipline initiative continues with staff training
Lopez announced the latest phase of securing positive learning environments in FCS buildings and classrooms involved the training of all school employee groups in the two days prior to winter break on Dec. 19 and 20. He indicated that 850 district employees “worked (for two days) to ensure that adults have the tools to engage our students in productive, safe, welcoming environments.”
“We hope that when we come back on Jan.2 (from the winter break) that we will have a brand new way that we…educate and love our kids,” he said. “Love requires toughness as well, not just sugar and spice… Discipline requires teaching and correction.”
Outgoing boardmember Antoinette Lockett urged school leaders, including Lopez, to “feed the teachers so they don’t eat the students…We have to make sure that we take care of our teachers…give them the support that they need.”
The challenge of student behavior continues to bedevil Flint schools as they endeavor to create orderly learning environments while avoiding a heavy-handed disciplinary approach that results in excessive suspensions and expulsions.
And enrollment in Flint schools continues its decline. Only 4,331 of Flint’s approximate 15,000 school-age children were enrolled in its schools as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to a “membership report” presented to the board.
The Dec. 19 meeting was the last for two of the board’s most veteran members. Lockett and Harold Woodson, both former FCS board presidents, took with them more than two decades of collective experience on the board.
Conversely, Casey Lester made his first appearance after being appointed to fill the board position vacated by Kenyatta Dotson. Lester, 34, moved to Flint in 2008 and is employed by Huntington Bank. According to his online LinkedIn profile, he has no previous education board experience.
Four of Flint’s 12 schools have new administrators in the 2018-19 school year. The schools include: Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary, Scott Middle School, Neithercut Elementary,and Southwestern Classical Academy.
Lopez is Flint’s third superintendent in 10 months. Former superintendent Bilal Tawwab was released by the district on March 13, 2018 along with two other members of his central administration team. Tawwab was replaced by Gregory Weatherspoon who served on an interim basis until August when Lopez was hired. Anita Steward is in her first year as Flint’s assistant superintendent.
The Dec. 19 board meeting featured fast-paced passage of 16 action items, all on 8-0 votes except one, which passed 7-1. They included:
Adoption of a balanced calendar
A letter of agreement with the United Teachers of Flint (UTF) was ratified to begin a balanced school calendar starting in the 2019-20 school year. Students will start the school year earlier and end later than a traditional school year, while the number of days students are in class remains the same.
Numerous advantages include less learning loss during long summer vacations and the opportunity for creative programming for students during intercession periods during which there are no classes.
Implementation of the new calendar is contingent upon heating and cooling upgrades in the buildings so as to assure moderate temperatures conducive to learning.
Restructuring secondary instructional model
- Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, FCS hopes to house grades 7-9 in a newly reopened Northern High School building at 3284 Mackin Rd. The building has been closed since 2013. It is estimated that $20 million is needed to reopen the facility; $1 million toward the project is “pending” from the state legislature.
- Southwestern Academy will house 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.
- $423,600 has been secured from the Musk Foundation for the purchase of Chromebook laptops for students in seventh and eighth grades.
- $300,000 was secured from the CS Mott Foundation to revise middle school instructional practices utilizing Project Lead the Way and The Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project.
Purchase of safe water system
Funds from the Musk Foundation in the amount of $221,000 will be used to purchase water cooler/bottle filler systems to provide safe drinking water to FCS students. “This will be the safest water in the entire state,” said Kendall Williams, the board’s legal counsel.
Transition to new athletic conference
Starting in the 2019-20 school year, FCS will exit the Saginaw Valley Conference (SVC) and join the Genesee Area Conference (GAC). GAC schools include Beecher, Atherton, Bendle, Bentley, Lake Fenton, Hamady, Goodrich, Morrice, Genesee Christian, Corunna, and Webberville.
FCS athletic teams struggle to compete successfully with schools in the SVC that have larger student enrollments. And the costs of transporting teams to more distant communities such as Lapeer, Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland are prohibitive. The SVC placed FCS on probation due to its inability to field a sufficient number of varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams.
Expired UTF contract extended another year
Flint teachers have been bargaining for a new contract without success since May of 2018, according to Debra Olayinka, vice-president of the United Teachers of Flint (UTF). The FCS board and UTF agreed to extend the old contract, which expired in August 2018, through August 2019.
Karen Christian, UTF president, said unresolved issues include health insurance, building conditions, schools supplies, and compensation. Christian said she was “very optimistic” about the chances of settling a new contract. “We’re three-fourths of the way done with the actual contract,” she said. “We have just a little bit left to go.”
Olayinka said Flint teachers’ wages have been frozen for five years.
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.