By Harold C. Ford
The month of October was filled with consequential developments and decisions for Flint’s public schools at the Oct. 9 (Committee of the Whole) and Oct. 16 (Regular Board Meeting) board of education meetings.
It included the introduction of “smart water stations”, the launch of a new partnership with the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), controversy about a board member’s residency status, adoption of a new policy for student promotion-retention, the continuing search by paraprofessionals for a new contract, and the continuing attrition of staff and students.
Musk partners with Flint schools to provide clean water
In partnership with the Musk Foundation, “smart water stations” are being installed in Flint Community Schools to provide a safe water supply to students, staff, and visitors.
“There are none like them ever created,” said Derrick Lopez, superintendent for Flint Community Schools (FCS). “They were created specifically for Flint.”
At least two of what Lopez referenced as “smart water stations” have already been installed and are being tested at Southwestern Classical Academy and Doyle/Ryder Elementary. Plans call for installation of 125 units in FCS buildings during the Nov. 4-8 intersession and the Dec. 23-Jan. 3 holiday break.
Development, testing, and installation of the water stations was made possible by a $480,000 donation from the Elon Musk Foundation. Musk is best known for his Tesla electric auto and SpaceX projects.
A “water station demonstration” was held at the FCS Administration Building on Oct. 23. Another demonstration will take place at Southwestern Classical Academy, 1420 West 12th St., on Nov. 12.
Lopez touted “three safety mechanisms” of the new system. The first two are filtration phases that remove hard particles. The third involves ultraviolet light that, according to Lopez, “actually kills and/or immobilizes bacteria and soluble materials that you can’t see in the water.”
Lopez credited a team of private and public organizations for for “working together to make sure that we are doing all of the things…around the science of keeping our children and our water safe.” The team included: Flint-based Goyette Service; Murdock Manufacturing; Gray Matter Technology Services (GMTS); the office of Pamela Pugh, chief health officer for the City of Flint; and a team of academicians from Kettering University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
Murdock Manufacturing promotes itself as “a leading designer, manufacturer and supplier of innovative hydration stations for indoor and outdoor use.” GMTS self-describes as “an Information Technology and Public Health Firm with more than a decade’s experience, providing Peer Monitoring.”
MASB partnership targets governance culture
A new partnership with the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) was unveiled with a presentation at the Oct. 9 meeting by Deborah Macon, MASB consultant.
“You have committed to three things,” Macon told board members, “leadership coaching, governance team capacity building, and wraparound learning activities.”
According to Macon, the process will include: one or two “leadership assessments”; quarterly gavel-to-gavel observations at board meetings with followup conversations; attendance at five three-hour workshops to “assure the highest level of effectiveness”; attendance at a Nov. 9 conference on restorative practices; leadership coaching for the board president; and access to MASB staff including a trio of attorneys.
The MASB partnership was made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Mott Foundation. The grant period is from Oct. 2018 to Dec. 2019. “This grant is literally unlike any other I have seen,” said Macon.
The grant is not directly related to FCS’s three-year make-or-break partnership with the Michigan Department of Education, now in its second year. “This plan…is not directly part of that,” Macon told East Village Magazine (EVM). “This (generally) comes out of the Mott Foundation’s support for Flint Community Schools…It is indirectly related.”
The key question, Macon told FCS board members, is “What culture do we desire at the governance table for Flint Community Schools?” She asserted that “behaviors at the board table” are directly related to an “uptick in student achievement.”
“This is a robust journey,” advised Macon. “It is going to be some heavy lifting.”
“We should’ve started this six months ago,” remarked Diana Wright, FCS board president.
Board residency flareup
The generally positive vibe at the Oct. 9 meeting was broken with a statement read by Danielle Green, the board’s treasurer. Green took umbrage with an apparent investigation by the board’s attorney, Kendall Williams, into whether or not she meets the residency requirement for being a board member.
“I have been threatened with prosecution (and) media exposure,” Green charged. She said that her family was “forced to move temporarily to another residence” for safety reasons. “I have not violated any policies or broken any laws.”
Green urged Wright, who requested the investigation, to “cease and desist so I can do the job I was elected to do…After being pressured to resign, I refuse to surrender.”
“When an issue is brought to me regarding a board member’s eligibility to serve,” responded Wright, “it is my responsibility to ask questions and determine whether or not that is true.”
“It is not my responsibility to prove it’s true,” continued Wright. “The information I was given says that she (Green) did not reside in the city of Flint.”
New contract sought by paraprofessionals
The board was challenged to settle a new contract with the district’s paraprofessionals by FCS employee Carmella Johnson. “We are the glue that holds the schools together,” said Johnson, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 517 that represents the district’s paraprofessionals.
FCS paraprofessionals have been working under the terms of their old contract which expired in June 2018. “We are going above and beyond,” said Johnson, “and we will continue going above and beyond.”
Johnson expressed optimism about chances for a new contract based on the August settlement of a new agreement with the teachers’ union, United Teachers of Flint, and the June hire of Cassandra Wilson, the district’s new executive director of human resources.
“We are on the right road,” said Johnson.
New promotion-retention policy adopted
A new policy for the retention and promotion of students was formally adopted by the Flint board at its Oct. 16 meeting. The policy was derived from the education consulting firm Neola, formerly known as the North East Ohio Learning Associates.
According to the new policy, a student will be promoted when s/he has: completed course requirements; achieved instructional objectives at the present grade; demonstrated sufficient proficiency to move to the next grade; demonstrated social, emotional, and physical maturation necessary for the next grade.
The superintendent, according to the policy, will develop guidelines to: provide support to students needing assistance; require staff recommendations for promotion or retention; require parent notification in the case of retention; assure remediation efforts before retention.
The office of Anita Steward, FCS assistant superintendent, will be instrumental in providing services under the new policy. Steward said that a Student Assistance Team (SAT) will be created “to help a child that is struggling academically, behaviorally, or with attendance.”
Further, a Corrected Action Plan (CAP) will be developed by district staff with parent participation to develop a course of action to help students “overcome deficiencies.” Newly adopted intersession periods will provide additional time for delivery of “wraparound services.”
Staff attrition continues
Attrition of educational staff from Flint schools continued with the announcement of seven more departures by FCS educators at the Oct. 16 meeting. Those educators took with them more than 68 years of educational experience.
That brings the total number of educators that have departed from Flint schools (including one death) in the first 10 months of 2019 to 67 representing more than 900 years of experience.
As reported in a post by East Village Magazine on Sept. 26, many vacant classrooms are being filled by “guest teachers,” several of them college students completing classes to achieve certification.
FCS Superintendent Derrick Lopez suggested that Flint’s staff shortage was caused by “the lowest starting rate” of teacher pay in Genesee County. However, losses continued despite ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers of Flint in August. The new pact raised teacher pay after a five-year pay freeze and reduced class size for all grade levels.
Teacher shortages in Michigan are exacerbated by fewer Michigan college students opting to become educators. “Enrollment at Michigan’s teacher preparation programs dropped 70 percent in eight years,” according to reporter Ron French in Bridge Magazine.
“There were 16,000 fewer college students majoring in K-12 education degree programs in 2016-17 school year (the most recent year that statistics are available) than there were 2008-09, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.”
Thus, Michigan’s public schools, including Flint, continue to turn classrooms over to long-term substitutes that lack certification. Bridge reported that more than 2,500 long-term subs were employed by Michigan districts in 2018-19.
FCS student enrollment drops below 4,000
There is a corresponding, not necessarily commensurate, decline in FCS student enrollment. Numbers from the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information show Flint’s 2018 enrollment to have been 3,937.
This continued a decades-long declination of student enrollment from a high of nearly 47,000 in 1970. Enrollment in the last decade has dropped from 11,765 in 2009 to last year’s total of 3,937.
Generally, public school enrollment has been on a downward trajectory statewide since 2003. It is now at a level last seen in the 1950s when enrollment was spiked by an influx of students from the post-WWII baby boom generation.
The state’s public school enrollment, which hovered near 1.7 million in 2003, fell to 1.45 million in 2018. Loss of students to charter and private schools has contributed to the decline.
FCS has discontinued the practice of presenting enrollment figures in documents available to the public at meetings of the board of education.
EVM Staff Writer and education reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.