Ferndale School Board Votes for a Unified Elementary Program
(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 17, 2015)
Parent after parent came forward, some with shaky voices and even tears, to share their views on what should be the future of Ferndale Schools. Monday night’s school board meeting was the culmination of two months’ worth of intense debate and an unusually interactive process to decide how best to restructure the school district.
The biggest challenge was what to do with the elementary schools. In the end, School Board trustees voted 6-1 to end the tradition of having two separate programs and instead to offer the same opportunities to every student with a school that puts all students of the same grade together with a world-class Cambridge curriculum and an open-classroom philosophy.
Under the current system, parents had a choice between Kennedy School’s open classroom program and Roosevelt and Coolidge that offered a more traditional program.
Acceptance into Kennedy’s program required a great deal of parent involvement and a lottery system to get in. School families tended to be divided along socioeconomic lines, and each year some parents grappled with wondering if their child would be chosen for Kennedy. The open classroom school is credited with keeping some parents in the district, yet the divide and shortage of openings also sent some families elsewhere. There is also an achievement gap between the schools. Monday night’s vote eliminates the inequality, both real and perceived, that has haunted the district for years.
Yet the decision was not an easy one, particularly for parents who cherish the close-knit Kennedy community. The emphasis on parent involvement and the concentration of active parents was part of what gave the little Eagles who attended Kennedy a particularly positive experience. “I put in over 400 hours of volunteering in her first year there,” said Lisa Kolanowski whose child is now a sophomore at Ferndale High School. Over the course of her daughter’s Kennedy experience she put in over 3,000 hours of volunteer time. “I want those hours to mean something.”
Trustee Amy Butters was the lone “no” vote. “The open classroom that so many of us in this community have known is in its final chapter…It has brought our community together. It is a drastic change and in that this is a sad day,” Butters said.
Others were filled with regret as well, with several parents saying in emails and online forums they would leave the district if the separate programs were not maintained. Yet overall most who spoke at the meeting favored a unified program and were excited about moving forward.
Tanisha Martin has three kids in the district, one in Roosevelt, one in middle school and one in high school. “Can you imagine if all of you who put in the work, and all of us who show up and work, can you imagine what kind of school district we would have if all these parents would be in one building? Make that building as awesome as Kennedy and Roosevelt combined.” Martin emphasized that instead of looking at the merger as a “watered down version” of either school, that it be seen as a way to get the best of both. “If all the the talent shows and all the bake sales efforts combined we’d have so much money, so much support, for these kids… Imagine how awesome this school would be.”
The challenge with keeping the most active parents in one building is that the other building has a higher concentration of parents who are not as involved, which happens for a variety of reasons. In many cases young people rely on their school to fill needs that are not being filled at home. Angela Barboza-Ryan spoke about her experience growing up. “I came from a poor Hispanic family,” she said. “The women of my generation have educated ourselves. We have put a stop to generations of poverty, teenage pregnancy and addiction… We had people who encouraged us.” She said that when you don’t have active, educated parents “you look to other adults around you” for guidance and to be role models.
“Roosevelt and Coolidge are full of students who have potential,” Barboza-Ryan added. “Give all of our kids access to our community.”
In addition to the need for role models and community support, the educational merits of the programs proposed was part of the discussion. Tom Burns, parent of a third grader at Kennedy, supported option A to keep two separate programs for elementary school. He said that the perception of inequality was not the fault of the programs but of the administration, and that unifying the schools was “not a magic bullet to end inequality.” Speaking to the point of two programs, Burns said “I like options.”
John Murray, whose oldest just started at Kennedy, said that two separate programs could be good for marketing and that option C, the unification, was “the safe option.. one that puts us into the middle of the pack.”
Mike Thomas, a teacher in the district for five years, questioned the need for educational options so early in life. “We don’t know when they are in kindergarten what kind of learners they are,” he said. Thomas also said that the best marketing the district could do would be to have high-achieving schools, not just one school that is high achieving while the other is not. He also touted the benefits of diversity. “We are a global community,” he said.
“Many people are talking from a point of loss, and I understand, that is a very scary thing, what am I going to lose?” Thomas said, adding that instead of looking at the unification as a loss people could see it as a gain, and what it could mean for the children. “Think about kids that will be there tomorrow, and all the tomorrows,” he said.
For School Board Trustee Kevin Deegan-Krause, the decision brought “a bizarre mix of sadness and hopefulness,” because he knew that whatever decision was made there would be people unhappy with it. He assured the public that “all of the comments have gone in at every step of the process to make it better,” and said that “all of you have conducted a really hard discussion in a remarkably civil way.”
School Board President Jim O’Donnell said that a transition team would be in place, and he hoped that people who preferred option A would also serve on the team. “We need dissenting voices too,” he said. Trustee Butters said she would hold the district accountable to option C having a strong open classroom component. “I am not happy with words on a slideshow,” she said.
The decision made means that beginning in 2016/17, k-2 will be at Roosevelt and 3-5 will be at Kennedy and grade 6 will be moved to the middle school. Other changes will be made in the district as part of the restructuring process. The process comes as the district adjusts for having facilities with space for over 7,000 students while actually only having about 3,000. The hope is that in “right-sizing” the district, resources can be better spent on education and not maintenance costs, and that with improvements to the programs will come more parent retention.
For official school district information on the restructuring visit The Ferndale Schools website at http://www.ferndaleschools.org/restructuring/.
To watch the video from Monday’s school board meeting go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7UwpVSRMWo&feature=youtu.be
Ferndale School Board Votes for a Unified Elementary Program