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Pontiac Schools Tout Progress in Hopes of Fending Off School Closures by State

Pontiac Schools Tout Progress in Hopes of Fending Off School Closures by State

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 23, 2017)

Pontiac, MI – Parents, teachers and officials packed the Pontiac School Board meeting Monday night after learning that two schools – Pontiac High School and Whitman Elementary – are under review for potential closure by Michigan’s School Reform Office (SRO).

The SRO has the ability to close schools if they repeatedly fall into the bottom 5% in academic performance.  Potential options include closing the school and sending student to neighboring schools, appointing a CEO to take over, replacing the principal and staff, or converting the school into a charter school.

Pontiac High and Whitman are the only schools in Oakland County on the list.  Many schools listed are in Detroit.  Schools in Saginaw, Muskegon Heights, River Rouge, Kalamazoo, East Detroit (district in Eastpointe), Bridgeport-Spaulding and Benton Harbor Area are also slated for review. There are also 8 schools from the State-created Education Achievement Authority (EAA), which is the district created by the state for schools that it had already taken over.

Cassandra Ulbrich, Vice President of the State Board of Education, came to show support for keeping the schools open and under control of the locally elected school board.  The SRO is not part of the Michigan Department of Education, or even the Department of Treasury, she explained.  The SRO is an independent division that answers to the Governor.  The SRO creates its own standards for ranking schools, and those standards have changed every year for at least the past three years.  The Michigan Department of Education, which has Constitutional authority over education decisions, has created rules for the closure of schools and the SRO has not followed them.

The SRO sent a letter to parents in the Pontiac School District informing them that the schools were under review to be closed, encouraging them to seek “better educational opportunities.”

Superintendent Kelly Williams presented information that she hopes parents and the SRO will consider when making their decision.

In 2012-2013 the district faced a $51 million deficit and classrooms of 40 students.  The district worked with the State to create a consent agreement to avoid emergency financial management.  Since 2013 the deficit has been reduced from $51 million to $25 million.  “We’re addressing a systematic problem that’s been festering for years and years due to a lack of funding…As we reduce the deficit, resources go back into the classroom,” Williams said.

Over the past three years, the graduation rate has gone from 55% to 67% to what is predicted to be between 69-72% this year.  The dropout rate went from 25% to 14%.

In terms of the state benchmarks, the district has gone from achieving 36% to 73%.  And on the SRO rankings, Pontiac High School went from being at the very bottom to being at 3%, noting that by ranking all schools there will always be schools in the bottom 5% and that the ranking tends to go along with factors such as socioeconomic conditions, funding, number of students with special needs etc.

“Not only do we have a plan in place, but we are experiencing results,” Williams said.  “How dare the School Reform Office say we have not been working on a plan and doing it well?”

Williams said that the District is asking the SRO for additional time to work on the plan.

Pontiac Schools has been working with Oakland Schools, which covers the entire county and provides support services to districts. Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson, Superintendent of Oakland Schools, spoke at the meeting.  “I want to commend the teachers and the administrators because they have done what it takes to help the students of Pontiac,” she said.  “I’m confident that the district in on the right track.”

She said she hopes that the SRO will not close the schools.  “To start doing things quickly without a plan is not going to help our students,” she said.

Ulbrich was critical of state-run schools, noting that eight schools on the closure list are EAA run.  “What they’ve tried so far hasn’t worked,” she said.  “all it does is move kids to other schools.  Closing a school does not fix the school.  If you want to fix a school, you fix the school.  You do what they’re doing here [in Pontiac]….The only thing that comes from closing schools is the destruction of communities.

She said those who want to have their opinions heard could contact the Governor’s office at (517) 373-3400 and the office of Senator Phil Pavlov who runs the Education Committee at (517) 373-7708.

The SRO will make their determination in late February or early March.  “I am confident that the SRO will see the progress the district is making,” she said.  “I hope we can continue on our path with this plan.”

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