Monday, February 1, 2016

Tragedy in Belleville

Our community is divided. Personal interactions are ugly and mean. I am so heartsick and upset about this that I do not know where to begin or how to end it. Part of me wants to run away, to literally pull up stakes and leave the community, to abandon the school system I have poured my heart and soul into since I first volunteered for a millage campaign in 1981, shortly after I moved here.

When the realtor who sold us our house the year before told us that the school district was “by no means the worst” in the area, I worried a bit. When a preschool teacher told me my daughter was already reading and advised us to think about sending her elsewhere, I bristled. “No! You don’t run away, you fight to make things better!”

And that’s what I did, for decades, in millage and bond campaigns, in parent and advocacy groups, in thousands of hours as a classroom volunteer, in 25 years as a trustee. For much of that time, it felt like a hopeless crusade. Elections were lost, plunging us repeatedly into five-hour days and endless rounds of layoffs. The most sincere efforts often got no traction in raising student achievement. State micromanaging left us with less and less local control.

But just four years into Supt. Van Tassel’s tenure, I see

• the development and adoption of a comprehensive, research-based curriculum almost completed — for the first time

• the provision of proper resources and training for that curriculum, in nearly all subjects and at all grade levels — for the first time

• the adoption — finally! — of definitions of what, exactly, constitutes high-quality instruction in every curricular area that are so rich and inspiring as to make a parent weep with joy

• attention to balancing building, subject, and grade-level teams by skill set, because no one could be expected to have mastered all the complex skills that constitute true high-quality teaching

• the separation of teacher evaluation (which I believe has been prescribed by the state in misguided ways) from professional development: in-classroom modeling and coaching by the best teachers we know, to help teachers reach every child

• a regular program of inculcation and development of principals into true educational leaders, rather than just cheerleaders and building managers; we now have some of the best administrators anywhere

• an Information Technology Plan that has brought us fully into the 21st Century and provides ongoing updates

• a physical plant that was downsized to adapt to lower student population — including building closures and redistricting — without the acrimony and financially dangerous delay experienced by districts all around us

• the implementation of a long-range facility upgrade program to protect and enhance what previous generations built

• a fund balance that moved from a 10% deficit to an amount that allows us to meet current expenses without short-term borrowing — for the first time in many years

• constantly updated policies, procedures, and handbooks that allow employees to know what is expected of them despite the hundreds of laws passed annually that affect our operations

• clear discipline and anti-bullying policies and procedures, which produced a significant reduction in disciplinary incidents and suspensions

• specialized schools within our comprehensive high school and at the best career technical education center in SE Michigan that offer real choices and opportunities to students; many graduate with transferable college credits from dual enrollment and with job-ready certifications

• a useful assessment program (not the state-mandated one, obviously) that gives teachers timely feedback and demonstrates that achievement growth for our students now regularly bests state averages

• a new system to guide us in using the data from those assessments to truly individualize instruction and short-circuit learning failures before they become ingrained

• thoughtful planning well under way for a student support network to deal with non-academic problems that interfere with academic performance

These are a LOT of balls to juggle at one time! But, in addition, there were extraordinary challenges such as managing the multiyear high school construction project (completed under budget and a year ahead of schedule); dealing with the sudden departure of a finance director; implementing the detailed requirements of the Affordable Care Act; and coping with a fire that destroyed our bus garage, vehicles and equipment — yet none of the balls were dropped.

I hope you can see why I am so impressed with the abilities of our superintendent. In all my decades of paying very close attention, I have never seen anyone achieve so much so well and so fast in our district.

Somehow, this is the same man being portrayed by a segment of our community as the AntiChrist. It both baffles and saddens me. I’m not saying he’s never made a mistake or made someone angry, but this is performance any other community would die for. We have clearly done a poor job communicating all of this, which I regret. We have not supported our leader when he was unfairly attacked — which has happened many times, yet I have never heard an apology from anyone who accused him of things that were later proven to be untrue. And I recognize that I will never be able to change the minds of those who obviously hate him. I wish that those in the community who know and appreciate him had stepped up in his defense before things got to this point — where the damage to our schools and community seems irrevocable.

I can only say, with Joni Mitchell, that “You [won’t] know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

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