A Michigan School Board Meets Tough Challenges

By Del Stover

The Southfield Public Schools cannot boast of impressive test scores. Indeed, too many of the district’s students are struggling academically, and hundreds attend an alternative campus that provides intervention and credit-recovery programs.

Yet, this Michigan school system is a success story. Despite a growing population of economically disadvantaged and at-risk students, academic performance is rising, and the achievement gap is narrowing. The district also has gained recognition for its increased emphasis on academically rigorous programs.

Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to graduating students -- and keeping academically low-performing students in school -- Southfield hits a home run. The district’s four-year graduation rate tops 90 percent.

All of this has helped bolster the reputation of this 7,400-student school system, which only a few years ago was seen by some in the community as a district in decline.

“We were a very good school district,” says Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson. “But we had to reaffirm our reputation and really take it up several notches.”

There was no guarantee that would happen. Over the years, Southfield had experienced an influx of low-income families escaping nearby Detroit. Adding to the district’s academic challenges was a growing number of students from transient families, whose repeated moves interrupted the educational process.

At the same time, the district had experienced white flight, fueled partly by concerns over the community’s growing black population -- a trend that’s left the schools with a more than 90 percent black enrollment. The state’s liberal school transfer laws and the growth of charter schools siphoned away higher-achieving students of all races.

Marching orders

In response to these growing challenges -- and in hopes of rebuilding public confidence in the schools -- the district leadership began work on a new strategic plan about six years ago, Cook-Robinson says. The public was involved in planning to build a community vision of a district that seeks to meet the needs of all students -- both successful and struggling.

The effort was assisted by AdvancED, an accreditation and school-improvement organization that provided district leaders with technical assistance and later enabled the district to become one of only three accredited systems in the area.

Strategic plans can simply gather dust on a shelf, but district leaders were determined to ensure that their plan became “the marching orders of our district,” says school board President Darryle Buchanan. “It’s a living, breathing document for us, and we adhere to it very tightly.”

To emphasize its importance, he adds, the strategic plan also serves as the basis for the superintendent’s annual evaluation.

Back on track

While many observers judge schools by their test scores, the school board and Cook-Robinson -- who was named Michigan’s 2013 Superintendent of the Year -- have wisely kept their focus on their strategic vision: to meet the educational needs of students.

To boost academic rigor for more advanced students, for example, the district launched an International Baccalaureate program, expanded Advanced Placement (AP) courses, opened an academically elite high school, and introduced a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum to a number of schools.

Meanwhile, to bolster instruction for lower-achieving students, the district opened the Southfield Regional Alternative Campus (SRAC). It provides intensive intervention, counseling, and smaller class sizes to help students get back on track. The school also oversees other alternative programs for students needing a nontraditional learning environment.

“To me, SRAC is one of the most special places that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be involved with,” Buchanan says. “There, we’re doing lifesaving work. Kids who didn’t believe in their future or in their education … we get them back on track.”

The program is so successful, in fact, that more than 80 percent of its students -- many deemed at high risk of dropping out -- graduate, accounting for one-quarter of the district’s 800 yearly graduates. SRAC has been named the state’s top alternative school, and its contribution to the district’s graduation rate helped earn Southfield recognition as an “Academic State Champion” by Bridge Magazine.

Challenging story to tell

These efforts have led to another statistic that’s a source of pride for school officials: The district has some of the highest average test scores for black students in the state.

At the same time, they admit, it’s a boast that may send a mixed signal, highlighting the district’s success with a traditionally lower-performing student population but also potentially appearing as a defensive response to the district’s less-than-stellar test scores.

But the district’s story is challenging to tell, explains Jacqueline Robinson, the district’s head of public relations.

“When you look at our [test] scores, they’re not good,” she says. “But our kids are winning awards … in academics, sports, music, robotics. Our kids are taking AP classes. They’ve earned millions in scholarships. We border a larger school district, and we get a lot of kids from that district … families even rent houses for three or four months so they can get into the district.”

Perhaps the most powerful evidence of the district’s success is the academic performance of students who grow up in the schools, she says. “If a student stays with us from the beginning, from kindergarten or first grade on, they do fabulously.”

A cadre of good teachers deserves much of the credit for this success, district officials say. The school system invests heavily in its “human capital” and, in recent years, it worked with ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) to train teachers to provide differentiated instruction in classrooms with students of increasingly different academic needs.

Today, each school has a team of specially trained teachers who, with the support of district personnel, can provide coaching to teachers in the classroom setting. “If you are truly going to improve the learning process, you’ve got to improve the quality of instruction and get that training right down into the classroom,” Cook-Robinson says.

Controversial decisions

Such initiatives required an investment that was challenging to provide, particularly as the school board has struggled with a massive decline in state education funding in recent years. One of its more controversial decisions, Cook-Robinson says, was to save $7 million annually by turning over custodial, food, and transportation services to outside contractors.

The challenges weren’t only budgetary, Buchanan adds. For example, some in the community found it difficult to reconcile job losses and program cuts in the district at the same time the board was approving the opening of a new high school to provide academic rigor for advanced students and stop a worrisome exodus of these students to charter schools outside the district.

“When you’re in the midst of budget cuts and outsourcing services, and then you say you’re opening up a new high school … to some that seemed like we were engaging in doublespeak,” Buchanan says. “But what we were trying to do is reinforce the quality of education. This was a way to retain our best and brightest.”

Such decisions strained relationships with the teachers union, but by working to communicate the message that the board was focused on the needs of the classroom -- and teachers and students in those classrooms -- perceptions began to change, Buchanan says. Today, district and union officials meet regularly in committee to stay atop issues.

“We had to demonstrate that we had their [teachers’] best interests at heart,” Cook-Robinson adds. “The school board was bold enough to make hard decisions that [the union] didn’t agree with, but time has a way of demonstrating that these were the right decisions.”

That’s how a school board should work, Buchanan says. A school board cannot shy away from tackling the issues that stand in the way of student success.

“If you cannot make the tough decisions, then you should not be sitting on the school board,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. You have to remember: What is your reason for being on the school board? Who do you really represent? I represent children. I make decisions for the benefit of children. I don’t make decisions for adults.”

It helps that the board has worked hard to stay engaged -- but not to micromanage, Cook-Robinson says. All board members have taken advantage of training offered by the Michigan Association of School Boards, and understand their part as policymakers.

“They know their roles,” she says. “They never micromanage, and they never want to be the superintendent. But when I need their help, they ask questions, make suggestions, make recommendations -- and then let me go back and do my work. They act as a sounding board for me and my leadership team, and they keep us on our toes.”

The end result, Cook-Robinson says, is a district leadership that is meeting tough challenges -- and has managed to create an educational program that can meet the needs of all students, whether they’re ready for college-prep academic rigor or need credit-recovery opportunities.

“If a parent brings their child to me, we can have a conversation … you can tell me about the gifts of your child, and afterward, and I can direct you to one of my schools that can serve your child’s needs.” 

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.