Ypsilanti’s football season ends, but school-of-choice battle continues (The Ann Arbor News)

(Photos by Junfu Han for MLive)

YPSILANTI, MI – The Ypsilanti Community High School football team found itself in unpleasantly familiar territory on Friday, Oct. 21, down 30-0 against Pioneer High School at halftime.

The team didn’t lead many games in its 2016 season, which ended 2-6. For whatever reason, the Grizzlies didn’t turn up the intensity until they had to come from behind.

Coach Fred Jackson, who previously coached running backs at the University of Michigan for 23 years, tried to motivate the student-athletes in the locker room during halftime of their final game.

“They right now are going in the locker room and saying this game is over. … They think it’s over, man,” Jackson said. “But we have something to say about when the game’s over. We have something to say.”

Sophomore Kamal Hadden, a wide receiver and defensive back, interrupted Jackson to make his own vehement plea to his teammates.

“We gotta have heart. I know y’all don’t want to keep losing, man,” he called, his voice echoing across the locker room. “Damn, don’t y’all get tired of this? Come on! I’m tired of losing, man!”

“‘Bout time somebody stepped up,” said assistant coach Thomas Guynes as he and some of the other coaches and players applauded Hadden’s passion.

The Grizzlies did lose. But they built some momentum and scored 13 points while holding Pioneer scoreless in the second half of the game.

Jackson told the players after the game he was proud of how they’d fought for a comeback.

“The heart is in this team. … That’s the thing that we did today that I will never forget, I just want you all to know,” Jackson said.

‘Those who stay will be champions’

Jackson’s ongoing struggle this season – his first as head coach at YCHS – has been trying to establish a sense of unity among the athletes to the point where they will do whatever it takes on the field to win for their teammates.

That means a departure from the team’s current dynamic where there’s still a divide between the players from the former rival Willow Run and Ypsilanti districts, where parents heckle coaches from the stands during a game and some players take off their helmets and sulk on the bench when things aren’t going their way.

It’s a cultural shift taking longer than a three-month season to complete.

In many ways, Ypsilanti Community Schools as a whole is fighting a similar battle since the district was established three years ago.

YCS also has had to come from behind, formed from the consolidation of Ypsilanti and Willow Run, two financially and academically failing schools districts.

The stakes are higher than a 30-point deficit on a scoreboard though. The education of about 3,500 students is on the line.

YCS is paying off $18 million of debt from the two former districts that carried over in the merger. The new YCS has had to build itself from the ground up since the 2013-14 school year, trying to establish systems that will boost the low academic performance that plagues the school system. YCS also has to find ways to meet the unique needs of its student body, providing supports that go well beyond the classroom.

It has to do all that with fewer resources each school year.

Michigan’s 20-year-old Schools of Choice policy allows students to enroll in a school other than the district where they live, and each Washtenaw County student who transfers takes between $7,511 and $9,230 in state funding with them. As Ypsilanti schools’ enrollment continues to drop year after year, so does its revenue from the state.

In addition to putting YCS in a precarious financial situation, school choice also has divided school districts across racial and socio-economic lines, said YCS Superintendent Ben Edmondson. Not every family has the means to take advantage of school choice, so those who can afford to transfer do and those who can’t are left behind in under-resourced schools.

About half the public school students in Ypsilanti’s school district attended school elsewhere in the 2015-16 school year, and the students who remain at YCS represent a disproportionately high percentage of low-income and minority students, compared to the rest of the county.

“Those that can leave, will leave. Those who can’t, they’re stuck. I think the trends are very clear on who’s able to leave and who isn’t,” said Edmondson, who came to YCS in the 2015-16 school year after working as a principal in Ann Arbor Public Schools for several years. “It’s clear it falls across race and class lines, further stratifying districts. I think it’s polarized districts, I think it’s polarized schools and it’s stigmatized schools.”

For YCS to secure a more stable future and a shot at long-term success, it needs to find a way to attract more students to the district.  It’s fitting the school district has embraced former U-M head football coach Bo Schembechler’s famous “Those who stay will be champions” quote this school year as part of welcoming Jackson to the YCHS football program.

Over the past three years, YCS has introduced new academic programming and made other efforts to change the culture of “persistently low expectations” Edmondson says he has observed too often in the district since he was hired.

It’s been a gradual process, but Edmondson also is determined to get it right. He’s tired of seeing Ypsilanti lose off the football field, too.

Competition does more harm than good

When Jackson thinks about inequities among local public schools, he starts with a football field.

There’s a difference in the athletic facilities at YCHS and Saline High School, for example, where Jackson’s youngest son Josh played football his junior and senior years. School choice allowed Josh to transfer to Saline from Ann Arbor Public Schools, and he now plays for Virginia Tech after graduating from Saline in the winter of 2015.

Jackson was impressed by Saline’s two turf fields, two grass fields, modern weight room, designated strength coach and multiple locker rooms to accommodate the football team.

He didn’t find that at YCHS when he was hired as dean of students going into the 2015-16 school year.

Jackson led many practices this summer and fall on the makeshift football field behind the high school. Outside donors and Washtenaw County’s Parks and Recreation Department partnered with YCS to install new goal posts and get the grass at Shadford Field in good enough shape to play on this season. Contributors to the football team’s new student development program also purchased new helmets and shoulder pads for the team this year, in addition providing other luxuries the school district couldn’t afford

While some would say athletics and the associated expenses are secondary to a school’s core mission of educating students, Jackson sees it all factoring into students’ collective high school experience.

And because of the Schools of Choice policy, schools have to be competitive.

“It’s important, just like it is in college. Let Ohio State get something new and see how fast it takes for Michigan to do, because it’s competition,” Jackson said. “The kids want to be in a great situation. The kids want to go to a school that’s got the elite programs, that’s got the elite weight room, that’s got the elite academic facilities and got the elite fields. … You need it because if you want to filter kids into your school system, you’ve got to have something that’s going to sell them.”

Many educators think the competitive environment is detrimental to traditional public schools.

“It destroys the local districts because parents school shop,” said Laura Frey-Greathouse, director of staffing, student affairs and teacher retention at YCS. “It’s not just detrimental to the district, it’s detrimental to the children because when we track the students who have stayed in the system, they achieve. When we track students that are in and out of systems, they don’t.”

John Austin, president of the state board of education, says he hasn’t seen any evidence that competition has improved the overall quality of public education in Michigan. In fact, in some ways, it’s had the opposite effect because more school districts are competing for fewer students, he said.

“It doesn’t make schools better,” Austin said. “It means they’re all at a loss for the resources to educate kids well.”

Of the 7,854 public school students who live within the boundaries of the Ypsilanti school district, only about half of them attended YCS in the 2015-16 school year. The majority (2,560) of Ypsilanti students enrolled outside YCS attend charter schools. Another 1,373 Ypsilanti students have transferred to other traditional public schools, with Ann Arbor Public Schools drawing the lion’s share of 776 students in 2015-16.

The number of Schools of Choice students YCS enrolls has dropped steadily over the past four years, with the district enrolling 292 transfer students in 2015-16.

Uncertainty when YCS formed in 2013-14 prompted some families to leave, and instability within the district since then hasn’t helped. AAPS raised its cap on Schools of Choice to 750 seats in 2014-15, and YCS saw an additional 1,102 resident students transfer out of the district going into the 2014-15 school year.

But even before the merger, the former Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts each experienced declining enrollment as they struggled financially and academically.

With the Ypsilanti students who transferred elsewhere in 2015-16, $30.8 million in per pupil state funding left YCS. In the 2015-16 school year, expenses at YCS exceeded its revenue by $2.4 million, and early projections of the 2016-17 budget also predict deficit spending this school year.

The 2016-17 budget anticipates the district will end the school year with $3.3 million in its fund balance, which is about half of what YCS had in its reserves at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Board president Sharon Irvine predicted in June that YCS could spend down its fund balance and go into a deficit in four years unless the district somehow reverses its financial trend.

“School choice has been promoted as a way for all students to get quality education, based on the idea that competition will improve school quality. Unfortunately, the competitive advantages are with communities with the size and socio-economic scales to provide expanded and stable educational options and with charter schools that have low overhead costs and flexible operational infrastructures,” Irvine recently wrote in an email to MLive. “School choice has disadvantaged districts that carry extensive fixed costs and socio-economic stress.”

“You start to accept that, that I’m never going to be, that this is all we’re ever going to have, there’s nobody in my community that’s successful who comes back,” he said. “There’s no investment in our schools.”

Tying state funding to students who have the option to transfer schools at any time traps districts like YCS in a downward spiral, officials say. Declining enrollment leads to budget cuts that limit academic offerings and other student supports, which makes the district less attractive to families, so more students leave and YCS has to cut its spending again.

All public school districts face this same challenge, but for districts like YCS, DetroitFlint or Holland – which are already struggling – it’s tough to compete.

“The way we do Schools of Choice in Michigan has created this death spiral,” said state Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, who sits on the House Education Committee. “We are essentially incentivizing bad behavior on the part of school officials, frankly. We’re inadequately funding schools right now, and then we’re saying to school boards that essentially you can get more money if you try and steal students from other districts. When you’re starving, you tend to act more desperate.”

It’s understandable why a family may look at Ypsilanti Community Schools’ student performance record and prefer to send their children to a district where more students consistently meet proficiency benchmarks and graduate from high school prepared for college.

Brian Jacob, a professor of education policy, public policy and economics who also is co-director of the University of Michigan’s Education Policy Initiative, says place of residence and proximity to a school are the main factors families take into consideration when deciding where to enroll their children.

“The other thing I think there is – both for white and non-white families – is some preference to kind of be in an environment where there’s at least some families like them,” Jacob said. “Prior research has shown that black and Latino families would love to go to a school that was integrated where it wasn’t all black or Latino, but they might be more reluctant to go to a school that was essentially all white. There are social dynamics that explain that.”

The main caveat of Schools of Choice that contributes to socio-economic segregation is that parents have to provide their own transportation if they want their children to attend somewhere besides their neighborhood school.

That puts school choice out of reach for families without the means or access to reliable transportation.

Some YCHS football student-athletes needed bikes donated through the student development program because they didn’t have another way to get to practice in the summer. Finding transportation to another school district every day is out of the question for those students.

“It has become a classist system unless you equalize the ability for kids to actually get (to school),” Zemke said. “Taking out the question of whether school choice is something that should go on, the way we do school choice in Michigan – without requiring these other things – has basically said to those who have less, ‘You’re on your own, and it’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to pay for it.'”

study released in August by EdBuild, a nonprofit that highlights inequities in school funding, pointed out the 50 most segregated school district borders in the country, with the boundary dividing Detroit Public Schools and Grosse Pointe taking the top spot.

The line between Ypsilanti Community Schools and Plymouth-Canton Community Schools – located east of Ypsilanti – was ranked the 33rd most segregated boundary in the state, according to the “Fault Lines” study. The boundary between Ann Arbor Public Schools and YCS was ranked the 64th most segregated in the state – out of 484 Michigan rankings – and the line between YCS and Van Buren Public Schools was considered the 134th most segregated in the state.

With the exception of Lincoln Consolidated Schools, YCS has a significantly higher concentration of poverty than its neighbors.

The Fault Lines study looked at segregation based on childhood poverty rates in each school district, and racial segregation often follows closely.

“People don’t want to talk about race and class. It’s uncomfortable. … It’s an emotional topic, but I would love to have the conversation to say these practices contribute to where we are now,” Edmondson said. “Poor and minority together, in this country, they’re almost synonymous. People look at things differently when you’re district that’s seen as poor or a district that’s seen as minority. When it’s put together – poor and minority – then people really just would rather opt out. Those that can, have.”

With its 3,868 students, YCS enrolls 8.4 percent of the total public school student population in Washtenaw County. However, YCS students account for 17.5 percent of the county’s minority students and 22.1 percent of the county’s low-income students.

Saline Area Schools – located 8 miles from Ypsilanti – has a disproportionately low population of minority and low-income students. Saline schools account for 11.5 percent of Washtenaw County’s total public school student enrollment and only 3.9 percent of the county’s minority students and low-income students.

Ann Arbor Public Schools – located between Saline and Ypsilanti – splits the difference between the two school districts in terms of diversity. AAPS enrolls 37.3 percent of the county’s students, and the district’s enrollment accounts for 46 percent of the county’s minority students and 28 percent of the county’s low-income students.

The graph shows the percentage of Washtenaw County’s public school enrollment that each traditional public school district accounts for and how that compares to their minority and low-income student enrollment.

Dexter Community Schools and Chelsea Public Schools educate a disproportionately low population of minority and low-income students, while Lincoln Consolidated Schools joins YCS in having a disproportionately high population of those students.

School choice is one reason for the disparity.

In its three years of existence, YCS has seen a 14.8 percent overall decrease in enrollment. White students left the district at a faster rate than black students, with the populations declining by 23.7 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively. The population of other minority students at YCS grew by 17.7 percent during that time, and the population of low-income students declined at a slower rate, by 8 percent.

“It’s even more specific and narrow in some cases than just white kids leaving or non-poor kids leaving,” Jacob said. “Especially with charter schools, kids with a lot of the most severe special needs recognize that they can’t be served well in charter schools. So you have kind of the easiest to serve kids – ones without the expense of special needs – that leave these home districts. … The kids who are kind of easier and less expensive to serve, even if they are poor and black or Hispanic, they can go to charter school and be accepted or served there.”

Kirk Profit, a former state representative and Ypsilanti High School graduate who is coordinating the football team’s student development program, thinks the divide between Washtenaw County’s school districts was foreseeable when the consolidation that formed YCS was first proposed. He’s optimistic local leaders will come together to make things more equitable for the school districts.

“I don’t think this is who the community is,” Profit said. “I don’t think we want to define ourselves as a community or region as accepting a segregated concentration of poverty. I think the community will respond.

“I think the real issue in regionalism is, ‘Will you let my kids go to school with yours?'”

– Tenth in a series of reports on the Ypsilanti football team and work to make its members successful. Read the rest of the series

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