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In Albion, school choice led to school closures

Dec 5, 2017

In May of last year, residents of Albion stepped into the voting booth. 

On their ballots, they saw this question:

"Shall Albion Public Schools be annexed to Marshall Public Schools to be effective July 1, 2016?"

This story is part two of UN/DIVIDED, a three-part series from Michigan Radio

In the months leading up to the vote, this question divided the city in a way Jontaj Wallace had never seen before.

“Like, you would drive through here and you would see signs pro-annexation and anti-annexation. All this other stuff,” he says.

Wallace has spent his whole life in this city. He grew up just a few miles from Albion College. Now, he’s a sophomore there, studying music education.

Jontaj Wallace graduated from Marshall High School in 2016 and is now a sophomore at Albion College.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Wallace says this community has always felt like a big, extended family. But last year, the question of whether the Marshall district should annex Albion’s schools divided the city, and Wallace saw his tight-knit family start to fray.

“Like, any time of the day you will see like attacks on social media. You will see people who had known each other for years, like friends for years, just because of this one thing stop talking to each other,” says  Wallace. “Like, in public! In grocery lines, in restaurants.”

The vote to close Albion’s school system was more than a year ago.

But the story of why it closed starts a lot further back.

So how did Albion Public Schools get to the point of annexation in the first place?

via GIPHY

Advocating against annexation 

Albion City Council member Sonya Brown lives on a quiet street. It’s lined with big trees and lots of ranch-style houses.

Brown has lived in Albion for most of her life, and she says there is just something special about this city. 

“It’s just rich in diversity. I mean, we have our issues, every community does, but at the end of the day, there’s a richness here that you won’t find anywhere else,” she tells me.

At one end of Brown’s city council precinct is Irwin Ave. It’s a street with stately houses and manicured lawns. At the other end is a public housing complex.

Brown spent hours walking around her neighborhood in the months leading up to annexation, knocking on door after door and urging her neighbors to vote no.

She says when she was growing up, Albion’s schools were the glue that held this diverse community together. 

“So we all grew up together, no matter how much money you had or where you lived. We all grew up together and we all knew each other,” Brown explains.

The schools were where everyone mingled: Rich and poor, black and white. But at some point, that started to change. And for all of the controversy over annexation, there is one thing that everybody seems to agree on.

The fate of Albion Public Schools can mostly be traced back to one thing: schools of choice.

A district in distress

Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper took over as superintendent of Albion Public Schools in 2012.

She says it was immediately clear to her what was to blame for the district’s concentrating poverty and ever-tightening budget.

“School of choice in the state of Michigan, and as it happens many places, really starts with white flight. And so that's what we had,” she says.

In the district's last year, 96% of students got free and reduced lunch.

Albion, like many cities across Michigan, has a large number of students who live in the city, but attend a different school district. That’s because more than 20 years ago, Michigan passed a law that changed how students chose schools.

Instead of being assigned to a district based on your city or your neighborhood, you could choose from any district that would take you.

“So when I got here, we had a district whose population over the last 20 years had declined 100 to 200 students steadily per year per year,” Williams-Harper says.

Albion used to be a remarkably integrated district. Fifteen years ago, there was a nearly even split between white students and kids of color.

Albion schools used to be almost evenly split between white students and students of color.
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

But as families scattered to surrounding districts, student demographics shifted. The district became majority African-American. And the percentage of students from low-income families climbed dramatically. 

In the district’s last year, 96% of students got free and reduced lunch.  

But middle-class families weren’t moving out of Albion. They didn’t have to. Their kids could just hop on one of the buses other districts sent into the city everyday.

Williams-Harper remembers the newspaper headlines about her response.

“Williams-Harper says ‘Get your buses out of my district,'” they read.

She met with other superintendents and begged them: Please stop sending the buses. Stop stealing our students.  

“I said in essence, and it’s not a nice word, but I said you’re raping us. You’re taking my kids. You’re making sure you’re adding to the demise of this district,” she told them.

Race and schools of choice

Albion isn’t the only district that’s seen shifting student demographics in the wake of schools of choice.

Mike Wilkinson is a reporter for Bridge Magazine.

About a year ago, he worked on a series of stories that looked at how those policies were changing the racial makeup of schools across the state. 

The bottom line?

When parents use school of choice to send their kid to another district, they often end up choosing one that is more segregated.

Take Holland, for instance.

It’s a city with a nearly even split between white and Hispanic students. But around one out of every three students goes to school somewhere else. And the white students who leave largely end up in much whiter districts.

“You ask yourself, 'Why are they making that switch? Is it truly a better school?'” 

Well, Wilkinson says, it depends.

In some areas, white kids staying in Holland were doing better. In some cases, the ones leaving the city were ahead.

“It's not an absolute ‘They're going to do best if they leave,’” he explains.

A downward spiral

Students who live in Albion are scattered across surrounding cities.

Forty-two districts have enrolled at least one kid from Albion at some point over the past eight years. But there are seven that have taken in the most students.

Here’s what those schools looked like in 2002, around the time Albion started bleeding students.

  • Marshall: 94% white
    In 2016-17, Marshall elementary schools were 82% white on average. The exception? Harrington Elementary in Albion, which was 32% white.
    Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
  • Homer: 98% white
  • Concord: 97% white
  • Springport: 96% white
  • Marshall Academy: 97% white
  • Mar Lee Schools: 97% white
  • Western: 95% white

And whether it’s Albion or Holland or Detroit, when students leave, they take a big chunk of money with them.

“So what happens is when some of these choice moves take place -- let's say 100 kids leave. Well, that district has now lost $70,000,” says Wilkinson.

Wilkinson actually meant to say $700,000. Each student in Michigan comes with around $7,000 in state money. When a school loses that much cash, it has to find ways to balance the budget. So it cuts staff, which means class sizes grow.

“And then so now you've got a question of is that teacher going to be effective. So the next year or another 100 kids leave,” says Wilkinson.

That same downward spiral played out in Albion again and again.

And each time parents pulled their kids out, Albion was left with a higher percentage of students in poverty.

In the district's final year, 96% of Albion students qualified for free and reduced lunch, compared to just 28% of Marshall students.
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

The fact is, it takes more money to help students in poverty succeed. They need supports like social workers and extra classroom aids. So, right as the needs of Albion’s students were growing, the budget to meet those needs was shrinking.

Jerri-Lynn Williams Harper says when she arrived in 2012, the district’s finances were completely drained.   

“That was a huge surprise. Such a surprise that we have someone from the outside come and look and make sure and it was sort of zero minus zero zero,” she says.

Williams-Harper says they had no choice but to make some drastic changes.

This is what she proposed:

Starting in 2013, Albion would become a K through 8 district. The city would send 9th through 12th grade students to Marshall, one city over.

Albion High School was the center of the community. It’s where people came together for Friday night basketball games and school events. The idea of losing that was painful.

Williams-Harper’s plan led to heated school board meetings, protests, and rallies. But in the end, the Albion school board voted yes. They signed a cooperative agreement with Marshall.

Albion became a K through 8 district. And in the fall of 2013, high schoolers in Albion started catching an early morning bus 13 miles down the highway.

Williams-Harper says it was the only option to keep the district financially viable. 

“It was still very difficult and very hurtful to this town because it was I think a lot of people would feel that it was that they were sort of being sold down the river, which wasn't the case at all,” she says.

But for a lot of people who had grown up in Albion, and had walked the halls of that high school, that’s exactly how it felt.  

Harry Bonner is the head of Kids at Hope Youth Development Center, and he’s been a leader in Albion for decades. 

Bonner agrees that closing the high school was the right thing to do. Albion just didn’t have what its students needed.

“Can you imagine a high school with no high school sports?” Bonner asks.

The Albion football team was gone. One girls' and one boys’ basketball team was all they had left. And the school couldn’t compete with the programs at other districts.

“Same thing with academic classes,” says Bonner. “The kind of academic classes you need to be ready to enter college and be college ready, we didn’t have that,” says Bonner. 

Harry Bonner and Marshall school board member Carrie Nicholson.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Still, Bonner took issue with the way the district went about making that decision.

“It may be the right decision to make in the end, but it’s the process and the road that you took to get there that determines whether you’re gonna be fighting over this for years or not because people didn’t feel included. They didn’t feel valued. They didn’t feel none of that,” Bonner says.

There was hope that sending high schoolers to Marshall would save Albion schools.

And for two years, things seemed okay.

But when Albion Public Schools opened in the fall of 2015, they had lost another hundred students.

This is when things got chaotic.

Losing 100 students meant the district’s budget was hundreds of thousands of dollars short. That was on top of the already existing $3 million of debt.

Art and gym and music classes were cut. Teachers started leaving the district.

And so the Albion school board made a drastic decision.

They voted to send 6th through 8th graders to Marshall Middle School, starting in January 2016.

“When do you move middle school students in the middle of the year?” asks Bonner. “I don’t know any school system that would believe that that would be the best way to transition young people. Our young people moved in January to Marshall Middle school. And you ask how did it go? Terrible,” Bonner says.

Students in Albion had to start waking up hours earlier. Everyone at Marshall Middle School had their schedules rearranged. There was tension between students. Tension between parents and the school.

And like the closing of the high school in 2013, Bonner says it was a rushed process that had people feeling left out.

Reverend Donald Phillips’ son was at Albion Middle School at the time of the move.

“I found out from my student about him telling me, ‘Oh you know, I’m going to Marshall Middle school next semester,” he tells me.

Phillips says he didn’t get a letter from the district until after his son told him what was happening.

As the Phillips and other families were adjusting to this new reality, there was a bigger question hanging in the air.

What was going to happen to Albion Public Schools?

Neighbors against neighbors 

That question split the community.

Opposing Facebook groups formed. There were heated debates on and offline. 

Jontaj Wallace was a senior at Marshall High School, set to graduate at the end of 2016, and he was all in for annexation.

He’d been going to Marshall since Albion closed its high school in 2013, and he’d thrived there. He was a drum major in the marching band, he ran cross country, and he got great grades.

There were plenty of people who felt - and who still feel - that annexation was the wrong decision.

So, Wallace would show up at school board meetings and tell the adults:

Look, high school students have been going to Marshall for three years now. And all of those terrible things you predicted would happen? They didn’t.

“And I remember that there was a comment from a couple of people like, 'You’re the you’re the black poster child of Marshall. And of course you would say that because you’re going to be successful in any school district, so why does it matter for you and all this,'” recalls Wallace. 

Adults against kids. Neighbors against neighbors. Friends against friends. 

That was the mood in Albion in the months leading up to the annexation vote in May of 2016.

Jontaj Wallace says he knows annexation was the right thing to do.

“The truth of the matter is that we needed to annex because, you know, we didn't have enough money. And what better district to annex with than Marshall,” he says.

But there were plenty of people who felt – and who still feel – that annexation was the wrong decision.

City council member Sonya Brown is one of them. 

“I’ve heard parents say, ‘We did not know.' Like, 'We didn’t have it as bad as we thought we did.’ I mean, granted we were struggling. I can’t deny that. I won’t deny that. But I still strongly believe that we could have turned things around,” Brown tells me.

She was actually on the Albion school board at the time. When it voted whether to put the question of annexation on the ballot, Brown was the only one who voted no.

She became one of the most vocal opponents to annexation. She says she remembers waiting to see the final vote returns after spending all day knocking doors and getting people out to vote. 

Then the final numbers came back.

Seventy-one percent of voters had said yes – they wanted Marshall to annex Albion’s schools.

“My heart was aching for our children, but at peace because I did everything that I could have possibly done,” Brown says.

The state gave Marshall a total of $6.7 million over two years for the cost of annexing the Albion district.

That included paying off its more than $3 million of debt, fixing up Harrington Elementary, and buying buses to get middle and high school students to and from Marshall.

On July 1, 2016, Albion Public Schools ceased to exist. 

Still divided

But the story of annexation isn’t over for Sonya Brown.

She’s remained a vocal critic of the way annexation has played out.

Sonya Brown (front, left) and other Albion community members that continue to fight annexation.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Brown says students from Albion, especially students of color, aren’t getting an equitable education.

And she wants to give Albion schools a second chance. 

“We want a push for legislation that would create an avenue for dissolved and annexed districts to recreate themselves,” Brown told me at a press conference this summer.

She and several other community members were there to announce a plan that would give Albion residents the chance to vote on re-opening the city’s public schools.

Kids at Hope director Harry Bonner says that’s a non-starter.

“‘Give us back our school.’ Really? What school you talking about? The one that didn’t have the things in place to get our kids a quality education? I can’t believe you’re even asking that question,” Bonner says.

“We didn’t have the infrastructure. We didn’t have none of the different things we needed to offer a quality education system for our kids. So you want us to give it back to you? We’re not gonna support that.”

Now, more than a year after Albion residents voted to annex with Marshall Public Schools, there are still big disagreements over how to move forward.

The community tension that came out of annexation hasn’t gone away.

People on both sides have very different visions for the future of Albion kids.

And it’s not clear how or if they will be able to find some common ground.    

So where do Albion and Marshall go from here, and what will it mean for the students stuck in the middle?

Come back tomorrow for Part 3 of UN/DIVIDED, a three-part series from Michigan Radio. Click here to hear Part 1.