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More than a year after annexation, a cautious optimism in Albion

Dec 6, 2017

On the first day of school, more than 100 men lined up outside of Harrington Elementary in Albion, Michigan.

They were all dressed to the nines. Most had on dress shirts and ties, some were wearing three-piece suits, and a few veterans were dressed up in their military garb.

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

Buses pulled up and students, sporting new haircuts and new backpacks, poured out. As kids headed toward the front door, a crowd of people stood cheering them along and giving out high-fives.

A line of college students, teachers, and other community members snaked around the sidewalk as they welcomed the students to a new year at Harrington. 

For some families, though, the challenges from last year are still front of mind. And so, for many of them, this is also a make or break year. It’s the school’s last chance to convince them to keep their kids here in Albion, at their neighborhood school.

The past few years have brought change after change for students living in Albion. And many families were hoping annexation would bring some stability.

And that’s what the Marshall district is promising at Harrington this year.

The school has a new leader, a new approach to discipline, and more supports for students and families.

But will that be enough to convince parents the school can turn it around?

A cautious optimism

It’s a little after five in the afternoon, and Wanda Kemp is in her kitchen prepping dinner. She heats up oil to fry her shrimp and fish and sticks a few baked potatoes in the oven.

“Getting ready to throw on some shrimp, fish, baked potatoes. Something quick,” she tells me.

She wraps the potatoes in tin foil and sticks them in the oven. Then she dips the fish filets in egg, tosses them with flour and seasoning, and gently drops them into a pot of hot oil. Pretty soon, the smell of fried fish fills the entire house.

Harrington third grader, Zy'Airh (right) with 4-year-old nephew, Zachariah.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Wanda has two kids in Marshall Public Schools. Za'Riah, her daughter, is a freshman at Marshall High School. Her son Zy'Airh is in third grade at Harrington Elementary.

This week he’s been learning about homophones.

“You had a list of them. So what was something on that list?,” Wanda asks Zy-Airh.

“Oh! Pair and pear...P-A-I-R. P-A-R-E,” he responds.

(Well, almost. In Zy'Airh's defense, pare is a word. It just wasn’t the one on his spelling list.)

Wanda likes what the district is promising at Harrington this year. 

But after what happened last year, she says there's a lot riding on those promises.

“And again, we going into another principal this year. So you’re right back there again, it’s new. So we can’t keep just saying ‘It’s new. It’s new.’ But yet our children are just being moved along in the newness while they are trying to get the bugs ironed out,” says Wanda.

Last year was tough for Zy'Airh -- and for a lot of kids at Harrington.

The school had problems with behavior and teacher turnover. Teachers were frustrated by a lack of organization and support. And parents were frustrated with a lack of communication.

But the biggest issue for Zy'Airh, and a lot of his peers, was discipline. There were around 160 out-of-school suspensions last year. That’s at an elementary school with around 260 students.

Wanda says she isn’t a parent who is going to excuse her kid’s bad behavior.

“And I tell him all the time if you don't change, I'm worried about two places you will be if you continue to go through life like you are now -- angry for whatever reason I can't put my finger on. Jail. Death. Those are two options.”

All of the suspensions Zy'Airh racked up, though, didn’t seem to actually help him. She is praying that things are different this year.

A new year and a new leader

Robert Giles is starting his first year as a principal.

He moved to Albion in August. Before that, he was an athletic administrator for the Education Achievement Authority.

The state-run district in Detroit was shuttered earlier this year after failing to turn around the city’s poorest performing schools.

Giles has a long list of things he wants to get done at Harrington, but he knows first, he has some convincing to do.

“Just like these kids, these parents in this community have heard a whole lot of talk about a whole lot of things and have not seen anything that would give them a vision of anything to make them think it would be any better,” Giles says.

So what exactly would better look like?

What would it take to make sure kids across the Marshall district got an equitable education?

Pedro Noguera has some ideas.

He’s an education professor at UCLA and has spent decades studying high-poverty schools.

He says, to be clear, creating a more integrated district is a good thing.

“The research shows that both the affluent white children and the low-income children of color should benefit. However, making sure that occurs is going to take work,” says Noguera.

It’s not just about throwing kids together and hoping for the best.

Marshall has to be intentional about putting relationship building at the center of its plans for the newly integrated district. That means relationships between parents and staff, between students and teachers, and between peers.

“It’s very important for the school to not see this as somehow beyond their mission,” says Noguera. “It is a central part of their mission to build to this kind of connection amongst kids.”

The Marshall district has tried to build those connections.

High schoolers from the two cities have spent weekends together at Albion College.

This year, incoming sixth graders from all four of Marshall’s elementary schools spent a week at camp together.

Still, it is mostly kids from Albion getting bussed to Marshall, not the other way around, which means Harrington is still serving a mostly black, almost entirely low-income population.

Noguera says that can’t be an excuse for the turmoil at the school last year.

“It’s not as though it’s something endemic to those kids or to that community.”

To turn things around, Noguera says, Harrington has to start by building a positive school climate.

Principal Robert Giles says that is his first priority.

And he has a lot of ideas about how to do that, but at the top of the list is changing the school’s approach to discipline. 

“It’s going to have to be something close to burning a building down for me to put a baby out of this building,” says Giles.

Robert Giles says his first goal is to keep kids in class whenever possible. If a kid is fighting or running out of the classroom, you figure out why. You work with them to resolve that conflict and get them back into the classroom.

The next step is what most schools call in-school suspension.

Harrington Principal Robert Giles and Albion City Manager Sheryl Mitchell.
Credit Courtesy of Sheryl Mitchell

“In-school suspension is an archaic concept to me. I believe that just with everything else it changes. I believe that everything we need to do needs to be handled in house,” says Giles.

He says that Harrington’s program is going to be different. 

It isn’t going to be kids sitting in a time out or doing homework on their own.

Instead, a teacher trained in special education will work one on one with students so they don’t lose instruction time.

The school’s approach to discipline this year is based on what’s known as “restorative justice.” It’s a concept that’s been gaining traction in schools around the country. Restorative justice programs use a kind of in-school mediation as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions. 

So far, Giles has followed through on his promise about keeping kids in the classroom.  

There has been just one out-of-school suspension at Harrington this year; it was for a mental health emergency.

But Giles says changing the school climate is going to require more than building connections with students. He says he also needs his staff to build relationships with those children’s families.

“Ain't no kids throwing mama’s chairs. Nobody is at home saying, ‘No mom, I’m not taking out the trash, you do it.’ So getting folks to understand that the behavior you see here isn’t necessarily the behavior you see at home,” says Giles.

“Things are changing.”

Lots of people have told me: Albion Public Schools always felt like a family.

Your parents would run into teachers in the grocery store or at church. Your principal might live down the street.

Wanda Kemp says that feeling of community just wasn’t there when Marshall took over.

She kept reaching out to the school to ask how she could help Zy'Airh.      

“Not even do it for me,” Wanda explains. “I'm asking for direction, guidance. Is there something I need to be doing as a parent to help my child with his education?”

Wanda says it felt like she was all on her own.

Wanda Kemp (right) with friend Gwenetta Artis.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Several weeks in, she started to worry that this year might not be any different.

Zy'Airh got in trouble for fighting on the bus. He had to talk to the principal.

But Wanda says she never got a call from the school.

“I reached out to the principal. I have left two messages. And I haven't received a return phone call yet. And I actually told him why I was calling and I haven't received a ... return call.”

Wanda’s weekdays start at 5:30 in the morning. In the afternoon, she shuttles Za'Airh and his sister Za'Riah to activities and school events. Late at night, she’s up helping her kids with homework.

And Wanda, like a lot of other parents in Albion, does all of it on her own.

“A lot of us are single parents, and some people.… I'm fortunate enough to have a support system, but some people don't even have that.”

That’s where Carolyn Amos comes in.

She’s an interventionist at Harrington Elementary, and her job is to be that support system for students and families.

“I wear like 15 different hats, and they all fit,” she laughs.

On fall count day, Amos is wearing her student wrangler hat. Teachers have been coming in and out of the office with attendance sheets. Once the staff has a list of absent kids, Amos takes over.

“I make phone calls to home to kids who did not show up after we got attendance, find out why they’re not here, and then find out if I can come and get them,”

Amos acts as an advocate for students and their parents.

She connects families to community resources -- like help making doctor’s appointments or finding housing. And she picks up kids and drops them off at home when they can’t get a ride. 

Amos has been doing this job since before annexation, so she was there for the challenges that plagued the school’s first year with Marshall.

But Amos says things are different now.

“Morale is great, came in with a full staff, everybody’s doing well, we’re happy about everything, and things are changing.” 

Amos is one of two full-time interventionists at Harrington.

The school also has extra classroom aides, a social worker two days a week, a full-time school counselor, and a dedicated special education consultant.  

And this year, the Marshall district is piloting something new. It’s called the “resilient schools” program, and it’s focused on the ways trauma can affect learning. Coaches are working with parents and teachers to support kids when things outside of school make it harder to learn.

Change is one of the things that can make it tougher for kids to learn, and it’s something students in Albion have seen a lot of over the past few years.

There have been budget and program cuts. Friends and neighbors have left for other districts. The school district their parents and sometimes even their grandparents attended, is gone.

"Morale is great, came in with a full staff, everybody's doing well, we're happy about everything, and things are changing."

But Carolyn Amos says Harrington is moving forward. She says parents should, too.

“What I want people to understand is annexation is not an issue at all,” Amos says.

If parents want to their kids in Albion, they have to focus on making this school the best it can be.

“Work with where you are, work with what you have, and do the work. Do the work you need to do,” she adds. 

When Marshall Public Schools annexed the Albion district last year, superintendent Randy Davis made a promise.

“I told the community when we did the annexation, we will have a community school in your town for the next three to five years, and then we’ll have to make a decision on how enrollment is going. My preference is that I’m going to be talking about how do I add another school?”

But if Marshall wants to add another school, or even just keep Harrington open, they have to have enough kids, which means the district has to reverse a decades-long exodus of students from Albion.

That is a heavy lift.

Other districts are still sending buses into the city, There is still tension over annexation in the community, and there are people who believe annexation isn’t working -- and that it never will.

So, what happens next?

The answer to that will depend on parents like Carrie Menold.

Choosing the neighborhood school

“We live here and we’re pretty committed to the idea of living and working and being a part of the community we’re in. And so it was really important for us to support the school that is here,” Menold tells me.

Carrie Menold and her son, Milo.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Menold and her husband are both professors at Albion College, where they teach in the geology department.

And this year, her smiley, blonde five-year-old Milo is starting kindergarten at Harrington this year. I met Carrie and Milo at a picnic a couple of weeks before school started.

Menold says sending Milo to Harrington wasn’t a hard choice. She knows there were challenges at the school last year. 

“But I think we also are educators ourselves and know that it takes investment, you know, and it takes work to make these kind of things work, and it takes the whole town to come together around them,” she says.

If Marshall wants other families to make the same choice as Carrie Menold, they have to show parents that things really are different this year.    

Because, as Wanda Kemp told me, promises can only get you so far. 

“People aren’t gonna keep sitting around waiting when their child’s education is dependent on whether they are successful or not far as trying to wait for them to get the system together.”

I checked back in with Wanda a few weeks ago. She told me Principal Giles had called her back not long after we talked.

She went to the school and sat down with him and Zy'Airh's teacher. She talked about her concerns and frustrations.

And Wanda says she left that meeting feeling like maybe this year was going to be different after all.