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Muskegon Heights schools show signs of stabilization under new ‘self-management’ charter

Mar 30, 2015

Muskegon Height Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross at a parade last summer.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Student enrollment at Muskegon Heights has been declining since the 2009-10 school year.

Five years ago, student enrollment at Muskegon Heights schools was double what it is now. But for the first time since 2009, student enrollment was stable this year. Technically, enrollment was up 5 students.

“Since we had so many changes over the summer we thought that we would have a big loss. So we’re really happy,” said superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross.

A few years ago Muskegon Heights schools were in danger of closing. Then they got an emergency manager. He fired everyone and hired a private company to run the schools.

Almost one year ago, Muskegon Heights' charter school district couldn’t afford to pay its teachers. It got two emergency loans from the state. Eventually, the company and the charter academy agreed to part ways. Everything was up in the air again. (Listen to the State of Opportunity Docmentary here.)

“I know that the community feels good that they have the local school district still,” Zachery-Ross said.

The district has a new golf team and robotics teams in the middle and high schools. Teacher turnover has slowed, according to district superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross. They have mentoring programs and fundraisers for music instruments. There’s a nurse on site from a nearby hospital.

Zachery-Ross says they couldn’t have turned things around without collaboration of dozens of organizations.

“There’s so many pieces that make our system work and then make it, really a community center. That’s what makes the culture and climate different,” she said.

Now a self-managed district, Muskegon Heights is working to cut its small budget deficit and it is seeing student achievement improve in some areas. But Muskegon Heights elementary school and high school are both on the state’s “priority schools” list in 2013-14, the latest year available.

Zachery-Ross says some people have shown interest in the model. It’s a weird set-up – the original Muskegon Heights school board has an emergency manager and they authorize the charter academy to runs the town’s school system in its place.

“I know that Muskegon Heights was very unique. It might not fit for every situation but definitely self-management has been positive for our community. They really have a voice,” she said.  

Last year, Muskegon Heights’ teachers were challenged to get 100% of parents to come to parent –teacher conferences. Now, for two years in a row, the teachers at the district’s elementary school rode busses home with students, to make contact with every family.

“The last four conferences were at the students’ homes last week. They made that personal connection with those four families,” Zachery-Ross said.

Last week, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan took Muskegon Heights schools off an “at-risk of suspension” list of charter school authorizers. A spokesman said the authorizers made moves to improve their transparency and academic outcomes.

Zachery-Ross said communication between the charter district, the original district and the emergency manager has improved since being on that “at-risk” list.