Michigan’s Renewal Starts with Reinvesting in Education
By Brenda Álvarez
History has looked favorably upon Michigan, from the booming fur trade of the 18th century to the prosperous copper mining industry of the 19th century. More notably, Henry Ford’s Model T marked Michigan’s legacy as a thriving auto industry, providing millions of jobs for much of the 20th century and for building America’s middle class through affordable transportation, employment, and job security via unions.
Small towns flourished under Michigan’s prosperous economy – small towns such as Saginaw, which originally thrived as a lumber town. Generations later, the auto industry became the dominant source of employment with manual transmission assemblies, steering gear boxes, and power steering pumps.
Michigan is now known as ground zero for the struggling auto industry. Since 2000, the state has lost approximately 18 percent of the total workforce, and in August 2009, the unemployment rate hit a distressing double-digit number of 14.1 percent.
For Saginaw, this meant a steep decline in manufacturing, which spurred a significant amount of the population to abandon the city. In a ten year span (2000 to 2010), Saginaw’s population went from 61,799 to 51,508 – a 16.7 percent decline.
The high unemployment rate turned Saginaw into one of the most impoverished cities in America. In fact, Saginaw is ranked as having one of the highest crime rates in America and is on the list of top 100 most dangerous cities in the United States.
The country and the state’s economic collapse also impacted the Saginaw School District. The exodus of families seeking jobs in other states instigated a decline in student enrollment and over a ten year span the district has lost an annual average of 400 students.
The rebirth of Michigan will take much more than a recovered auto industry. Its renaissance starts with reinvesting in public education. And, it starts in Saginaw.
SIG in Saginaw
Twenty-eight schools in Michigan received federal grant money from the Recovery Act of 2009. Saginaw received $10.3 million in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, with $3.4 million going to Willie E. Thompson Middle School and $4.4 million to Arthur Hill High School. Both schools were placed on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of persistently low-achieving schools for not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Prior to receiving SIG funds, educators, school administrators, and the local union were already collaborating, setting common goals and restructuring classroom instruction.
“No decision was made without union involvement – we all had to figure it out,” said Leann Bauer, president of the 523-member Saginaw Education Association.
A bonding agent used to help the school community “figure it out” was the National Education Association’s Keys to Excellence for Your School (KEYS) program, which allowed educators and school administrators to focus their attention on making critical improvements that can help boost student achievement.
KEYS is a comprehensive, research-based, data-driven program for continuous school improvement. Developed by the National Education Association (NEA), it is the product of a 15-year collaborative effort involving educators, school district administrators, parents, and business and community leaders.
Normally, this service is a big-ticket expense for schools and school districts. However, it came at no cost to Saginaw because of NEA’s commitment to help struggling schools.
The Saginaw school community also benefited from a three-day forum sponsored by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which provided leadership from the Saginaw Education Association with a platform to work with their school administrators and share winning strategies with more than 300 teachers, education support professionals, union leaders, and district administrators and parents. This group represented 36 Priority Schools from 17 states.
“The recession hit us hard and our schools suffered. But we’re committed to weathering this out and we’re committed to providing quality education for every student,” said Bauer. “The resources we’ve received so far have allowed us to strengthen our practice and lead us in a direction that is more student centered.”
In a study released in June 2011, the National Bureau of Education noted the direct correlation between job losses and decreasing student test scores – especially the high-stake test scores that have become synonymous with NCLB.