Time to right size sinking LSD ship

By Kyle Melinn

The Lansing School District isn’t making the grade. It’s losing students and state money while its buildings crumble, its test scores sink and its students disrupt class (when they’re there).

That’s the opinion of the Community Advisory Task Force for Right Sizing, a group of community folks led by former Mayor David Hollister, MSU Professor Ruben Martinez and longtime state official Don Weatherspoon. Superintendent T.C. Wallace asked these folks back in October to look at what’s wrong with the school district and report back when they have something to say.

The preliminary findings released last month boiled down to one word in the local media coverage: “Crisis.”

The word is quickly becoming a cliché from overuse (everything is in crisis these days: The state budget, our economy, the financial sector, the auto industry, state road funding, public school funding, the Detroit Lions, etc). That doesn’t mean “crisis” isn’t accurate, though.

And if the product of Hollister & Friends’ work is shelved away somewhere, that’s about the only word you could use to describe the district in another five years when it loses another 2,000 kids and Sexton High School shuts down.

When the final task force report comes in next month look for it to say: The school district hasn’t made adequate yearly progress by federal standards in five years. Test scores are below the state average in any subject at any grade level. There are too many buildings for the shrinking number of students.

Wallace and Lansing School Board President Hugh Clarke will go over the report. Maybe they’ll act on it. Maybe they won’t. Maybe Mayor Virg Bernero will get involved a little. Maybe he won’t.

But for the sake of the school district and its students, they must.

How else will the district right-size itself, improve its name to the point where Bernero, himself would send his own children there if they were of age?

As it stands now, do you blame Bernero for having sent his kids to East Lansing and Holt? Wouldn’t you if you don’t already?

Let’s say what we think. Lansing Public Schools aren’t safe. That’s the perception, anyway. Slide No. 35 of the task force’s preliminary report says that, at the very least, students are unruly: “… Student discipline is a major disruption for achieving positive results in student achievement.”

Already this year, 472 elementary, 730 middle and 141 high school days were lost by kids being expelled. The district has 7,223 students. Exactly 2,531 of them (35 percent) have missed at least 10 days already this year.

While teachers and principals chase naughty and truant kids around, the rest of the class is falling behind in its studies. By the 8th grade, students aren’t even close to their peers in neighboring districts in state standardized test scores.

In 2007-‘08, 72 percent of Michigan eighth graders received a passing score on their state-issued math test. In Lansing, only 43 percent did, down a percentage point from last year. Language arts, social studies, science, it’s all the same. From third grade on, test scores drop like a ski slope.

Meanwhile, Lansing parents are turned off by the underperforming schools. The district loses 27 percent of its kids to neighboring districts.

The lower student counts mean $31.2 million less state money a year. Technology upgrades and building fix-ups are put off. The shoddy-looking schools reinforce the parents’ decision to export their children.

The school district spiral of death can stop. It starts with addressing the safety problem.

Look for Hollister & Friends to suggest a restructured vocational/alternative education program and a “strict discipline academy.” The schools will be asked to reward positive behavior, acknowledge the gang problem and give attention to the children from troubled homes or from out of the country.

To pay for the programs, the teachers’ union may need to give a little bit when its contract expires shortly. A building or two will close. We, the taxpayers, should be asked to pay a little more to offer a 21st Century curriculum that we can be proud of.

We don’t have to die like the school districts in Pontiac, Inkster or Detroit. The public schools in New York and Chicago and other metro cities figured out how to right-size their ships.

Our ship is sinking. Are we ready to right-size ours, too?

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)