April 6 2016 10:07 AM

Lansing Pathway bond promises major overhaul of curriculum and buildings

When a room full of elementary school kids stays quiet for a PowerPoint talk, even after it gets into debt ratios, you have to wonder what's in the pepperoni.

Yvonne Caamal-Canul isn't sparing the pizza or the pie charts in her serial pitches for the Pathway Promise, a $120 million bond for renovating the school system from STEM to stern, up for vote by Lansing residents on May 3.

Lansing School Superintendent Yvonne Camaal Canul pitches the $120 million Pathway Promise bond proposal at Fairvew Elementary Wednesday.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse
"Anybody know how much a boiler costs?" the Lansing schools superintendent asked a gymnasium full of cheesed-up kids and parents at Fairview Elementary Wednesday.

"A million dollars!" cried a third-grader in sparkly pink shirt.

"You're pretty close," Caamal-Canul said. "Half a million. Those things are expensive."

Under the poster-sized figure of Everett High School graduate Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Caamal-Canul made the case for a districtwide set of renovations and additions designed to bring Lansing's schools into the 21st century.

Aging buildings, and their expensive boilers, figure into the plan, which sets aside $18.9 million for general building and energy efficiency improvements. But there is much more to the plan than a laundry list of physical fixes. The Pathway Promise, as the district calls the proposal, is a set of interlocking, domino-like renovations and additions designed to build three curricular "pathways" for students, while continuing to offer a general education at all schools.

The pathways lead to Eastern High School (biotechnology, Chinese language immersion and the International Baccalaureate program); Sexton High School (STEM/ STEAM and skilled trades and manufacturing); and Everett High School (visual and performing arts and NewTech).

Former Lansing mayor David Hollister, a member of the bond proposal committee, said the bond is Lansing’s “best shot in 50 years” to bring its school system up to date.

The Lansing School District serves over 11,000 students in 27 school buildings over 52 square miles, the fifth-largest district in the state.

Duct tape theater

"A Big Mac a month" is Everett High School teacher Jim Allen's mantra these days. "A small latte" is Caamal-Canul's junk food icon of choice for the estimated monthly cost of the millage increase for the average homeowner.

The May 3 millage would roll over an existing 1.5 mill levy, with an added 0.75 mills, adding up to a 2.25 mill total. The money could only be used for buildings, furniture, or equipment, and not for teacher salaries or other labor costs.

If approved by voters, the bond would have a life of 25 years.

"If your home has a taxable value of $48,000, the average figure in Lansing, the additional 0.75 mills would cast you $3 more a month," Caamal-Canul told the group at Fairview.

The renovations dovetail with a major curriculum overhaul that puts each of the district's three high schools on one of three educational "pathways," with feeder schools that start paving the way along each path in elementary and middle school.

The additions and renovations at Everett High School are the costliest item on the district's agenda, at $19.3 million.

Everett, already a magnet school for the visual and performing arts, would stay focused on that pathway, with major upgrades to its auditorium, choir and band rooms, art and other facilities.

Jim Allen, a performing arts teacher at Everett since 2005, took a group of Everett students on a field trip to Washington, D.C., last week. One of their stops was the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where one of Allen’s former students is an assistant director of education.

"Seeing the careers these kids can get with a good arts training is really exciting," Allen said. "The bond is critical in terms of getting a solid stage for the performing arts at Everett."

Caamal-Canul wants Everett to be the region's top arts education center, but the facilities there are strictly 1960s. Dance instructor Karen Knaebel runs a four-year dance program at Everett, cramming a class of 30 students into a 20-foot-by-30-foot studio. A wooden-framed dance mirror is parked in the hallway, where overflow students dance as their feet bang into lockers.

Art teacher Pam Collins' room is piled with boxes of supplies, with little storage or space to walk between desks. Collins wants to add ceramics to the program, but no place to put the kiln.

The band and choir rooms are in truly sad shape, with sagging ceilings, grim lighting and pitted walls.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a strong supporter of the May 3 bond proposal, said the problem with school facilities goes beyond inadequate technology, citing the “tired” and “dingy” condition of many schools.

“We have the commitment [to students] from teachers and staff, but environment matters too,” Bernero said. “We need send the message to our students that they matter.”

Everett’s cinderblock auditorium is a special target of frustration. Not much has been done to it since it was built in 1960. Clunky stage lights are perched on scaffolding set up among the seats. In the aisles, puke-green carpet is held together with duct tape.

"The acoustics are terrible," Allen said. The proposed renovations would change that.

Among the auditorium’s most serious drawbacks for Allen’s theater students is the lack of a shop area for building scenery.

“We do major productions," Allen said.

"We don't use cardboard backdrops." For a 2013 production of "Sweeney Todd," the students re-created the rotating cube set used in the Broadway show.

"We had to do it in pieces and move it through a standard doorway and put it together on the stage," Allen said.

Allen teaches his theater class in an old English classroom, with no room for actors to get up and move. The video production room is a regular classroom, jury-rigged with curtains and a forest of equipment.

Additions at Everett, should the bond pass, would include a scenery shop, a theater classroom and "real" video studio, with computers and monitors like those used in the burgeoning CGI and visual arts fields.

Everett would also expand its schoolwithin-a-school, NewTech, a project-based model of education.

Everett's NewTech High is a popular program of choice and enrollment is "standing room only," according to Caamal-Canul.

Administrators are at pains to point out that the pathways envisioned by the district, such as Everett's visual and performing arts pathway, will be offered in addition to, rather than instead of, a traditional general education.

Allen gets excited talking about Everett as a "performing arts school," but principal Susan Cheadle-Holt prefers the word "focus." Whether students choose any one pathway as a career goal, Cheadle-Holt said, the “pathway” subjects benefit all students.

"Kids from inner city areas don't have the opportunities other areas have, to take private lessons and so on," Cheadle-Holt said. Everett's VPA pathway "gives them opportunities they wouldn't normally have. It brings kids to school. Kids who normally wouldn't have an interest in school come to dance, or for band."

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