Dear Ben Schuldiner: The message is Lansing Schools’ strengths


Revision is an undeniable part of writing. It’s when the writer sees what they have written and then sees it again. They rethink it. Ideas and purpose become clearer, and sometimes the message changes.

A changed message is what I wish for Lansing’s public schools.

In a recent City Pulse story, Ben Shuldiner, Lansing Schools’ superintendent since 2021, said that to foster significant academic improvement, the district first needs to focus on reversing plummeting enrollment, raising graduation rates and reducing the number of chronically absent students.

The district’s message on an enrollment increase needs rethinking. Revise that to reverse plummeting enrollment by raising the graduation rate and reducing the dropout rate. The district has success on both. Emphasize that.

In 2023, the four-year graduation rate was 76.7 percent, meaning 514 of 673 high school seniors received diplomas. That was an improvement from 68.16 percent.

The dropout rate was down last year, improving from 17.04 percent to 8.62 percent. The 10-year average dropout rate was 184 students per year. Last year, 58 students left without their diplomas.

More than 1,200 additional students will graduate over the next 10 years if the Lansing district holds the line at a 58-student loss per year. When the number is that small, you can almost see the faces. That’s why it’s important to focus on the students the district has.

Nino Rodriguez, a nearly 50-year member of the Lansing schools’ community with teaching, administrative and Board of Education experience, said it like this, “Educate the ones we have.”

That can also be revised to the title of a Stephen Stills song, “Love the One You’re With.”

It’s perplexing that the superintendent is calling for increased enrollment when the district has a teacher shortage. Class size will grow bigger if student numbers increase, but teacher numbers do not.

Just as in the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” class size should not be too small or too big but just right for student success.

A goal to increase enrollment, especially by getting back students who live in Lansing but go to another public district, is what the church calls sheep rustling. Even though Lansing schools got rustled first.

Don’t call me naïve. I know big enrollment numbers affect the district budget because the state pays school districts for each student. Currently, each student brings a record-high estimated $10,000 to the budget.

This system of funding public education, along with the state’s schools of choice program, has destabilized public schools. Parents move their children around like checkers seeking that “good” school district. Don’t blame them, but a district with a reputation for “good” schools can keep improving because, with increased enrollment, that district gets more money to work with. That is the reward of increased enrollment.

Each child not attending one’s home district takes away a bit of the “good” of a school district. But parents should ask, what does “good” mean? What is “good” for some families may not be “good” for others. What is “good” for some students may not be “good” for others.

Sending a child to another district can accelerate a downward spiral for an entire community: Property loses value. Time spent in the car increases. Residents are less involved where they live.

Even when the school district and the city government are separate, public schools add expense for taxpayers.

For instance, the intersection of Jerome and Marshall streets, near my house, needs an expensive new traffic light, but Lansing city officials wonder if it’s worth the expense. They proposed installing a four-way stop instead.

NO, said Eastfield Neighborhood at their February meeting. Motorists from two high schools, Eastern and Lansing Catholic Central, use the Marshall and Jerome streets traffic light. Twice a day, five days a week, Marshall Street is jammed with cars that must be managed through the neighborhood.

The expense of public schools is real but worth it. Lansing Schools’ legacy is producing leaders.

Everett High School grads include State Sen. Sarah Anthony, head of the powerful Appropriation Committee; Joel Ferguson, a businessman and developer who was a longtime MSU trustee; and Paula Cunningham, state director of the AARP who presided over Lansing Community College and was Capitol National Bank CEO.

Sexton graduate Samuel Duncan Jr., pastor of the Lansing Church of God in Christ, is also the bishop of the Michigan Southwest Third Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Church of God in Christ.

This is not history. Today’s committed Lansing families value socioeconomic and international diversity. They value language immersion schools, like Lewton and Post Oak. They love Eastern Fields, the athletic complex on Pennsylvania Avenue where Lansing Schools built a state-of-the-art multi-purpose athletic events facility with tennis courts, practice fields, concessions, a baseball field and a synthetic turf soccer and football field surrounded by an eight-lane running track. Every year, they send Lansing grads to Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, the Harvard of the Midwest.

Revise the goal for Lansing schools, Mr. Shuldiner. Emphasize the improvements underway. Say Lansing Schools will use what it has to continue building on its legacy and strengths. And then do it.

(Dedria Humphries Barker is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.)


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