Legislators, superintendents, students talk top issues in Michigan Schools

Student panels, from left: EGR high School senior Ben Sorota; Ottawa Hills and MySchool@Kent junior Scotty Pearson; Cedar Springs High School and KIH junior Max VanderMeulen; Lee High School and KIH senior Sophia Marin Moreno; and EGR High School senior Raenah Lindsey answer questions about their school experiences

Oakridge Public Schools Superintendent Tom Livezey asked a group of legislators to imagine being a guest reader to 25-30 third graders during March is Reading Month.

Forget the “A game” schools often presented to visitors, he said. Picture a student in the back holding his face because of an abscessed tooth. A child in the front reeks of marijuana because it’s in her home. Some students don’t understand the book because they don’t yet speak English. Another is triggered emotionally because the book is about a boy and his grandfather, and her grandfather is in jail. A student with an emotional disability is poking children around him, and then starts throwing staplers and chairs.

“These are the kind of things that are happening in the classrooms,” he said, connecting his scenario to the need for a weighted school funding formula based on each student’s learning needs rather than the current one-size-fits-all formula. He said equitable funding would enable him to double student achievement by hiring more teachers, counselors and media specialists.

 “When you go into that classroom in March and you realize all those needs in the classroom, you see the teachers — no matter how good they are — … They need more resources to surround them to be successful.”

Livezey addressed legislators as part of a superintendent panel during the West Michigan Talent Triangle “Policy Collaborative: Educators and Legislators Coming Together” at Kent ISD, which brought 40 superintendents, 12 legislators, and five students together to discuss topics chosen by superintendents. The event included a student panel, a superintendent panel and round-table discussions. Topics included school funding, youth mental health, career talent development and the state’s teacher shortage.

Event organizer Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for the West Michigan Talent Triangle, said legislators asked for events to delve deeper into education topics.

 “The intent of these events is to have an extended period of time for educators and legislators to come together to learn, and then to be intentional about building in specific policy topics that can go to Lansing and be implemented and acted on in fairly short order,” Glass said.

Making the Case of Equitable Funding

Implementing a student-centered school funding formula topped superintendents’ lists as the most important need, Glass said. A proposed formula, based on findings of the School Finance Research Collaborative, calls for additional funding for districts that rely more heavily on English Language Learning programs, special education and have greater numbers of students in poverty.

Student panelist Sophia Marin Moreno, a senior who spends part of her day at Lee High School in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, a high-poverty district, and part at Kent Innovation High School, on the Kent ISD campus, said she sees inequity in what schools offer. She said Godfrey-Lee struggles to adequately fund infrastructure. In June, the school’s roof collapsed.

“It’s just a drastic difference to when I go to Kent Innovation, where it’s a really new building and we have nice things.  In the bathroom the toilets flush automatically,” she said. “When I go back to Lee we have part of our building closed off because the roof collapsed…  I remember there were a lot of families worried, ‘If I send my kids here are they going to come back?’”

Mental Health at a Crisis Point

Mental health issues have reached a crisis point, students and educators said. According to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide reates for teens between the ages of 15 and 19 increased by 76% between 2007 and 2017, and the suicide rates for 10- to 14-year-olds have tripled.

East Grand Rapids Superintendent Heidi Kattula said students are dealing with trauma and every district is affected by suicide. “A lot of people talk about ‘we are here to save every child.’ We are not kidding anymore. This is as real as it’s going to get.”

Student panelist Ben Sorota, an East Grand Rapids senior, started a program called Peer listeners at school to support students struggling with mental health issues. He thinks teachers should be trained in suicide prevention. “Teachers are those first responders,” he said.

Superintendents also talked about relying on long-term substitutes and leaving positions unfilled because of the teacher shortage in Michigan. A 2017 report from the Michigan Department of Education found an 62% decrease in initial teacher certifications between 2004 and 2016. A 2019 report form the Center for American Progress found that between 2010 and 2018, Michigan was among just four states with a greater than 50% decline in teacher preparation program completion.

On the topic of career talent development, making education relevant so students are prepared for college and careers is key, superintendents said. Students need to be aware of options in the skilled trades as well as the college-degree path.

“Our job is to open more doors,” said Grand Haven Public Schools Superintendent Andrew Ingall. “Stop making (skilled) trade choices feel like second choice.”

Legislators said they came to learn more about education issues and continue dialog.

“We aren’t doing as well as we should be in education,” said State Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville). “I am a dairy farmer that needs to know a lot more about education in order to take intelligent votes… I feel like we can build enough trust with each other that we can ask some hard things of each other.”

Said State Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), “I think the work of the SFRC is really excellent work. I feel it’s important we continue this dialogue with superintendents and students so lawmakers understand what it means on the ground and in real life for our educators.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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