Like many parents and teachers in our community, I was incredibly frustrated by the letter sent directly to parents and guardians by the State School Reform Office (SRO) on Friday, Jan. 20. The communication did nothing more than create worry and fear for parents and did not provide adequate details on what the SRO process for a potential closure would look like. Further, it did not provide any legitimate options for parents in the event their school were to close. The SRO included a list of potential schools parents could choose from that were anywhere from five to 29 miles away from the schools the students currently attend. Many of our students walk to school or rely on public transportation, thus it was especially troubling that the SRO provided no information for parents who do not own a vehicle and will not be able to transport their child such distances.
Since receiving the letter from the SRO, my staff and I, along with state Sen. Horn and his office, have visited the three area schools targeted by the School Reform Office: Saginaw High, Jessie Loomis and Atkins Elementary School. We have met with superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, grandparents and community members. We were present through each of the three visits the School Reform Office made to our three schools. It was important to us to get a boots-on-the-ground, firsthand experience of what these schools are like for our students and our teachers. In the past, I have visited these schools reading to students and for various community events, but these recent in-depth visits have centered on how the students are learning and what changes have been made to ensure our students succeed. Throughout our visits, we learned that each of the schools experienced difficulties and turnovers that lead to low test scores. We learned that while some of the difficulties can be attributed to leadership that has since been replaced, we also heard how deeply things like low teacher pay, lack of classroom resources and funding, and poorly implemented statewide assessments have contributed to the test scores the SRO so often refers to. Most importantly, we learned that these schools are committed to doing everything they can within their means to remove themselves from the priority list and turn these test scores around.
Having visited each of the schools, we saw firsthand that things ARE improving. When you walk into these schools, there is an immediate sense of community and respect. The schools now have plans created by the teachers, administrators and outside experts that specifically address all aspects of improving student test scores and learning outcomes. Simply looking at test scores on a paper does not encompass the challenges faced by our students, particularly those living in poverty. I have been repeatedly impressed by the dedication of the staff to ensuring these kids not only test well, but also are prepared to live well in a rapidly changing world.
Many of the students in these schools have been moved from one school to the next as their former schools have either been closed or have been threatened with closure their entire lives. Their teachers have changed frequently and have often been replaced by permanent substitutes acting in place of teachers who are forced to leave for positions that provide them the opportunity to earn a living wage and have stable employment. Combined, this sort of instability and inconsistency naturally leads to poor student test scores. Finally, these test scores do not reflect the time it takes for these internal changes at the schools to be implemented and have an impact on improving test scores.
I fully understand the School Reform Office’s concern over the quality of education of our children in Saginaw and Bridgeport, but closing these schools is not a way to improve the situation. School closures will only further contribute to the instability our kids face every day. We must work together, hand-in-hand as a district, as a community, and as a state, to create a safe, steady and secure environment for our children to thrive. I call on Gov. Rick Snyder to keep our schools in Saginaw County open so that they can continue the positive changes they have made and ensure our students receive the stability they deserve.
Vanessa M. Guerra