It’s been about a year since the people of Albion gave up control of their school district. Voters agreed to let Marshall annex Albion’s struggling schools last summer. While the older kids go to Marshall to study, Marshall’s kept one elementary school in Albion. But the first year went less than smoothly, and some parents in Albion some doubt the annexation will serve Albion well in the long run.
Wanda Kemp has two kids in the Marshall Public Schools, including a son at Harrington Elementary – that’s Marshall’s K through 5 school in Albion. His name’s Zy’airh and he just finished second grade.
Kemp says Zy’airh has a hard time controlling his temper. This year, at Harrington, he got sent home so many times that she started getting truancy notices.
“I called the principal and told her, do not send me another letter telling me how many days my child had missed from school. Because unfortunately he’s not missing them because I’m not sending him. He’s missing them because you’re sending him home,” she says.
Zy’airh wasn’t the only one. From September through April, Harrington issued a staggering 159 out-of-school suspensions. By comparison, Marshall’s other three elementary schools combined issued just 27 such suspensions, even though Harrington also has the least number of students.
Kemp says Zy’airh’s behavior issues didn’t start with the annexation. But she also doesn’t think Marshall was ready to take on Albion’s K through 5 students. More than 60 percent of Harrington’s students are African-American. At Marshall’s other K through five schools, the student body is four percent African-American at most.
“Races, cultures, all that, there’s differences,” Kemp says. “So I don’t think they were really prepared and educated on how to deal with our children.”
And it’s not just the suspensions. From extra-curriculars to the attitude of the staff, some parents question Marshall’s administration of Harrington and its ability to provide the students there with the same opportunities as Marshall’s other K through 5 students.
Marshall Superintendent Randy Davis says annexation happened fast. And he says he’s always maintained that it would take a few years to get the new school settled in. But he acknowledges that Harrington got off to a rough start with discipline. He says the school didn’t focus enough on building relationships.
“All in all I think it, the culture got out of control from what we expected it to be. So we made some changes in May,” Davis says.
Harrington is getting a new principal, who’s coming in from the Detroit area. Marshall is also bringing staff from Albion-based Starr Commonwealth into Harrington. Davis says Starr will help school staff to manage conflicts without escalating them. Davis says Harrington has already changed its approach to discipline – and seen results.
“We actually decreased the out of school suspensions down to like two in remaining 30 days of school year,” he says.
Some parents – such as Zy’airh’s mom, Wanda Kemp – say they’re willing to give the school another shot.
“I’m just hoping they get more diversity with the teachers in there because it’s going to be needed,” she says.
But others have considered moving their kids.
Harrington had four teachers leave during the year, but not every classroom had an issue with turnover. Kevin Metz has a daughter who just finished fourth grade at Harrington and he says academically she had a good year. But outside of the classroom it was another story. Despite all of those suspensions at Harrington, Metz says the hallways and the cafeteria were another story.
“Based on my daughter’s stories every day about frustrations she had and experiences she had gone through, with arguments and fights and yelling and screaming and very loud rambunctious and at times roughhousing environments, which just seemed to be getting worse as the school year progressed rather than better,” Metz says.
Metz supported annexation. But he says the extra-curriculars that other Marshall K through 5 schools offer – things like science fairs and book competitions – haven’t come to Harrington yet. He says parents asked how they could help launch them, but Metz says they didn’t get much guidance. Davis, the Marshall superintendent, says he expects the volunteering situation to improve this year.
Then there’s field trips. Every year the Marshall fourth graders go to Mackinac Island. They fundraise, but Metz says Harrington parents didn’t know about the trip till one of them saw a post on Facebook. Davis says the kids would have gone anyway, but Metz says Albion philanthropists stepped in to sponsor the trip.
“The frustrating part for me was this was just one more thing throughout the school year, where we were told ‘everything’s going to be equal,’ but then it was only equal after the parents found out and said, ‘we want this too,’” he says.
Metz says his daughter has asked to transfer to a Marshall elementary that has a stronger soccer program.
Parents confronted new rules when Harrington opened. Metz says at first the school told him he’d need to write three days in advance to visit his daughter’s classroom, a policy he says Harrington soon reversed.
Nate and Charmaine Boggan have a granddaughter at Harrington. Davis, the superintendent, says parents only need a visitor pass if they’re at the school for “official business” for their child, and volunteers need a background check per state law.
Charmaine Boggan says she had to get a background check to sit with her daughter in class. The Boggans say the Harrington staff were agreeable about it.
“But it’s just kind of, it makes you feel like you’re not trusted, that you have to check to see if I have a police record before I can come in the classroom,” Charmaine says.
“It’s not warm and inviting,” Nate adds.
The way the Boggans describe it, Harrington didn’t exactly accommodate the Albion community or adapt to it. Instead,
“There was an attitude that my wife really experienced with the administration, where they basically said, ‘Well, this is not Albion anymore, this is Marshall,’” Nate says. “That was the attitude. It was pretty nasty,” says Charmaine.
Davis says that if the school gave off such a vibe, it probably came from the leadership, which as he points out is changing.
“That’s not what the teachers felt; it’s not what the organization feels,” she says.
Like Wanda Kemp, Nate and Charmaine Boggan say Harrington would benefit from a staff that reflects students’ diversity. But the Boggans say that since annexation, they see few African-Americans on staff.
Davis says – when it comes to teachers at least - it’s not just Marshall.
“Even in urban centers, do we have enough professionals of color that are standing in front of kids teaching courses? Probably not,” he says.
And he says the district is partnering with Albion College in an effort to recruit more of those professionals.
Some say the problem goes deeper than diversifying the staff. Albion Mayor Pro Tem Sonya Brown says right now, Marshall elementary schools are effectively racially segregated, with some Albion K through 5 students heading to Marshall but not the other way around.
“I think it speaks volumes when parents choose to bus their K to 5 students to another elementary school within the same school district rather than attend an elementary school right in their city. Something’s wrong,” she says.
Brown asks, why not bus some of the Marshall students over to Harrington? But Davis says that would defeat the purpose.
“The idea is you want to have a center-based and community-based and neighborhood-based school,” he says.
Brown recently took part in a forum in Albion where residents asked, what if Albion could once again have its own school district? She is part of a small group that has asked state legislators to help make it legally possible to re-launch a closed district.
Davis dismisses the idea of undoing the annexation. “People continue to stand behind us, we’re going to get there,” he says.
But Brown says she’s serious about pursuing a new Albion district - and pushing back on the Schools of Choice law that allows students to opt out of their districts.
“School of Choice is the root of it all. It’s what killed Albion – that’s why we were losing students left and right,” she says.
Students at Harrington Elementary go back to school on Tuesday.