Over the coming week we will be presenting a series of position papers on key school board issues. We begin with the most important issue: solving the retention problem.
RETAINING OUR FAMILIES
Keeping students and families in our district: It is an important task and the best indicator that our district is doing its job well. By creating the conditions for more district students to attend district schools, we not only stabilize our funding base but we also build relationships that keep our community strong.
Retention is a problem.
The number of students from the Ferndale school district who choose other districts is large and it is increasing. Using Michigan’s MI Schools data, we find that Ferndale’s retention rate is 68%. That means 68% of school-age children that reside in our district actually attend our schools. It’s a number that is smaller than any nearby district except Detroit and Oak Park and is considerably smaller than Berkley (90%), Royal Oak (85%) or Hazel Park (85%). And the downward trend for Ferndale is steeper than for any of those other districts. In Pleasant Ridge, the retention rate is less than 40%; nearly 1/3 attend private schools and another 1/3 attend public schools in other districts
Retention is a problem that we can solve.
Within the first month we will begin three specific retention initiatives:
Sharpen administrative focus and responsibility
- Set specific retention targets and build achievement of these into future evaluation and compensation packages of top administrators.
Cultivate better relationships with current and prospective parents
- Re-examine all retention/recruitment-related efforts: the type of communications, the nature of the appeal, the breadth of the audience and the appropriateness. Develop strategies for board members and the district to manage negative news that people receive from outside sources. Set goals for the district to develop honest, accurate materials for comparing district educational quality, acknowledging weaknesses and calling attention to strengths. Examine more ways to recruit and retain, such as better front-line customer service, more effective school tours, and a proactive relationship with the Ferndale District Ambassadors.
- Mandate home visits to young families by administrators and board members to demonstrate how we value families and showcase our school district.
- Acknowledge that building trust requires transparent governance, and foster a culture on the board and committees that allows citizens to monitor and participate before, during and after meetings. Engage community organizations and municipalities, and by extension, current and prospective families.
Gather more data to guide decision-making
- Conduct extensive exit interviews with all those who have recently chosen not to send their children to district schools to determine reasons and possible remedies. Remain in touch with those families on a yearly basis to determine long-term effects of leaving the district.
- Work closely with real estate agents and other business owners to gauge perceptions among home sellers and prospective home buyers.
Within the first year, we will create a long-range vision
- Begin inclusive strategic planning now. Outline a schedule and include voices from the community. Dr. David Arsen of Michigan State University’s School of Education says the single most effective step a district can take to keep its residents are “extensive, aggressive community efforts to get people together, to get them talking by providing information and trying to create a vision of a district that is committed to diversity and excellence”(2012). (The district’s current strategic plan is 12 years old. After requests by CLEAR the school board finally approved a request to hire a strategic planner in May 2012. Unfortunately, even the process for selecting a planner is far behind schedule (what was proposed as a two-month selection process has now gone on for over four months and is not even close to completion).
- Implement the plan by monitoring performance against specific targets set by the board. Organize the board’s meeting agendas around the goals and objectives of the strategic plan.
Within the first four years, we will improve academic achievement
- Better academic performance results in higher retention. Retaining students builds peer relationships, locks in parental resources and helps improve learning. Improved learning in turn raises the district’s public profile. Every step toward better retention will make it easier to work toward educational excellence, and every improvement in education makes it easier to succeed at retention. Instead of a vicious circle, we can build a virtuous one.
- Academic performance is a problem with many layers. At a minimum, we must empower teachers to teach, and collaborate with them to improve curricula, attendance, school culture and discipline. We must emphasize holistic education, including critical thinking skills, music, visual arts, performing arts, athletics, and technology.
The BOLD candidates are best equipped to solve the retention problem
Butters, O’Donnell, Leaks-May and Deegan-Krause have worked together to study the problem, looking at statistics at the local and state level. We have sought the advice of Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, experts at the schools of Education at Wayne State, Michigan State and Western Michigan, and the statistical resources of Data-Driven-Detroit. We have spoken to residents in forums and door to door, and we have conducted our own online surveys and analyses of the district’s survey.
We prefer not to draw lines between those who “support” the district and those who do not. We must welcome all who can attend our schools and pursue those who have for any reason chosen another school in the meantime. Acknowledging and fixing the large—and growing—problem of retention is the key to all of the other improvements we wish to make.