High-quality public schools are critical to growing the economy and creating a skilled workforce

Michael Kelly, elected to the Bay City Public Schools Board of Education in November, manages the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN), one of The Conservation Fund’s longest-running watershed restoration and sustainability programs. Prior to joining WIN, Kelly was the Auburn City Manager and worked as a nonprofit executive. He holds an MBA from Saginaw Valley State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Resource Development from Michigan State University.

QUESTION: You've been very active in the community through conservation efforts. What inspired you to run for school board now? 

Graphic courtesy of Bay City Public SchoolsANSWER: Beyond my work with The Conservation Fund, where we are working in partnership with multiple groups to promote conservation and restoration efforts across the Saginaw Bay region, I’ve spent years on boards of other local organizations such as Delta College, the Bay Area Community Foundation and the Saginaw Children’s Zoo and served in local government for a period of time. I feel that community service is important, particularly where there are challenges that need to be overcome.  To that end, I have two children, one of which is still a student in Bay City Public Schools and another that is a graduate. Education, and our public education system in particular, has always been important to me, so when this opportunity presented itself – with two open seats on the Bay City Public Schools Board of Education – I thought that I would throw my hat in the ring.  Public schools in general are facing a lot of challenges, and being on the school board puts me on the front lines where I can perhaps be helpful.

Q: Schools around the nation are facing big problems. There are staffing shortages and concerns over what kids missed as a result of COVID-19 closures. Some parents are seeking more input into what kids learn in the classrooms. What do you think are the most pressing issues here? 

A: It’s a challenging time for public education both here and across the country. We are still feeling the effects of learning loss from the pandemic, and we are adjusting programming to make up for that loss, particularly at the elementary level. Our reading performance at the third-grade level, for example, is not where it needs to be, so we will continue to make investments there. Our ability to attract and retain teachers is also a critical area that we need to focus on. We’ve seen an unprecedented amount of retirements and others that have left the profession entirely. It’s a competitive environment for teachers right now, there are more job openings than ever across public education. As a district, we need to be able to compete for the brightest and best teachers as they come out of college and that means competitive pay, more professional development opportunities, and class sizes that can help both teachers and students perform at their optimum level. I firmly believe that we already have the best teaching staff in the region and we need to maintain that staff and add to it when the opportunity presents itself. From a staffing perspective, finding bus drivers has also been a pretty consistent issue, and something that we are conscious of because we know that this impacts parents and students directly – first thing in the morning! Add to that issues related to funding, school safety, discipline, technology, standardized testing … it’s a long list that we have in front of us.

Q. We don't have space to outline everything the district plans to do to address the most pressing issues here, but what are some of the first steps you'd like to see us take? 
Kelly hopes recent work in the district encourages parents to sends their kids to Bay City Public Schools. (Graphic courtesy of Bay City Public Schools)
A. I think that there are two areas where we need to focus. First, we need to ensure that the school district is providing the best programming opportunities to encourage learning and student retention and attraction. In many cases, we are already there. Western High School for example, has led the Bay Arenac Intermediate School District in SAT performance. While not an exhaustive measure of performance, it does provide an important data point. However, there are still areas where we can improve. Second, we need to do a better job of telling our story. There are amazing things happening in the district – whether that is student performance, extracurricular activities including band, the arts, sports and club activities, our work-based learning program and more, we need to make sure that the public knows about all of the great things happening in the schools. I want BCPS to be the first choice for parents with children who live in the district, and frankly I want BCPS to be the first choice of parents and students in the school-of-choice districts that surround ours as well.  Today’s schools exist in an extremely competitive environment, and ours needs to lead the competition.

Q. What issues are looming on the horizon and how can the district begin to prepare for them?

A. One thing that we learned from the pandemic is that all students learn differently. We had some students that didn’t miss a beat going to an online format, but we also had some that really struggled – and continue to struggle. I think that this showed us something that we always knew, but that we weren’t implementing optimally, students sometimes need a more customized approach to learning.  So, I think that going forward there will be a more intentional focus on differentiating lessons for different learning needs of the students. We also see that the population of our region continues to drop, and the birth rate is decreasing commensurately. So we need to “right size” our schools to provide the optimal footprint for our student population and successful learning outcomes. Finally, we want BCPS to be the first step for students who want to go to college, the trades, or directly into the work force. That is why we are excited about what we are calling the “Central Redesign” at Central High School. This new program has a number of exciting features that the public will learn more about in the coming months, but perhaps the greatest feature will be the implementation of the “early college” initiative, where students will have the opportunity to earn up to 60 credits or an Associate’s Degree at Delta College, with tuition, books and transportation included – all while in high school. There is also an apprenticeship included in the model for those students going into the trades or the workforce.
Q. What does the school need from the community as a whole?

A. I firmly believe that our communty’s success is tied directly to our schools. Our schools provide people for the workforce, and also provide our community with a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting employers. We need our community to be active participants in our school district’s success. Come to the board meetings or any of the other community meetings that the district sponsors.  Come to the sports events, band and choir performances and theater productions. Have your business participate in the work-based learning program. Our schools are only as strong as our community and vice-versa. If you have an extra deep interest in our schools, come to board meetings, participate in  parent-teacher organizations, or if you have an extra, extra interest – run for school board! No matter what you do, we need your participation.

Q. What can parents do to help the school as a whole?

A. By far, the best predictor of student success starts at home. If you have students, make sure that they attend regularly. We have some schools that have fairly consistent truancy issues, and our teachers can’t do what they do best when the students aren’t there. If you have elementary aged children, read to them. Our children's ability to read is a fundamental determinant in how well they will do throughout their entire school career.  Also, don’t miss parent-teacher conferences. Those are a critical way to get feedback and express any concerns or issues that you as a parent might have. Finally help us advocate for BCPS. Parents and students are our best marketers, let people know what is happening in our schools!

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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com