Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) have been through many changes since Ypsilanti and Willow Run schools consolidated in 2013. But with a five-year contract for new superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross in place and new administrators appointed to key positions in the district, school district officials are hoping to create stability and map out a course for the district over the next few years.
Zachery-Ross says she benefited from spending a year as interim superintendent before being appointed to the position permanently.
"It was good to see what (staff and students) celebrated, and keep those things, as well as what they dreamed of and what they think about where we might be going, and what we need to reflect on," she says.
She says the next five years will be about "steering the course" and bringing a vision for the district to life. District officials are following a school improvement "blueprint" plan developed by the Michigan Department of Education. That includes making sure that each school building not only has a principal but also an instructional coach and a "climate and culture" coach. YCS officials are also scrutinizing collaborations with other nonprofits and organizations to make sure their goals align with YCS' goals, Zachery-Ross says.
"We want to be able to see the fruits of our work and ensure we have a collective vision," she says. "We talk about collective efficacy a lot, and our motto is 'Stronger Together.'"
Early education goals
Having worked in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) before coming to Ypsi, Mumtaz Haque knows something about tough school districts and discussions about district consolidation efforts. Haque is the new principal at Ford Early Learning Center, 2440 E. Clark Rd. in Ypsi Township.
She started out teaching third through sixth grades but later was assigned to be a kindergarten teacher. That experience taught her that upper elementary and middle school students' problems stemmed from inadequacies at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten level.
"Those foundational skills you learn in kindergarten are the ones needed in upper elementary and middle school," Haque says. "It's my commitment with (Ford) to give students a very strong, solid foundation in literacy, math and science, and social studies."
She says the other side of the equation is getting parents on the same page, including making sure they understand terminology used by educators.
"During preschool orientation, we had to be mindful about how we educate parents as well," Haque says. "We know terms like social-emotional learning and cognitive, because we're educators. We have to explain and give examples to parents about what does cognition mean and why do we emphasize social-emotional learning."
She says she turned Detroit's Mark Twain School for Scholars around in seven years, raising its MEAP scores to be among DPS' best, and she predicts similar successes at Ford.
"I really believe we can turn around schools and make our students successful, especially in communities and homes where they are (experiencing) some of the greatest challenges in life," she says. "My commitment is to make sure students feel safe, loved, and valued. I believe every child is unique."
In August Gregory Anglin was appointed the new principal at Holmes Elementary, 1255 Holmes Rd. in Ypsilanti Township, but he's not new to Ypsilanti. Most recently he was an assistant principal at Salem High School in Canton, but before that, he taught in the Ypsilanti schools just before consolidation. He's also a graduate of Willow Run High School.
He says he believes his understanding of the Ypsilanti community and the history of the consolidation gives him an advantage in his new role. He expects that history to "lessen the learning curve."
He notes that another YCS motto is "saving lives," because staff believe that's what a good education and early childhood interventions can do.
"We understand the students we serve don't have the same advantages of other students across southeast Michigan, so it's mandatory that we give them everything we have so they have the opportunity to be successful," Anglin says. "My vision for my students is to change their lives, break the cycle if they're in a cycle of poverty or not finishing school. At Holmes, we say, 'Just okay isn't okay.' We have to give our students our very best and go above and beyond."
Retaining middle school students
Ypsilanti Community Middle School, 510 Emerick St. in Ypsilanti, has a brand-new principal, Steven Elam, and a new associate principal, Jeanina Harris. Harris isn't new to the district, however. She formerly served as principal at Ford Early Learning Center and thinks that knowing the staff, community, parents, and kids will prove to be an advantage in her new role.
Harris and other administrators are concerned about decreasing enrollment at the middle school level over the last few years, though enrollment is up a little this fall, she says. She notes that while the district has gone through a lot of changes in the last five or six years, that's not all bad.
"Change is hard, but going through that change really led us to completely evolving this whole idea of a blueprint and putting systems in place," she says. "That's what's going to build consistency. Even when there are changes in personnel, the system is still there."
Harris says she already sees the district's work paying off.
"I'm starting to see that impact with the enrollment increase, and I think we're going to continue to see Ypsilanti families bringing their children back into the district," she says.
Before coming to YCS, Elam served as an assistant director of Algebra Nation for Michigan but says he's excited about the opportunities at YCS. He's noted that all the staff members he's met are committed to putting students first.
"One of my biggest hopes and dreams for the middle school is that change in climate and culture. If that's not in place, if there's no trust in the system and commitment from adults, then students will not be able to focus," he says.
Elam's next goal after that is making sure that students are working at grade level in all subjects. He says he's talked with high school teachers about deficits students are bringing with them to high school, and how that will create difficulties in securing 21st-century careers.
"The more deficits they're coming in with, the more difficult it will be for them to become their best selves," he says.
To that end, professional development for staff is a big priority.
"I especially want to get teachers excited about reading, because whatever they're excited about, the kids will get excited about too," Elam says.
Quality of instruction is a priority, so district officials have created a support structure to help teachers be successful, according to Assistant Supt. Carlos Lopez.
"Our district is operating under visions of high-quality instruction, and we want to make sure everyone knows what good instruction looks like, feels like, and sounds like," he says. "Further, we're also looking at culturally-responsive teaching practices and pre-K literacy essentials."
Conversations around culture and climate are crucial as well, he says.
"To be successful in today's reality, we need to focus not only on instruction but on building authentic relationships with students," Lopez says.
He says all adults and children want to be seen, heard, valued, and respected.
"This district is implementing deeply restorative practices and conscious discipline," he says, including trauma-informed crisis prevention interventions that show adults how to de-escalate situations.
He and Zachery-Ross emphasize that another goal will be taking a close look at partnerships with organizations and initiatives that seek grants to work with local schoolchildren, and making sure that each partnership aligns with the school district's blueprint for student success.
"It's about intentionality," Lopez says. "Each partner who comes into the school is intentionally pushing our work forward, with great results. The conversation here is: How does it fit? And if it doesn't fit, it doesn't come in."
Zachery-Ross says the district's blueprint is about establishing systems that create consistency.
"No matter who comes and goes, those systems need to be in place," she says.
Zachery-Ross is calling for an "intense student support network" to meet students' academic and social-emotional needs in every school building, as well as a staff support network.
She notes that the YCS Board of Education also has its own priorities for the district and is exploring a variety of issues, from how internships are implemented to whether the district should consider the Montessori model at one of its buildings. The board also has decisions to make about land disposition. Both Thurston and Kettering Elementary schools have been demolished and the district must decide what to do with the land.
The grade level configuration could even change, with daycare and pre-kindergarten programs added across the district, since staff known that children are coming into kindergarten with existing deficits.
Both Zachery-Ross and Lopez talk about the urgency behind the motto "Saving Lives."
"It's about keeping students from being incarcerated and losing their lives," Zachery-Ross says. "We want to provide them with decision-making skills and tools and resources so that when they leave they can make decisions about college or career or going into the armed forces. And in order to make that choice, they need an education that includes decision-making skills and how to collaborate with others."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.