Historic, unprecendented funding intended to transform Battle Creek Public Schools

My vision is that every single child graduates BCPS college or career ready — Superintendent Kim Carter

Battle Creek Public Schools are poised to turn from a district lacking the financial, material, and personnel resources to properly educate its students to one that supports every child enrolled there.

A $51 million grant over five years from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is being viewed as a new beginning for the Battle Creek Public Schools where declining enrollment and the resultant loss in funding have threatened the district’s future. 

“Today I am excited about having the opportunity to implement a comprehensive, transformational plan that is aimed at individualized support for every single child within our school district,” said BCPS Superintendent Kim Carter in a May 5 press briefing announcing the grant. Every grade level will be examined and, using best practices for educating students, reforms will be put in place as needed.

Carter said the district will implement a comprehensive reform plan “aimed at every grade level, every student, across every school.” It will start with 4- and 5-year-olds entering school and providing a quality pre-kindergarten summer school experience for them to shore up their ability to be ready for school. 

Further, a curriculum redesign will be done so teachers have access to a rigorous curriculum that will be implemented immediately upon their return to school in August.

The plan also will offer retention and recruitment incentives for teachers “so that we make sure that we have the best individuals in front of our students,” Carter said. They will be seeking those who have “the skills, knowledge, and ability needed to move students from where they are to where they need to be.” 

Carter continued, “We are excited about putting in place high school academy structures that are focused on their careers and providing students with opportunities to experience different avenues so that they are ready to succeed post-secondary instruction.”

“I think it's important to note that this was not just about good ideas. It’s anchored on what we know to be best practice and what we know to be essential for making sure that all students achieve,” Carter said.

Work done in recent years as part of the BC Vision process to create a community-led economic development plan that addresses jobs, talent development and a culture of vitality in Battle Creek proved to be the foundation needed to implement work in the schools funded by the grant, W.K Kellogg Foundation President and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron indicated.

“I believe very strongly,” Tabron said, “that this work does have to be undergirded with a truth and racial healing effort that really allows the community to face its reality and to build a strong enough bond across the community to hold that reality, and then to work together in a level of trust that allows us to move forward. That all happened before this grant had been made. I can't underestimate the importance of building those kinds of bonds and relationships in a community. And that work will have to continue as this grant is being implemented.”

As part of the BC Vision process, the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity authored a report describing college and career readiness of the community.  

The report also examined perceptions of the schools and educational opportunities in the Battle Creek area, and resources available to students across the region. In conversations with local residents, they heard comments such as: “What still ends up being the situation, ultimately, …the one thing that's remaining, is that it's the racial divide in this community that's keeping us from having really good discussions about what's best in this community for our students.”

The Battle Creek region “is racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse but deeply segregated,” the report said. For BCPS the issues of structural bias and segregation are in part tied to the State of Michigan’s 2003 Schools of Choice Policy, according to the report. 

Instead of integrating schools, the consequence of Schools of Choice seems to have made schools across the region (and across Michigan) more segregated. Economically advantaged (primarily White) students have retreated at higher rates from schools with high proportions of low-income students and students of color.

Comparing community demographics to district enrollment, while about 70 percent of people living within the Battle Creek Public Schools’ district boundaries were White, only 36 percent of students attending Battle Creek Public Schools were White, according to the NYU report. 

Similarly, even though Black residents comprised 22 percent of those living within Battle Creek Public School district boundaries, Black students made up 37 percent of students attending Battle Creek Public Schools. It appears a disproportionate number of White students who live inside the boundaries for Battle Creek Public Schools use school choice policies to attend neighboring districts.

Vulnerable students are the least well served by BCPS, according to the NYU report. The authors defined vulnerability as “susceptible to misfortune, violence, illness, and death,” and added it can also be thought of as increased susceptibility to discrimination, and systems of oppression that limit access to opportunity and social mobility, as experienced by “those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, or trans.” 

For example, low-income students and Black and Latino students across the Battle Creek region experience lower achievement levels when compared to their peers, the report indicates. More vulnerable students typically didn't have the same levels of access to rigorous college-ready curricula, schools, and out-of-school support programs.

The report “revealed very alarming information, at least alarming to us, as it related to equity and creating equal opportunities for all the children in Battle Creek,” said Le June Montgomery Tabron, W.K Kellogg Foundation President and CEO. And they were prompted to act. 

“We believe transformational change is needed, and can only happen with the bold vision and commitment that the Kellogg Foundation and Battle Creek Public Schools are announcing today,” Tabron said.

The action reverses years of fiscal pain for the school district. The school district’s 2016-17 budget included an $886,040 shortfall. The district budgeted revenues of $49.65 million and expenditures of $50.53 million. The district was anticipating a worse financial situation for 2017-18, which could have put it in line for state oversight.

Instead, the school district is celebrating its good fortune. The announcement to the community came at a special presentation at Battle Creek High School in which officials told the assembled students that they believed in them and supported them.

David Kirkland executive director of the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools suggested in the press conference that the grant offers the opportunity to think big.

“In some ways, we can we be aspirational, right?” Kirkland asked. He suggested the funding could allow the district to imagine “a new form of education within a post-industrial Rust Belt city,” one that matches the types of careers that exist within the region or that may someday exist here. He sees it as an opportunity to reimagine how schooling is done, especially for vulnerable students, but also for others. 

Stephen Chang from the National Equity Project said that often in discussions of equity people think it means caring about only some students. “In fact, what equity is about is recognizing that every child in Battle Creek deserves to be successful and to have a successful school experience,” Chang said. 

“The patterns that we see in Battle Creek are some of the patterns that we see across the country and they are rooted in both segregation within our society and historic unequal opportunity for communities of color and low-income communities. We know from projects going on across the country, that the only way that we're going to really transform those patterns is with bold action. And so we recognize that this investment by the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek Public Schools is exactly that kind of investment — bold action in order to really transform these patterns and show what can be done in the city that really provides every child with what they need.”

The grant is being described as historic and unprecedented.

“This grant for us is shifting from looking at individual programs and instead funding a transformative comprehensive plan that looks at the structural obstacles to success as opposed to the programmatic interventions,” Tabron said. “This is a first for us in its nature, as far as the level of comprehension as well as the structural goals that we have. And it will be a learning opportunity for us and in all of the other areas and priority places where we fund.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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