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Local teacher argues Muskegon Heights students need money, support not school closures

Jeffery Rundhaug is a Grand Rapids resident who teaches 7th and 8th grade Social Studies at Muskegon Heights Academy, one of the 38 schools the State of Michigan has targeted for closure.
Superintendent Ross meeting with Muskegon Heights students about the possible closure of their school.

Superintendent Ross meeting with Muskegon Heights students about the possible closure of their school. /Jeffery Rundhaug

Muskegon Heights students at a meeting about the possible closure of their school

Muskegon Heights students at a meeting about the possible closure of their school /Jeffery Rundhaug

I can't keep my mouth closed any longer regarding the imminent closure of my school, Muskegon Heights Academy.

The issue of the achievement gap among our students and others is very complicated and made worse with bad policy from the State of Michigan.

Exactly 38 of the 38 schools targeted for closure by the School Reform Office (SRO) are in high poverty areas.

Let me say that again, ALL 38 schools slated for closure are in high poverty areas.

I would ask you, "Do you think this is a coincidence?" Every single study ever done by man proves poverty and low achievement go hand-in-hand. The answer to low achievement is to provide multiple levels of interventions, which requires more funding.

Under our system my school, Muskegon Heights Academy (7-12), receives the same amount per pupil as a student in Caledonia, which has very little poverty comparatively. So the students in Caledonia require fewer interventions and support. Our faculty, staff and administration are generally paid less than our counterparts in districts that do not struggle with poverty. So our payroll is not more than comparative schools. This means we have to provide intervention support with very little extra money.

Our teachers at MHA attend mandatory training that amounts to around 80 hours a year. We are nearly all experienced teachers, most having our Professional Teaching Certificate. This means we have taught successfully for more than three years in the state of Michigan in our area of certification. We have HIGHLY skilled teachers who get better at our craft every single day.

At MHA we test our students quarterly using a nationally ranked test provided by Scantron. Using this testing product we can prove we are seeing growth. Our district goal for testing results is 1.5 years of growth in reading and math. Our test scores last year met that goal. Let me say that again, our students achieved 1.5 years of growth in reading and math in nine months. The teachers at MHA are making a difference in an area that struggles economically and academically.

We also know that consistency is important to achievement. Our building and our district has already been closed once before with devastating effects on the community and academic performance of our students. MHA has had no fewer than THREE different reform models forced on us in the past five years. We had a Charter Academy program that failed. We had a curriculum forced on us the following year that failed to move our test scores and they actually went backward! We had the SRO bring in a reform program for the second semester last year. The faculty has absorbed these changes and woven them into our teaching with ease. The SRO is not taking any of this into consideration.

I would also point out that the old Muskegon Heights Public Schools were failing for many years before state intervention became a reality. Yet, the district is given five years to turn around the problem. We were not allowed to do what educators know work. We were required to try three different reform plans to "raise test scores". None of these plans worked.

None of them!

What works is teaching, with intervention supports to close achievement gaps. We have been provided very little extra funding to provide those intervention supports.

This job is not easy, it's incredibly difficult. It's made more difficult by politicians who meddle in classrooms and have zero expertise in education. It's made more difficult by the SRO that ignores the facts on the ground. It's made more difficult by a state that only considers the very flawed MStep testing regime when considering priority status or closure. We have bent to the will of the changing political environment because we aren't there for the politicians. We are there for the kids.

The SRO plan to close schools in Michigan ignores the effect this has on the local community. We know from the effects in Detroit, that when a neighborhood school is closed the neighborhood dies and people move out. One sure fire way to finally kill off Muskegon Heights would be to close the only public school that serves this city.

As noted in the letter sent to the district superintendents, most of the schools provided as an alternative to MHA are more than 30 miles away. Options such as, Fremont, Sparta, Kent City, GRPS, Grand Haven, Spring Lake, all in other counties! This is not only a hardship for MHA families, but laughable to think our students would travel to Kent County to go to school.

I understand for many like me, comfortable in our suburban homes in other cities, that Muskegon Heights seems far away. I have heard many prejudicial statements made about how "they" don't care, "they" are all on welfare or "they" have let their city and schools crumble. (The district is majority African American.) I would tell you, I spend more time awake in Muskegon Heights than I do any where else. This is a city that is trying, people that are hard working. My students and their community deserve better from the State of Michigan and the SRO.

My students deserve the world class education we should be giving to all students in Michigan. They deserve to have their own neighborhood public school so they can walk to class.

I hope the SRO reconsiders this plan to close schools. What is needed is better intervention supports to insure students are able to achieve. All students deserve a good education, but the plan the State of Michigan has put forth ignores the fundamental problem facing kids in failing schools, poverty.

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