Merger flips demographic script at Ferndale schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Ferndale — Separate and unequal: That was the makeup of two elementary schools here before they merged last year in an attempt to desegregate classrooms and create a level education field for Ferndale Schools’ youngest students.

Kennedy Elementary School was majority white and not economically disadvantaged. Most parents served 40 hours of volunteer time a year and a lottery had determined admission. Roosevelt Primary School was majority black, a majority of students lived in poverty, volunteers were harder to come by and enrollment was open to all.

State test scores in 2015-16 showed a similar dichotomy: Kennedy students were about 58 percent proficient in third-grade reading. At Roosevelt, the proficiency rate was around 24 percent.

During a discussion on the district’s strategic plan, the school board decided in 2015 it was time to diversify the schools, which had operated under a restructuring plan since 2002 that eliminated neighborhood schools.

The new arrangement, which took effect in the 2016-17 year, was a Lower Elementary School for grades K-2 at the Roosevelt building and an Upper Elementary School for grades 3-5 at the Kennedy school.

One year later: students are more evenly distributed by race and economics at one school and majorities in race and economics have flipped at the other, according to data collected by the state.

Last year, the Upper school was roughly 54 percent black and 34 percent white, with a majority of students considered economically disadvantaged. The Lower school was about 42 percent white and 42 percent black and about 54.5 percent of students were considered economically disadvantaged.

New test score data from 2017 shows the proficient rate for third-grade reading at the combined Upper Elementary school — which educated all third-graders districtwide — was 22.5 percent, a considerable drop from Kennedy scores and a slight drop from Roosevelt’s.

District officials hope the consolidation, which combines low-income students with higher-income students and black students with white students in the lower grades, will help them address academic achievement gaps in the district, which are also happening statewide in K-12 schools.

The district is now considering consolidating its two high schools for similar reasons.

“Our practices and beliefs demonstrate that there are important educational benefits — cognitive, social and emotional — for all students who interact with other children from different backgrounds, cultures and orientations,” said Dina Rocheleau, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Ferndale Schools.

Some say the bold move — which drew criticism from some parents — reaffirmed the district’s choice to value diversity and equity.

“Are there growing pains? Sure,” said parent Kristy Stoll, who has a child at Lower Elementary and another who attended Upper Elementary last year. “But there are a lot of people who like what the restructuring is all about.

“When you move to Ferndale, you are open to diversity; you value racial diversity. That is the type of community this is.”

No mass exodus

With a new school year underway, it’s bustling inside the two schools. At the Lower Elementary, children are learning in colorful classrooms and the energy is high. At the Upper Elementary, students are focusing in on math and preparing for science classes.

This fall, enrollment at the two schools only dipped by 5 percent. Some parents had misgivings about the merger and others threatened to pull their children. But a mass exodus did not happen, school officials say.

Initially, kindergarten enrollment spiked by 20 to 30 students one week into the new arrangement in 2016, forcing district officials to scramble to create a new kindergarten class at the Lower Elementary school.

“That was a surprise; it’s a good surprise. It was a good problem to have,” Superintendent Dania Bazzi said this month.

So far this month, there are about 50 fewer students between the two elementary schools, but officials said district K-12 enrollment is near capacity — around 3,000 — and a decision was made to limit the choice enrollment window to prevent another spike in students.

The year before the merger, Roosevelt as a K-3 school had 432 students, Kennedy had 408 students as a K-6 school, and a third school, Coolidge, had 283 students in grades 4-6. Last year, there were 474 kids in the Lower school and 507 at the Upper. Under the merger, Coolidge was closed.

This year, there are 449 students at the Lower Elementary; at the Upper Elementary school, there are 481 students.

“At both Lower and Upper right now, we could not add an additional section of a grade as all of our classrooms are in use,” district spokesman Bill Good said.

“However, we could add a handful of students in any given grade without issue by simply increasing the overall class size slightly. We have very limited capability to grow beyond our current enrollment without substantial additions to our current school buildings.”

‘Not as lop-sided’

Parents, students and teachers had to adjust to new buildings and new faces. But the new arrangement has made it easier for teachers of the same grade level to collaborate and share ideas and best practices, Bazzi said.

“I think they knew this was the right decision for the district moving forward. You had widespread support from the staff that’s doing what is best for kids drives our decision,” Bazzi said. “Although there was challenges because there was change, they were able to work through those and understand this was for the greater good,” she said.

Ferndale Schools is a schools of choice school, and at the elementary level, about 23-26 percent are choice students. School district boundaries include all of Pleasant Ridge, most of Ferndale and sections of Oak Park and Royal Oak Township.

Bazzi came to the district in July, more than a year after the merger.

Her observations post-merger are the two buildings are more representative of the district in terms of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. About 62 percent of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged.

“This did address those two things, so you don’t see it as lopsided as before,” said Bazzi, a former math teacher.

Adjusting to changes

The issue of segregated schools is a national one and a problem for Michigan schools. In 2016, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California ranked Michigan among its top five most segregated states for black students in 2013-14, saying 48.7 percent of the state’s black students are in non-white schools.

Amy Meyersieck, a parent in the district, said her daughter attended the Upper Elementary school under the new arrangement last year as a fourth-grader after being a student at Kennedy. She returned this fall as a fifth-grader.

Meyersieck supported the merger and said the new arrangement took some getting used to for her daughter.

“She ended up being a classroom with only two or three close friends, boys and girls. And there were a lot of the kids from other schools, mostly boys. ... A lot of the kids had behavior differences. There was a hyperactivity, not listening to the teacher when asked to quiet down,” she said.

Upper School principal Katie Jeffrey said the change has brought a lot of benefits to her school. Spanish for all students grades 3-5 was returned after a long absence in the district, and she has a larger support staff that stay in the building to help students. They include a full-time social worker, a reading specialist and a speech and behavioral specialist.

Jeffrey says she needs parent volunteers during the school day. The change is what the district needed to make its schools reflect the world, she said, pointing to a foursome of boys — a mix of white and black — playing foursquare in the school’s playground.

“That is what America looks like, and a lot of schools don’t. It is the right work. It is the work our country needs ... to have us all be together,” Jeffrey said.

This year for the first time both district high schools merged football teams and are playing this school year as one, representing the Ferndale Eagles.

Next for the district: consideration of new arrangement for the district’s two high schools. As early as next spring, district officials will look next to its two high schools and consider whether a merger is feasible, sustainable and the right thing to do, Bazzi said.

Ferndale High School is 56 percent black while University High School is 96 percent black and comprised of students coming from Detroit through schools of choice.

The discussion on merging the high schools will have to deal with the fact the campus that houses the middle and high schools and the district administrative offices cannot take on the population of University High school, Bazzi said.

Bazzi said 2020 is the year the district can ask voters to support a zero mil bond and next spring is the right time to begin discussing further changes.

“My hope is we do a plan this year. We decide what action items are for the next five years,” Bazzi said.