School Board Approves New ELHS Principal, Delays Vote on Superintendent Contract and Approves Intercultural Dialogue Curriculum

Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 8:43 am
Karessa Wheeler

Above from left: Brianna Wells (19), Daphne Wells, East Lansing High School Principal Andrew Wells, and ELHS junior Andrew Wells (15).

[Update: Draft contract for the superintendent now available; click here to view.]

By unanimous vote of the East Lansing Board of Education and followed by enthusiastic applause, Whitehills Principal Andrew Wells was approved as the new East Lansing High School Principal.

Wells had worked at ELHS previously as Athletic Director and Assistant Principal.

“I am excited and looking forward to my return to the high school,” Wells told the Board members. “I can’t wait to work with the students and the staff.”

Wells was joined Monday night by his wife, Daphne, and daughter Brianna, 19, who is a pre-med student at the University of Michigan. Also present was his 15-year-old son, Andrew, who is an incoming junior at the High School.

“Andrew actually asked me ‘Dad, come to the high school,’” Wells said after the vote. “How could I turn that down?”

Later in the meeting, the Board discussed, but did not approve, a contract to keep Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko on as permanent Superintendent of the District.

The details of the contract were not shared with the public and are only available through a Freedom of Information request according to Assistant to the Superintendent Gail Gillengerten. [Update: Gillingarten has provided ELi with the draft version of the contract; see it here.] Trustee Kate Powers offered an amendment that the contract be approved at the meeting pending review by the District’s attorney (who had not yet reviewed it), but the Board chose instead to table the contract vote until a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Their attorney is expected to have reviewed the contract before that meeting.

“There are no glaring errors of the contract,” Powers said. “There are general concerns in accuracy of the language based on what was negotiated.”

Leyko, previously Director of Curriculum for the district, had been Acting Superintendent since the resignation of former Superintendent Robyne Thompson in January. Thompson was paid $138,690 a year and continued to be paid through June 30.

Leyko is currently interviewing applicants for the position of Director of Curriculum and hopes to have a recommendation to the Board July 10.

Wells is replacing Coby Fletcher, who has accepted a position as superintendent for the Escanaba Public School District.

Also during the meeting, the Board approved a revised curriculum for the Intercultural Dialogue program as part of high school English courses. The program had been a concern for several parents who asked the Board in February to reconsider including it in the English courses.

Intercultural Dialogue was an eight-week workshop between students at East Lansing High School and Michigan State University's Residential College of Arts & Letters. It culminates in a reception in which students show that they have learned about different cultures. One of the largest changes was that MSU has moved the program into its College of Education, where senior students in the department will be placed into the high school as a cohort for the full academic year and work with students both before and after the actual Dialogue takes place.

“We’ve made some updates and adjustments to it,” said Leyko, citing full review and feedback from the High School English staff and approval by the curriculum chairs. The content has been aligned with Common Core for English Language Arts. Leyko also took part in a panel discussion at MSU about the program and said “the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

In February, one mother told the Board that some of the lessons taught go against her religious beliefs.

“It is value and ideologically laden, and some of these values are in conflict with Christian-Judeo values,” said parent Karen Bonnell at the meeting. “Whether we agree or not, is it appropriate to have a values-laden course taught by an outside group?”

According to one of the Program's founders, Dr. Donna Rich Kaplowitz, "The goal of the program is to deepen students' ability to understand across racial identities and to learn strategies to support one another...The ELHS English Department has focused the program primarily on English 1 and English 2 classes where students read books like March (John Lewis), A Raisin in the Sun, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

To supplement the curriculum, trained MSU facilitators, in collaboration with classroom teachers work with students on developing various skills. The program is built upon other similar university - high school programs developed across the country and in Michigan. Students learn about the difference between dialogue and debate and are invited to practice dialogue skills where participants work to add to the common pool of knowledge and listen deeply to others rather than try to debate one another. Kaplowitz also explains that "Students are invited to participate but nobody is ever required to share publicly in any part of the curriculum."

Parents were sent home information about the program stating that their child could opt out of the program, but some parents worry that if a child opts out, he or she will face repercussions from the teachers and peers. And if they do take part, they risk being labeled and judged, said mother Tina Awokuse.

“I’ve worked hard to socialize my kids. This curriculum undermines all I’ve taught them,” she told the Board. “They are devaluing our perspective and our wisdom to our students.”

On Monday, Trustee Hillary Henderson questioned whether it was possible to measure the success of the program. Trustee Karen Hoehne responded that of the comments from the students who participated, 147 were positive and only 19 were negative.

All Board members voted in favor of approving the new curriculum.