Stress and Uncertainty Remain Over Red Cedar School Plans

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Monday, November 25, 2019, 7:55 am
Karessa Wheeler

School Board members Chris Martin and Kath Edsall at the Oct. 14 meeting. Edsall lives in Red Cedar and advocated for that school's reopening. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

The decision to reopen Red Cedar Elementary next fall as a traditional neighborhood elementary school is being met with mixed reaction by residents and parents, some who would prefer to have Red Cedar operate as a swing school for another year.

Superintendent Dori Leyko announced on Nov. 15 that Red Cedar would reopen for the fall of 2020 as a combination of early childhood programming with the addition of an elementary school with one class each of K-3. Grades four and five would each be added in subsequent two years.

Residents and the East Lansing Schools’ Board of Trustees have long discussed the opportunity of reopening Red Cedar as an alternative programming destination for the District, with the idea being the incorporation of something like a Reggio or Montessori pedagogy, in addition to early childhood education.

There had also been discussions of Red Cedar being on a schedule similar to Michigan State University in order to help families whose parents work according to that calendar, or utilizing multi-grade classrooms.

As is stands now, the school will house Great Start Readiness, Young 5’s, special education preschool, and traditional k-3 classrooms. Currently around 90 children live in the Red Cedar School boundary that will go into effect the fall of 2020.

“We don't understand how Dori and the Board can force this Red Cedar decision without doing anything to make Red Cedar a comparable experience to the other buildings in the District,” said James Barger, parent and member of the Red Cedar Programming Committee.

Barger also expressed concerns about the ability of the District to complete Phase 2 of the Red Cedar renovations in time for the fall 2020 opening. (Phase 1 renovations happened before the school was used to house the Glencairn population in 2018-19. Currently it is home to the Pinecrest school population, as that school is rebuilt.)

“There are a lot of questions about this new school. Is there going to be anything special about it? Families like ours were made to feel like pawns when the District closed Red Cedar. Now we are being made into pawns again,” Barger wrote in a recent letter to the Board of Education. “This feels even more egregious than the situation five years ago. I am truly glad for all of the families that get to enjoy nice new buildings. Why should families want to go to this school? So far, no one has told us anything other than the ability to walk.”

Leyko has not ruled out the integration of special programming down the road, but that isn’t enough assurance for some parents whose children will attend the school next year.

“I'm disappointed that we still don't know what kind of school this is going to be,” said former committee member Victoria Solomon, whose children are currently slated under the District’s plan to be separated next year, with one in Red Cedar and one in Glencairn. “Will it be a Montessori school? Or a regular elementary school with single classrooms for each grade? Mixed grades in each classroom? Will there be a principal, will there be funds for a new library, will there be extra support for all the international students?”

“We don't know,” Solomon concluded. “As for my family personally, we will wait until programming is in place before we make a decision about where our kids will go, especially since my kids would be at different elementary schools under the current plan.”

Roshan Ahadi also lives in the Flower Pot neighborhood adjacent to Red Cedar and has two boys that currently attend Glencairn Elementary, with one now slated to move to Red Cedar next year. This will the fourth move in four years for the family, from old Glencairn to Red Cedar back to new Glencairn and now back to Red Cedar.

But until now, at least all the school’s children, teachers and staff have remained together. Today not only is the programming at Red Cedar still unknown, a new staff will have to be arranged for the school, a new library created, and dozens of other details ironed out before Red Cedar’s reopening in August.

“The ‘vision’ for this smaller elementary school is very unclear at this point,” Ahadi said.

The decision on programming at the school began with the creation of the Red Cedar Programming Committee last spring.

Members included Superintendent Leyko; Glenn Mitcham, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment; Lorraine Ware, Glencairn Principal; Shane Johnson, Whitehills Principal; Julie Bungard, Glencairn Teacher; Daryl Longstreth, former Glencairn teacher, current Instructional Coach; and Robert Cawson, former Glencairn teacher and currently a principal in another district.

Cawson left the district in June to take a job in another district and did not take part in the fall committee meetings, but shared this comment with ELi:

"I would just like to comment and say the transparency of the entire process with the committee, to gathering input and data, to providing feedback was outstanding. Dori was very personable and the group was phenomenal. I had been a part of many other groups like this and this one was a treat because it was clear we were all in it to listen to each other and find a scenario that was best for students. I removed myself prior to coming to any culminating point so commenting on the actual decision would not be right. Ultimately, I am so happy for EL and miss the community and staff."

Leyko told ELi by email that the Red Cedar Programming Committee also included four parents whose children attend Glencairn, including two from the Red Cedar neighborhood, plus one community member from the Red Cedar neighborhood. She did not provide their names.

The committee was scheduled to meet six times – March 26, April 17, April 24, May 8, Oct. 16 and Oct. 24 – but actually met only five of those times. (It is unclear which meeting was cancelled.)

“Five meetings were held with the committee – three in the spring and two in the fall,” Leyko wrote to James Barger, one of the parents who was a member of the Programming Committee. “I did cancel 1-2 meetings in the spring once I felt that we could continue the discussion in the fall and that nothing had to be decided in the spring. I also attended the May 2 Red Cedar Neighborhood Association meeting at Red Cedar School where I gave a presentation and offered attendees the opportunity to reach out to me with suggestions, concerns, questions, etc.”

Very brief notes from the meetings, supplied by Leyko (see PDF), show that the bulk of them were taken up discussing the contents of a community survey that was sent out over the summer. The group also heard a presentation from a Holt School District representative about “hybrid calendars.”

No notes are available for the meetings that were scheduled for Oct. 16 and Oct. 24, after the District received the results of the survey. But the agenda for Oct. 24 provided by Leyko said the group had planned to “brainstorm/evaluate options based on survey data.”

A final meeting was scheduled for Nov. 14 but was cancelled by Leyko according to Barger.

She told him in an email that “we (the committee) decided at the end of the last meeting that I had all of the information I needed to move forward.”

The survey showed that roughly half the respondents would either “likely consider” or “strongly consider” sending their children to Red Cedar for instructional programming such as Montessori or Reggio.

However, Leyko told the Board that what she took away from the results is that there is a high level of support for early childhood programming, but that overall residents preferred to stay with their neighborhood schools regardless of programming, unique calendars or multi-grade classrooms.

“With all the different options we put out there,” she said, “one of the big takeaways was that most respondents indicate that they plan to stay at their neighborhood no matter what you put over there” at Red Cedar School.

Barger says that there were actually no discussions of programming at the Red Cedar Programming Committee meetings – just discussions of surveys.

He is asking the Board to delay the reopening of Red Cedar as a neighborhood elementary school until the fall of 2021, giving them enough time to fully explore alternative programming and make sure the school is fully renovated after serving as a swing school for several years.

“It just seems to many of us that there has been very little discussion about the unique challenges of the Red Cedar school, as well as the administration's/board's plans for dealing with them, Barger wrote in an email to the superintendent.

“As a district, we made a strong effort to include parents in the decisions about all of the other buildings, but have had none of those same discussions surrounding Red Cedar. It feels to many of us like this decision has been rushed through without any discussion with the affected parties,” he wrote.


Update: See Trustee Kath Edsall's response to questions, received after publication of this article, by clicking here. We added Robert Cawson's comment in the article above, after receiving it post-publication.

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