At the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education’s meeting Monday – the last to be held while students are still in school before summer vacation – district leaders reflected on what had been learned over the course of the pandemic and one year since the murder of George Floyd. The big question was how the district might make improvements moving forward based on what it learned.
The one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder loomed large over the meeting.
Meeting on May 24, one day before the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Superintendent Dori Leyko reflected on the progress the district has made since it outlined goals and steps to recommit the district to working toward racial and social justice.
Leyko recently presented on where the district stood in hitting the benchmarks it had set, but at Monday’s meeting, Leyko told the Board that, she is “beginning to question [her] evaluation of progress and monitoring.”
While Leyko believes that the administrators share enthusiasm and energy for creating a more equitable district, she questioned her ability as a white woman to evaluate the progress.
Later during Board discussion, Board Treasurer Kath Edsall summed the tension up as “intention versus impact.” The intentions of the district are to create a more inclusive district, but are the changes being implemented by the district making a positive impact for students of color and other minoritized groups?
Leyko said that moving forward, she would like to create more opportunities for students and families of color to speak on whether actions taken by the district to achieve greater equity are actually meeting that goal.
Leyko also called for the district to hire a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Coordinator. Funding for the position has been built into the budget assumptions and recommendations, according to a presentation made later in the evening by Finance Director Richard Pugh.
During Board discussion, the trustees endorsed Leyko’s decision to search for a DEI coordinator, acknowledging both what they saw as the successes of the district in working toward equity and the places that need improvement.
Board President Terah Chambers said, “Multiple things can be true at the same time,” referring to how she is proud of steps taken while seeing many places for improvement.
Trustee Elizabeth Lyons also referred to comments made by Trustee Monica Fink at the last meeting, in which Fink described her feelings following discussions on a problematic assignment on slavery given to students at MacDonald Middle School. Fink’s statement received no substantive responses at that meeting, but Lyons said that as a woman of color, she was shook to the core upon hearing Fink’s words, and needed time to process them.
Today, to mark the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, district schools planned to fly a Black Lives Matter flag below the American flag. While some on the Board said it could be taken as a performative measure, they believe that the symbolic gesture is backed up by actions to improve racial equity.
After noticing an absence of the flags today, ELi followed up with Leyko who said that, “After a little more conversation with a few folks last night, some concern was expressed about it appearing to be performative in raising the flags today.” She explained that the district did not want their support of students of color perceived that way, and district administration is further considering better communication and timing regarding the flags.
The administrative teams for MacDonald Middle School and East Lansing High School provided a “Year in Review” report to the Board.
The administrators of both the middle and high school spoke about the actions that they have taken to achieve greater social justice and equity, including administrators attending training on social justice, equity, and inclusion and encouraging restorative justice practices with students. One session conducted included a panel of several students of color speaking about their experiences in the district.
During the presentation, administrators pointed out that East Lansing’s middle and high schools have more students of color than before.
ELHS will also offer a summer reading group that focuses on the experiences of marginalized people both in education and society in general. The program is voluntary, but 60 teachers have signed up so far.
Most of the presentation focused on how the pandemic changed schooling. Standardized tests, while not mandatory, were offered in the fall (for the 2019-2020 school year) and the spring (for the 2020-2021 school year.)
With increased isolation due to remote learning, administrators also increased their attention to mental health. The Mental Health Advisory Committee created a mental health website, which ELi previously reported on, and sought other measures to engage students, such as mood meters that functioned as mental health check-ins and virtual counseling through the middle school.
When discussing Covid-19 protocols, the administration team said that there was no evidence of transmission within classrooms, suggesting that steps like mask-wearing, distancing, and antigen testing had been effective.
Even with the pandemic, the marching band has been able to perform, the drama club has enacted radio plays, and art students have displayed their work downtown. Athletic teams have been able to compete, and some even brought home awards. (You can see Andrew Graham’s sports coverage for ELi here.)
When discussing points of pride for the school year, ELHS Principal Andy Wells fought back tears as he applauded teachers, administrators, and students for their hard work during a challenging year, and the team pointed to successes such as extensive meal distribution and holding end of the year celebrations like graduation and prom in-person with Covid-19 mitigation measures.
Prom will be held this Friday, and students must either be fully vaccinated or do a rapid antigen test to attend. Due to the unseasonably cold weather predicted, students may be able to go inside instead of remaining outside the entire time.
Graduation will be held June 4 at the ELHS stadium with a rain date of June 6.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the administrators believe that it will result in some positive changes for the long-term, like more orderly plans for transitioning between classes in the hallway and better access to mental health resources.
The Board also received other updates, including on the district’s financial picture.
Financial Director Pugh outlined where the district might experience shortfalls in its upcoming budget, including the loss of some one-time funding opportunities.
During the 2020-2021 school year, the State of Michigan changed how districts counted students, but now it will return to its old method, meaning the district might count fewer pupils and receive less state funding as a result. But, since the state’s financial picture is better than initially thought, districts like ELPS may receive more money than initially thought.
The district also received one-time funding due to the pandemic that will be expiring.
A public hearing will be held on the budget at the June 7 School Board meeting.
The district will also be holding summer educational programs that include in-person learning, reading check-ins, and one-on-one tutoring. According to Leyko, the programs have high enrollment, and credit recovery will become available to high school students once grades are submitted.