Not every lawmaker is a campaign rainmaker

Capital News Service

LANSING — The average legislator in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office in 2017, but not all focused on big contributions.

In fact, 16 lawmakers raised less than $5,000 last year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Three raised less than $500 each.

Candidates have three main sources of funding: individuals, political parties and political action committees commonly known as PACs.

A PAC is a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing public policy.

Individuals can donate a maximum of $1,000 to a campaign. But PACs can donate 10 times as much, up to $10,000. They’re controversial because of the large influence they can give to the candidate who distributes the funds.

Although he’s running for a third — his final one allowed under term limits — a as a state representative, Republican Aaron Miller of Sturgis raised only $150 for his reelection campaign. He chooses not to accept PAC contributions as a reflection of his political views and lifestyle.

“After my [first] primary in 2014, I had a few independent PACs donate money,” said Miller, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. “After that I made a commitment, which I have honored to this day, not to accept PAC money from that point forward.

“It was a [decision] I thought about by myself, with my wife and with my campaign manager,” Miller said.

“I ran to be a regular guy and I asked myself, ‘How can I be different from the pack?’ The thing I thought that would best demonstrate myself and my character to the public would be to not accept PAC money,” he said.

For his first election, Miller raised money from family, friends and other small contributors. Some people make fun of the small amounts he raises, he said, but “I would say I have to be doing something right to have been here so long.”

It may put him at a financial disadvantage not to take PAC money, he said, but “I would say that I am not a prolific money raiser to begin with.”

Betsy Coffia unsuccessfully ran for a House seat in 2014 and 2016. She also took no PAC money. She didn’t even take money from her own party.

Campaigning without the money from big donors actually attracted voters to her, she said. It was an important plank of her platform.

“I initially ran because of the issues I saw with how campaigns are financed,” said Coffia, a Democrat from Traverse City. “I see big money as corroding to the political process. I ran with only individual contributions, which was tough because that meant my only means of fundraising starting out was going door-to-door spreading my message.”

But there are advantages, she said. “I found that if I told voters that I had no donations from big-money donors, that opened them up to listen to the rest of my ideas.”

Competitors outspent her 3 to 1.

“Instead of paying for costly advertising campaigns, we did meet-and-greet sessions with our constituents without asking for money,” Coffia said. “We wanted our events to be open to everyone, and people responded well to that.”

Coffia lost but outperformed the national Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 by 3 percent in the district, she said.

“I’ve experienced the difference in lawmakers who are money-oriented as opposed to people-oriented,” Coffia said. “We all pay their salaries, so we as citizens should get the same respect from them as lobbyists.”

There are good and bad qualities about PACs, said David Waymire, a former political journalist who is now a partner in Martin Waymire, a Lansing public relations firm.

“If you have 110 members of the House and 38 Senate members all pushing their own agendas, (lawmaking) can get very messy and sometimes nothing will get done,” Waymire said. “The influence of PACs can help to push things forward. However, this does give a lot of control and power to a few individuals.

“I don’t believe PACs have been particularly good for Michigan,” Waymire said. “You know what they say about absolute power.”

And not many people are watching which groups are contributing, some experts say.

James Bebarski, a former campaign manager for Casey O’Neill, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Grand Rapids seat in the House in 2016, said lack of interest in state races makes it easy for candidates to take money from PACs unnoticed.

“Most people cast their votes in state elections based on which name they remember from the primary elections,” Bebarski said. “Voters either don’t pay attention to where funding comes from, or they don’t really care enough to let it affect their vote.

“If I was running for the state Legislature, I would want as much PAC money as possible,” he said, adding that he wishes campaign finance records were a bigger focus in the election process.

“If more people take the time to check into their candidates and see where the finances are coming from, they won’t be as surprised when their lawmaker passes a bill with the interest of their donors in mind,” Bebarski said. “It’s on the voters to do their due diligence if we want to see any real changes in the way finances are raised.”

Ian Hawley writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Partnership agreements help failing schools avoid closure

Capital News Service

LANSING — Thirty-eight of Michigan’s lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools are about to wrap up their first year under a partnership program created to save them from closure.

In 2017, the state’s School Reform Office announced that the schools, which had been in the bottom 5 percent for academic performance for three years in a row, were at risk of being shut down.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had 16 schools in danger of being closed, while Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Saginaw and Kalamazoo all had multiple public schools on the original list.

Facing public backlash, the Department of Education instead chose to partner with those districts to improve academic performance.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, has “always preferred” finding an alternative to school closures, said David Crim, the MEA’s communications consultant.

“We were supportive a year and a half ago when [state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston] announced the creation of these partnerships, and we’re still supportive,” Crim said.

Under a partnership agreement, a district remains in control of its schools, with additional support from the department and local partners like colleges, community foundations and businesses.

That level of community involvement is crucial to the agreements’ — and the schools’ — success, said William Disessa of the Department of Education’s Office of Public and Governmental Affairs.

“The partnership agreements are designed to be positive and collaborative in nature,” Disessa said. “Working together, partnership districts and schools have a real opportunity to succeed.”

In late March, 21 districts entered discussions with a goal towards signing their own partnership agreements, including ones in Baldwin, Grand Rapids and Flint.

Of those 21, 16 are public charter schools. The MEA’s Crim said the union “railed against” that fact, saying it was proof of the state’s misguided investment in “failing for-profit charter schools.”

“We’re very concerned about the money we’re spending on corporate charter schools which end up on these partnership lists,” Crim said.

Improvement in state English/Language Arts and math test scores is a “common thread” among the partnership agreements, but every agreement is tailored to individual districts’ needs, said Dedrick Martin, the Education Department’s school reform officer.

“There could be a number of systemic issues, whether that’s getting enough certified teachers, changes to the curriculum or training that teachers need, instructional coaches, data systems — each district will have their own unique fingerprint on their partnership agreement,” Martin said.

Martin was hired as school reform officer in October 2017 and wasn’t involved with creating any of the current agreements. Since even the earliest adopters have yet to finish their first full year, he said it’s too soon to gauge the agreements’ success.

Seven districts signed partnership agreements last October, including Lansing Public Schools, which entered five schools into its agreement.

Three of Lansing’s schools — North Elementary, Woodcreek Achievement Center and Gardner International Academy — entered the agreements on an optional basis. That means the schools’ performance wasn’t poor enough to require a partnership agreement now, but was so low that they might require one in the future, Disessa said.

Lansing’s agreement provides assistance from the department, the Ingham Intermediate School District and 18 community groups like the Lansing Promise and the Capital Area College Access Network to meet the benchmarks.

Among many other benchmarks, Lansing’s schools must see a 5 percent increase in students who test at their grade level in reading and math by fall 2019, and reduce the number of suspensions by 20 percent by 2021.

For all participating districts, schools have 18 months to show improvement on “intermediate” goals. At that point they enter another 18-month review period to complete the agreement. Failure to meet their benchmarks puts districts right back where they were — facing closure.

Martin said closure isn’t off the table for schools that fail to meet their goals after three years. However, he indicated the department is taking a more “holistic” approach to these agreements, and may grant more time to districts that have shown significant — if not total — progress.

“If a person sets a goal of losing weight, and they want to lose 15 pounds in a month, do you tell them that they’re unsuccessful because they only lost 12?” Martin said. “No. They keep with the same program, and you give them a little more time to do it.”

Four-day school week not coming to a school near you

Capital News Service

LANSING – Some states are moving toward a four-day school week but local districts in Michigan show no inclination to change their regular five-day school schedule, experts say.

“It’s a tough decision to make,” said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Michigan requires districts to have at least a minimum number of school hours and days, Smith said. According to state law, K-12 public school instruction should run for at least 180 days and 1,098 hours each school year.

“They [the districts] need to figure out how to get 180 days included if they’re only doing a four-day week,” Smith said.

Whether to adopt the four-day week depends on districts and their community decisions, Smith said.

For rural districts, the four-day week can cut transportation costs, she said.

A couple of years ago, several districts in the state tried the four-day week but it didn’t work out, said Don Wotruba, the association’s executive director.

And parents aren’t particularly fond of the idea, Wotruba said.

Big Jackson in the Northwest Lower Peninsula and Republic-Michigamme in the Upper Peninsula’s Iron County are the only two districts in the state that operate on a four-day school week, according to the Department of Education.

“We’ve never had any complaints about not having school on Friday,” said Kashmir Aprile, the secretary of the Big Jackson Public Schools in Newaygo County. It’s one of the only K-5 districts in the state, and upper grade students attend school in Big Rapids.

“A lot of families love it [the four-day week] because it gives them a three-day weekend,” Aprile said. The extra day off is good for family reunions and recovery from the weekdays.

Teachers also benefit from the four-day week, she said. A three-day weekend is convenient because it gives them an extra day to better prepare for their classes.

The district runs its schools from Monday to Thursday and has one half-Friday a month to meet the required school hours.

The Republic-Michigamme district operates its schools from Tuesday to Friday, with one hour and 10 minutes longer each day to meet the state’s requirement and ensure that students receive the same amount of instructional time as in regular five-day week, according to the district.

The district said it’s saved more than  $1 million since the four-day school week started in the school year of 2004-05. The savings included electricity, water, heating fuel, gas and bus drivers’ wages.

The School Board Association’s Smith said the four-day school week should be a collaborative decision between a district and community.

If parents aren’t satisfied with the four-day decision, the district should weight other options, Smith said.

More students of color disciplined in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING — An analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s national civil rights data shows widespread disparities in the way public schools discipline students of color and those with disabilities.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, analyzed data for the school year 2013-14 and found that black students, boys and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools.

In Michigan, Agustin Arbulu, the executive director of the state Department of Civil Rights, said that the situation is similar to that in other states, and part of the reason is the low  percentage of teachers of color.

“Approximately 83 percent of teachers in public school settings are white, while the number of African-American teachers continue to decline — I think it’s about 6.5 percent. Hispanic teachers are somewhere around 7 percent,” Arbulu said.

The GAO study found that disparities were consistent regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty or type of public school. Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all students, but 39 percent of students suspended from school — an overrepresentation of about 23 percent.

Rodd Monts, the field director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said some of Michigan’s policies facilitated the strictness of disciplinary measures against Black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities.

“Our zero-tolerance policy and lack of alternative discipline strategies were primarily to blame,” Monts said.

Zero-tolerance is a policy that started with a 1994 gun-free schools law that requires schools that get federal aid to impose harsh punishment such as suspension or expulsion when students break certain rules.

In 2015. the ACLU, in partnership with other advocacy groups, conducted a study similar to the GAO’s. It collected data from 40 districts across the state and found that in many cases, suspensions and expulsions from suburban districts were more disproportionate than in other districts.

“I get a lot of complaints from suburban school districts and charter school districts,” said Monts.

Arbulu agreed and said that wealthier school districts, where 90-plus percent of students are white, have the greatest problem.

“We have seen that in the complaints that we have received, where students of color who go to school districts that are primarily white, file complaints based on racial discrimination claims,” he said. He added that school districts should develop space for dialogue so minority students can feel included.

The GAO report noted that disciplined students who get removed from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and get into the juvenile justice system. And that could create costs for society, like incarceration.

The ACLU’s findings, coupled with the efforts of other advocacy groups and people in education, law enforcement and the court system, prompted the Legislature to abolish the zero-tolerance policy. The change took effect last August.

Now, Monts said, schools must give greater consideration of the factors that lead to misconduct before suspending or expelling a student.

Arbulu said the vast percentage of teachers who are white may not be equipped to understand different cultural factors and socio-economic factors that many students of color come from.

“If you have 80 percent-plus teachers that are white, they’re coming from a totally different perspective. They’re coming from a narrative that’s quite different than what an African-American student faces,” he said.

Whether a student is African-American, Latino or Arab-American, Arbulu said education leaders should more actively provide training on how to address those issues among administrators, teachers and school board members.

“A lot of factors come into play — the role of implicit bias, the role of structural racism that’s built into education and should be dismantled in a way that can be responsive to the changing makeup of the student population,” he said.

Therefore, there’s a need to increase the percentage of minority teachers, especially African-American teachers, by attracting them to the profession and keeping them there, Arbulu said.

The Civil Rights Commission will hold a series of hearings across the state on the connections between civil rights and education starting in Ypsilanti on May 21.

The GAO report analyzed discipline data from nearly all public schools for the school year 2013-14 and interviewed officials from five districts and 19 schools in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Texas.


Schools push early literacy for young children

Capital News Service

LANSING – Parents have great impact on developing and improving children’s literacy, but most of them are insufficiently aware of it, experts say.

Early literacy is essential to future success. Students who fail to master reading skills by third grade will continue to struggle in high school, and thus be at high risk of dropping out, according to a report from the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Michigan is among the bottom 10 states for early literacy, according to the Education Trust-Midwest, an advocacy organization based in Royal Oak.

To improve early literacy, the state passed a third-grade reading law in 2016. It calls for holding back third-graders who fail the grade-level state assessment in reading in 2019-20.

The law has its critics, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

“We do not believe retention is a solution to reading deficiency,” said David Crim, a communications consultant for the union that represents teachers and other school personnel.

The MEA is working with early elementary teachers who focus on reading to improve the recent reading law, Crim said. “Once we get these responses, we will be sharing them with legislators so that legislation can be drafted to correct the law’s deficiencies.”

One solution to reading deficiencies is parental involvement, experts say.

“Parents or caregivers can greatly impact a child’s later success with reading,” said Sarah Kugler, an early interventionist in the Early On program at the Kent Intermediate School District.

Reading to babies and toddlers builds language, thinking, social and emotional skills, which are important to develop early literacy, Kugler said.

However, “I don’t think that parents understand that a child’s literacy skills start developing at birth,” she said. “From birth to 3, they are usually most concerned with sleeping, eating, walking and talking.”

Kugler said the problem exists especially for “parents who are struggling with basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and they don’t or can’t think about a toddler’s communication delay until their basic needs are met.”

To improve parents’ awareness of literacy skills from birth to 3, the Kent district has Early On and Bright Beginnings programs to support early intervention, she said.

The Ingham Intermediate School District has a Great Parents, Great Start program, which enhances family-child interaction and encourages reading 30 minutes per day, according to the district.

Shelly Proebstle, the district’s literacy consultant, said the schools are working hard to deepen parents’ awareness but it could be hard for some parents to get involved in a read-at-home plan.

In addition, rather than having teachers come to the Ingham district to learn how to improve early literacy, “we go out into the classroom to provide them with professional development,” Proebstle said.

“We are looking closely at what interventions are being used for students who are struggling with reading, and we develop an individual reading improvement plan and share it with their parents,” she said.

GR Montessori at North Park, a public school with two campuses in Grand Rapids, is connected to its parents, said Mary Fridsma, the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association.

Working closely with parents can make students feel supported by the community, Fridsma said.

The school communicates with parents through a Facebook group, she said. “When they have concerns, they typically go direct to the teachers.”

More counselors suggested by schools plagued by threats

Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan schools are experiencing increased threats of violence in the months following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when 19 students were killed.

The number of threats or acts of violence in schools is three times higher across the nation since February, according to the Educators School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks media reports of violence. It regularly reports Michigan as being in the top 10 in the nation for such incidents.

Two shootings have occurred at Michigan schools since 2016.

In Northern Michigan, police have investigated three potential threats at Traverse City West High School and one at Petoskey High School since mid-February.

Two cases concerned friends who responded to a threat made by a classmate. None of the instances was found to be a credible threat of violence.

“I don’t think the hypersensitivity to threats is a bad thing right now,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff.

“At the root cause of this are students who really need help,” Pratt said. “We need to be able to provide the holistic education for a kid, and that includes taking care of their mental wellbeing.”

In 2015, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District developed a crisis response team of two social workers and nine psychologists to address the needs that its school often face.

“The crisis team offers training for all the local school districts and academies,” said Carol Greilick, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education.

“Trauma and crisis are in the eyes of the beholder,” Greilick said. “It may be a relatively simple thing, such as a student losing a family member, or it could be a school district losing a student or teacher.”

In response to the sudden death of a teacher last year, the crisis team provided  assistance.

“The team worked with administrators in both districts to plan a response,” Greilick said. “They set up counseling rooms, planned the script for informing students and worked step by step through the response anticipating student needs, family needs and staff needs.”

Addressing student concerns is more difficult with less staff, said Tamara Kolodziej, a guidance counselor at Petoskey High School.

The average ratio for K-12 schools in the U.S. is 482 students per counselor. In Michigan, which has seen a 25 percent decrease in school counselors since 2005, the ratio is 729 students for each counselor.

In response to concerns about school safety and student welfare, the Senate is considering a bill that would allocate an additional $50 million towards hiring more guidance counselors, social workers and armed resource officers.

“Here at Petoskey we have two counselors for a thousand students,” Kolodziej said. “We’re lucky because they’re going to be hiring another counselor next year. We’ve been down to two counselors for the last seven years.”

Guidance counselors are responsible for “data maintenance, scheduling classes, transcripts, communicating with parents and staff —  it’s a lot for two people,” she said.

“Our biggest job is organizing testing,” said Kolodziej.

Those obligations mean that counselors get less face time with students. “We each generally see 10 to 12 students in our office a day,” Kolodziej said.

Kolodziej emphasized the difference between a guidance counselor and a licensed therapist.

Petoskey High School has a licensed therapist practicing on site. Therapy isn’t free but having one on site provides easier access for students seeking mental health services.

Addressing student mental health needs will take adjustments on the part of schools.

“We need to arm educators with smaller class sizes, more counselors and better security measures,” the MEA’s Pratt said.

Students are well aware that the potential for violence exists, Pratt said. “Even at a young age, you have elementary schools going through lockdown drills.”

Teachers and counsellors are not the only ones who should be responsible for students’ welfare, he said. The whole school system is responsible.

“A classroom teacher’s job is to help every student learn the material,” Pratt said.

“We can’t ask educators to do everything,” Pratt said. “They need to be able to assess the situations, but they also need the resources to follow up.”

Young people are struggling with homelessness, studies find

LANSING — Schoolchildren and youths in Michigan are struggling with homelessness at high rates, new studies show.

Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan initiative dedicated to prevention and alleviation of poverty, found Michigan among the states with the largest number of homeless youths — more than 36,000 children in elementary, middle and high schools facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

This report was confirmed by the 2018 Kids Count report– a study by the Michigan League for Public Policy that analyzes and evaluates the wellbeing of children in the state. It  found that in 2016, 444,100 children lived in poverty.

The report ranked 82 of the 83 counties for overall child wellbeing. The top five counties are Livingston, Ottawa, Clinton and Oakland. The bottom five counties are Lake, Clare, Muskegon, Calhoun and Oceana.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Kids Count shows a 23 percent improvement in children homelessness rates. However, more than one in five Michigan children lived in poverty in 2016.

“It’s not a great improvement but it is some improvement. More than one in five children living in poverty really has huge implications on education and health and other indicators of well-being for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count director.

Despite the slight improvement and the lowest unemployment levels in decades, the Kids Count report said jobs are paying significantly low wages that don’t  keep up with growing inflation rates, causing income levels to remain below pre-recession levels.

According to  U-M’s Poverty Solutions analysis, dropout rates for homeless students are increasing and homeless high school students are particularly vulnerable.

Some areas in the state are affected more than others. In West Michigan, for example, counties like Oceana, Muskegon and Mason have the highest rates of homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington-based nonprofit organization operating in a number of West Michigan counties, said its Oceana County agency is experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other counties in the area.

“I was not surprised by the high number in Oceana County. There is a real lack of housing in Oceana County and the poverty level is pretty high,” said Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of Staircase Youth Services.

The organization works with high school students and youths between the ages of 12 and 21.

“We have a host home program where we place youth that are homeless in a host home within the county so that they can stay in school,” Arneson said.

Participants can stay in the program for up to 18 months while receiving support by the staff.

Poverty Solutions created a map that shows the percent and number of students experiencing homelessness in each Michigan school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness.

During the 2015-16 school year, Michigan ranked sixth among states with the most homeless students, after California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Though homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural and urban areas, the highest rates are among students in the smallest school districts, the U-M report said.

Guevara Warren of the League for Public Policy said workforce development and the types of jobs available locally are a big piece of economic security and poverty.

“We still have in this state over 30 percent of children whose families lack full-time permanent work. You see a lot of families who are either working at low wage jobs or are trying to piece together several part-time or seasonal jobs,” she said.

Arneson said that in Oceana County, even if people are employed, the level and amount of income they earn is insufficient for the local housing market.

“So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties,” she said.

To address the issue of poverty, Guevara Warren says one way to improve economic security for children is to take a generation approach, which ensures that children, parents and caregivers all receive help and support at the same time.

As an example, she said the state has started investing  to improve the child care system, particularly concerning eligibility requirements.

“We have improved that slightly but we’re still really towards the bottom when it comes to child care eligibility in the country,” Guevara Warren said.

She said the state has also improved provider reimbursement rates through child care subsidies but still tends to be at the bottom when it comes to reimbursement to providers.

More test scores put Michigan students in bottom half

Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan lags behind most of the country when it comes to the biennial standardized test given to select fourth- and eighth-grade students, according to a new National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

The report shows that Michigan students in those grades made miniscule improvements from 2015 to 2017 in math and reading on the NAEP test.

And the overall picture is not good: Michigan ranked 38th in fourth-grade math, 33rd in eighth-grade math, 35th in fourth-grade reading and 30th in eighth-grade reading.

In specific scores, in 2017, Michigan fourth-graders averaged 236 on the math portion of the assessment, which was unchanged from 2015 and four points lower than the national average.

Average math scores of eighth-graders increased slightly from 278 in 2015 to 280 in 2017.

Fourth-graders averaged 218 in reading, a two-point increase from two years prior. Eighth-graders improved by a one point in reading, the only score close to the national average.

“We haven’t changed,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an assistant professor of educational leadership and educational studies at Wayne State University. “What that told me was we’re not improving those numbers we saw declining over the years.

“Our scores are stable, which is better than declining, but while Michigan has remained stable, other states are improving their numbers,” she said. “This makes me concerned. We’re being left behind.”

Despite the marginal improvement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston said he wants to make Michigan a top-10 education state in 10 years.

“It is important that we keep working with intermediate school districts and local school districts to provide support and assistance to help all of their students achieve at higher levels,” he said.

“We keep moving forward on our goal to be a top-10 education state in 10 years and know that the early work we’re putting into motion will pay positive dividends in the very near future,” Whiston said.

Part of that plan, said William DiSessa, a communications officer in the Department of Education, is to focus on the “whole child” to improve student achievement and to make students college- and career-ready by increasing their pathways to success.

“As we implement the plan’s various strategies, we anticipate further academic improvements for students in our K-12 public schools,” he said.

While state education officials say the plan will work, Lenhoff said she isn’t sure.

“I don’t want to say it’s not possible,” she said. But it will require “serious change” from the  Legislature, governor and Department of Education.

“There needs to be adequate resources put forth to fix this,” she said. “Currently, they’re not doing everything they can do to improve the schools.”

Athletes find ways to cope with life after sports

Capital News Service

LANSING — Jake Sterling, a former Michigan State University club football wide receiver, is now transitioning into the workforce after spending his college career as an athlete.

A 2016 graduate, Sterling, from Newport, competed in track and field and on the club football team.

But like thousands of other student-athletes who don’t move to the professional level, Sterling had to figure out how to transition into a life that no longer revolves around their sports. He now works as an IT account manager for Randstad Technologies in Troy.

“I’ve been competing in sports my whole life. Losing that competitive edge that I used to go through every day, like when I was running track and playing club football, is easily the most challenging part,” Sterling said. “On the contrary, the positive part is transitioning that into my work life because I’m now an account manager for a sales position, so being competitive in that position brings out the competitive edge that I learned in sports.

“Now I apply that to my work life,” he said.

Few collegiate athletes ever play professionally, according to data from NCAA. Only 5.6 percent of men’s ice hockey players will play in the NHL, for example. As for football, only 1.5 percent of college athletes will play in the NFL. Fewer than 1 percent of female collegiate basketball athletes will play in the WNBA.

Melinda Harrison, a founding partner of Teal & Co., a consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario, helps athletes transition from the college world to the working world, said, “Sport is all encompassing, and an athlete’s life revolves around a cycle of training and competition schedules.

“And it has revolved around this venue from early stages of childhood adolescents,” said Harrison, who was an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan.

“An athlete that competes at an NCAA level has spent many years perfecting the execution of skills with dedication, desire, grit, and self-regulation,” she said.

“These are what I refer to as character skills of sport. They become part of the athlete’s DNA because of the life that they have experienced. When that venue disappears, so does the place to execute that part of their operating DNA,” she said.

Harrison said most athletes who leave their sport go through a period of adjustment that “can range in intensity from feeling unsure, to lost, or feeling just not normal to severe depression and anxiety.

“One common mistake those on the outside make is the assumption that just because someone has moved on to a job, that they have successfully transitioned from sport. This is far from reality. A job is a positive step towards transition but does not replace the deep meaning that sport has provided, she said.

Aaron Stuk, a former MSU rugby player and native of Oxford, recently moved to Oregon to work at a ski resort. He has his own way to cope with a new lifestyle after his four years playing rugby.

“I have explored new avenues to challenge myself physically and mentally, like snowboarding, rock climbing and cross-country hiking. I also play in men’s rugby leagues and coach youth teams in my spare time to grow the sport,” Stuk said.

“Coaching is a great way to give back and stay involved after college ball. Motivating co-workers and teammates to accomplish a common goal is something that I will always attribute to rugby,” he said.

Trevor Darnell writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Adult education struggles with stagnant funding

Capital News Service

LANSING — Adult education is handcuffed by a stagnant budget that critics say keeps the state from alleviating cycles of poverty amid one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.

Over 1 million Michigan residents don’t have their high school diploma or equivalent, according to Stepheni Schlinker, a communications specialist for the Michigan Talent Investment Agency.

State funding for adult education programs was cut from $75 million to $20 million in 2004. Enrollment dropped with the funding from 76,000 in 2001 to 35,000 by 2005.

Adult education classes are free services provided around the state for individuals wanting to get their high school degree or improve their basic literacy skills.

This year, adult education programs are receiving $25 million in state funding. Federal grants also contribute but have declined from $17 million in 2003 to $13.3 million in 2018. Adjusting for inflation, adult education would require an additional $11.5 million to match the 2003 funding level.

Around 28,000 state residents participate in the programs each year.

“We administer the governor’s budget, and we’re certainly trying to run our programs and expand our programs,” said Joe Billig, the director of the Office of Talent Policy and Planning for the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. “We always look to ways our programs can improve, even if more funding is not available.”

By encouraging students to co-enroll in other government programs to spread costs around and by moving tests and textbooks online, the agency has been able to keep providing services with less money, Billig said.

“We know that children of parents who have low literacy skills are 72 percent more likely to have low reading levels or drop out of school,” said Krista Johnson, the director of Education and Career Success for the Workforce Development Agency.

The graduation rate for Michigan K-12 students was below 80 percent and tied for 40th- worst in the nation for the 2015-16 school year. The rate for low-income students was only 67 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.

For Northwest Michigan, funding challenges come as the population of adult education students has undergone a significant shift.

“It used to mostly be 35-to-50-year-olds — now we’re seeing them in the 18-to-24 range,” said Christy Nelson, the adult education coordinator for Northwest Michigan Works!

Her agency covers Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties and serves between 600 and 700 students every year in adult education programs. Last year, 330 of them were between 16 and 24 years old.

The low high school  graduation rates put pressure on adult education programs.

“Most of the kids that we see coming in fell so far behind in their credits that it’s easier to just get a GED,” Nelson said.

State funding for adult education programs is based on how many people in a region lack high school diplomas or who speak English as a second language.

“We’re definitely underfunded,” Nelson said. “The largest cost that we have is teachers’ salaries. When we have less income, we reduce the number of hours they work per week.”

Northwest Michigan Works! employs six teachers at learning labs in Petoskey, Kalkaska, Cadillac, Manistee and Traverse City.

One of the students’ main complaints is the lack of nighttime schooling options, Nelson said. “Many of our students work several low-income jobs just to make ends meet.”

Programs forced to close mean further driving distances for students.

For example, “Livingston County does not have an adult education program as the result of cuts,” said Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Students from Livingston County drive 30 miles to Novi in Oakland County in order to attend a program.”

“In the Upper Peninsula, there are people who have to drive 50 miles both ways because it is so sparsely populated,” he said.

“We’re concerned about the people with families, the people with jobs that are stuck in a low-wage spiral of poverty that need to build their skills in order to get jobs that pay well so they can be economically secure,” he said.

Nelson said participation in adult education programs fluctuates with unemployment. “When unemployment is high, we see higher traffic.”

More distance learning programs could help those with job conflicts or who need to stay home with a child, she said, adding that Northwest Michigan Works! bought an

an online learning program that students can access from home. Students also can reach teachers through video calls and email.