Flint students deserve better: Addressing issues and exploring solutions for a stronger school model

The following is a Flintside opinion piece by Annie McMahon Whitlock. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].

Flint Community Schools was once a model for how public schools should be run, not just in Michigan, but internationally. Their model of “community schools” meant that the school system took the lead in solving the social problems of the city. Every neighborhood had a school that served as a community center that did more than provide academics. Schools provided mental health counselors, free breakfast for children, and after-school programs. These are elements of public schools that many citizens value today, or are even commonplace, and they started in Flint.

This is why it is so disappointing to see that in the last few years, there have been constant reports of infighting among school board members, constant resignations of school leaders, talks of closing schools, and lawsuits that now plague the district.

I know that Flint Community Schools didn’t “cause” the issues of structural racism the entire city is dealing with, but they have a responsibility to do better for Flint’s children. The entire district is falling short, and it starts at the people who are elected to run the district — the Flint Community Schools Board of Education.

I was not educated in Flint in the formal sense, but as an education professor, I study place-based and community education and its importance to K-12 education. I worked as an education professor at the University of Michigan-Flint for nine years, and my time in Flint taught me many lessons about the importance of community and coming together to take care of one another.
Annie McMahon Whitlock.
I was in Flint during the water crisis and much of the aftermath, and I know that the water crisis is by no means “over” to educators in the city. I met so many Flint teachers and principals committed to giving each of their students what they need to be successful which is what the pillars of the “community education” of long ago were all about. But it takes more than individual educators to make a difference, they need a supportive system.

In 2017, the Learning Policy Institute constructed a research report about how the “community schools” legacy of Flint still exists and is an important strategy for transforming school districts.

There are four pillars to successful community schools:
  • family and school engagement
  • integrated school support
  • expanded learning time
  • collaborative leadership
Flint Community Schools could exhibit these four pillars right now despite facing many obstacles, but their Board of Education is making this impossible. For example, it’s difficult to develop relationships with the community when there is a constant threat of closing neighborhood schools. In the last 20 years, the Board of Education closed schools that have disproportionately impacted Black neighborhoods.

The district is also embroiled in lawsuits over their lack of ability to meet the Individual Education Plans (IEP) of special education students which is such an important aspect of water crisis recovery. Students are not getting the support they need.

One may chalk these issues up to a lack of resources, and certainly, this is true. However, the Mott Foundation has tried to continue its partnership with Flint Community Schools numerous times, only to have its money refused by the Board of Education. Money that could go toward benefitting students. The funds could also be used to aid another pillar of successful community education — expanded learning time.

Flint Community Schools has moved to a balanced calendar and hosted Youth Quest programs in their schools to give children more educational time. With the balanced calendar, school starts in early August, but many buildings don’t have proper air conditioning, or heat in the winter. In 2021, the district had to close for excessive heat, defeating the purpose of extended learning time.

Accepting Mott Foundation's money would help with improved infrastructure as well. The Mott Foundation also co-funds Youth Quest, but after an argument with the Flint Board of Education over the transparency of memorandums, they pulled their funding, only relenting when Flint parents demanded it.

A sign with the message "I can and I will. Watch me" is displayed at Flint Southwestern High School in 2018. (Photo by Annie McMahon Whitlock)
I understand that the Mott Foundation and Flint Community Schools have a complicated relationship going back decades and built on a shaky foundation of school segregation, but the two entities did a lot of good together as well. By refusing to work with this community partner, the Flint Board of Education is making its own job harder and students are paying the price.

The final pillar of good community schools is collaborative leadership practices. It is this pillar that is most within reach, and sadly, the one that the Board of Education seems determined not to do.

I worked in Flint from 2013-2022 and during that time, I saw the district go through six superintendents — three of those hired in the last four years. Many of these superintendents were abruptly fired with no explanation and two of them have filed wrongful termination lawsuits, citing the Board of Education as being incredibly difficult to work with.

East Village Magazine recently reported the resignation of three more central office administrators just last month, following “public dustups” with some of the Board of Education members.

This turnover of leadership and constant battles between the Board and school leaders means that more time is spent fighting than enacting initiatives that move the district forward and help students. With every new superintendent, Flint Community Schools must start over with a new vision. Also, some of the Board of Education members are unable to conduct themselves collaboratively or professionally. Numerous meetings have resulted in name-calling and yelling. One even turned physical as two members engaged in a literal fistfight. 

Some new Board of Education members were elected in 2022, and many Flint residents I talked to expressed some hope of civility. Unfortunately, it seems that racism targeted at these new members and continued infighting seems to have increased.

If I learned anything from my time in Flint, I learned how the community can come together for each other. It’s time for Flint residents to do it again — call for the resignations of unprofessional Board members. Don’t stand for this infighting at the expense of Flint kids. Flint Community Schools can once again be a pillar of community schooling. This is within reach if the Board can get out of its own way. Flint’s students deserve better than this. 
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