Ann Arbor's biggest elementary school district may also be its most diverse-and most misunderstood.
by Shelley Daily
From the January, 2017 issue
"We are a mystery to a lot of people," admits Bryant-Pattengill parent Ariel Hurwitz-Greene. Her eight-year-old son Nathaniel has attended Bryant, off Stone School Rd. south of Packard, since kindergarten; next year he and his classmates will move to Pattengill, north of Packard a couple of miles west, for grades three through five. With nearly 600 students, Bryant-Pattengill is Ann Arbor's biggest elementary district by both area and enrollment. The "super pair" embraces twelve south-side neighborhoods--from the small ranch homes, apartments, and rentals around Bryant to the affluent estates of Lake Forest and Briar Hill. With home prices ranging "from $100,000 to $800,000," says Hurwitz-Greene, a Realtor, it's a district "unlike any other."
Although Hurwitz-Greene grew up in Burns Park, she and her husband chose "the perfect, happy house" near Pattengill for their family when they moved back to Ann Arbor from Chicago five years ago. While some elementary schools and their surrounding neighborhoods "have a Norman Rockwell picture to them," she thinks others don't get the attention they deserve. Hurwitz-Greene calls Pattengill "the up-and-coming Water Hill"--with RoosRoast, Fraser's, and Morgan & York all within walking distance. Bryant is sometimes a tougher sell for prospective families.
Aaron Jackson, whose son attends Bryant, says some may see the neighborhood's affordable housing as a negative. "People who make assumptions about rental properties might also make assumptions about the people who live there," he says. As an AAPS substitute teacher who's worked in schools throughout the district, he has a different perspective. "The education at Bryant is just as exceptional," he says. "I haven't seen any differences."
"Oftentimes parents will go by what they hear, or what they see when they drive in the neighborhood," explains Bryant principal Roberta Heyward. "But it's always a different experience when they come into the building and they see our students and meet our teachers ... and they'll be in awe. I'll ask them: 'What was your perception?' and they'll tell me, 'Oh,
I was looking on a website, or I drove through the neighborhood. We have a lot of rental properties in the neighborhood--but we are so much more than that."
Bryant and Pattengill each house about 300 students, and more than a dozen languages are spoken at each school. At Pattengill, 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 28 percent do at Bryant--not the highest rates in the district, but higher than average. Heyward notes that Bryant's rate has dropped significantly--last year's was 38 percent, and in the two years prior it was 40 percent. Pattengill principal Melita Alston expects her school's rate will fall too.
Heyward doesn't know why the numbers are looking up, but assumes that with a stronger economy, more families are working. "We have doctors, lawyers, and dentists, and then we have families who are looking for jobs," she explains. For the struggling families, she says, "We wear many hats because we're not just educators. Sometimes we have to be the social worker. Sometimes we have to be the food pantry. It just depends. My team at any moment is ready to switch hats and take care of the needs of that student."
"I always tell parents, 'This is the real world,'" Heyward says of her school. "Our students are able to adapt, they're able to get along, and that helps them transition on."
Heyward works so closely with Alston that Alston jokes they are princi-"pals." "We talk on the phone daily ... because we're sister schools it takes a lot, so you want a partner who will work well with you," says Alston. "I think that's a strength."
"Our planning has to be intentional, especially with parents who have kids at both schools," Heyward adds. The schools share one PTO and one yearbook, and virtually all events are held jointly, including the annual back-to-school picnic, math night, family reading night, international festival, and ice cream social.
The Super Pair was born in the Eighties, when Ann Arbor, like many other districts, was closing schools due to sharply declining enrollment. A citizen-run Committee on Excellence was created to redraw the elementary districts, with the twin goals of using buildings more efficiently and achieving greater racial balance. In addition to closing seven schools, a "creative solution, of pairing two schools, was advanced ..." AAPS superintendent Jeanice Swift writes in an email. Griff McDonald, who headed the committee, says then superintendent Dick Benjamin was responsible for leading the charge for more diversity.
"One of Dick's concerns was he didn't want a school that was one race, creed, or color," recalls McDonald. According to a 1998 Observer article, the racial disparities were glaring: Newport, one of the schools that was closed, was "virtually all-white," while Northside (now Ann Arbor STEAM) was 70 to 80 percent African American. In addition, "the poorest students in the city were heavily concentrated at just three schools: Bryant, Dicken, and Northside."
The committee initially proposed creating two different pairs, Bryant-Stone and Mack-Haisley. However, because "Bryant was bulging and Pattengill was shrinking," Benjamin explains, a new solution evolved: "To keep Pattengill open, the best solution was to split grade levels to achieve racial balance and to balance capacity." Bryant and Pattengill were merged and also gained students from Stone and Clinton elementaries, which closed.
Benjamin--who went on to serve as superintendent of the Nashville and Cobb County (Georgia) schools and is semi-retired in Atlanta--says one of the benefits of the pairing is that it "created a small-school atmosphere so that the teachers can focus on a few grade levels--that creates a narrowed field of interest and a mutual understanding among teachers." For Bryant, that was an "early childhood focus."
He says the "thought process" that created the Super Pair was quite different from other school districts that "just shift kids around so they fit. I've always been proud of the ability of Ann Arbor to lead" on these issues, he says. Superintendent Swift writes that "... it is wonderful that each of these neighborhoods has the opportunity to expand its boundaries and include the other."
But inclusion wasn't an easy sell for some. Some parents whose children were slated for Bryant after the restructuring held the attitude that "my kid is not going to that neighborhood," according to a Super Pair staff member who doesn't want to be named. Others skipped Bryant in favor of other elementary schools and later sent their children to Pattengill. Many were wary about "sending little kids [to school] on buses." And for at least a decade, "the schools ran separately" the staff member says, unlike "the cohesiveness of today."
Rick O'Neill, who was principal of Stone when it closed and then Bryant's first principal under the Super Pair structure, says he's "glad to hear" about today's unity. "Back then we were dealing with the emotions of loss with the two schools [Stone, now Pathways to Success, and Clinton, now the Jewish Community Center] closing and trying to energize the community in a positive way. We were managing this big change bringing these communities together," in addition to the logistical obstacles of combining staff, building renovations, and busing very young students.
Last April at Bryant-Pattengill's International Festival, the audience breaks into wild applause for fifth grader Aaron Puno's rendition of the pop song "Manila," a hit in his parents' native Philippines. Students representing Vietnam, Nepal, Palestine, Nigeria, and other countries take the stage in native costume for the fashion show. On the walls of the lunchroom some fifty flags hang as permanent reminders of Pattengill's diverse student body. "I just added a New Zealand flag," Alston says. "I just keep ordering them."
In one room, volunteers serve up Cuban-inspired twice-fried plantains, chicken noodle soup with matzo balls, Middle Eastern mujadara, and other international cuisine delivered by school families. In a classroom, parent Qing Sun, who moved to Ann Arbor from China with her family as part of the U-M visiting scholar program, is helping visitors use chopsticks to pick up dried beans and cotton balls. At another table, Aaron Jackson is teaching kids how to write a letter from the Hebrew alphabet.
"What's really cool is how normal all this becomes for my son," he says. "I like that he doesn't expect that 'everyone will be like me.'" Jackson's wife, Erika Leiphart, agrees, and says diversity is a main reason they appreciate the school.
School-rating websites often don't give a full picture of the pair, says Hurwitz-Greene, "because we're a split--we're not rated together." Heyward explains that "we probably have the highest diversity in terms of our students who come from all walks of life, and so we don't have students who are coming to us on the same level playing field. And so that will impact some of the state assessments that are taken at Pattengill." Although Pattengill's 2016 state standardized testing scores lag behind some AAPS elementary schools for third and fourth graders, its fifth grade scores are comparable.
Fifth-grade teacher Avery Hubbard has worked at Pattengill for nearly twenty years, and her daughter is now a student there. She sees the Super Pair "not as your neighborhood school, but as your community school." She says she thrives on the diversity, which has been at the forefront of discussions since the presidential election. Though everyone at Pattengill signed an "election compact" to keep political discussions neutral and positive, she says most of her students "were devastated" by the results. They asked to write a class letter to president-elect Donald Trump. "They said, 'We have to let him know that this is the true America [at Pattengill]. Everyone is an immigrant.'" Hubbard notes that although there have been reports of racist incidents in schools since the election, "we haven't had any backlash. That's what happens at a diverse school."
Her class includes African American, Asian, and Latino students--as well as students of Greek, German, Polish, and Italian descent. She estimates the school's families are roughly one-third upper class, one-third middle class, and one-third from families poor enough to qualify for reduced-price or free lunch. There are high-performing students as well as "challenged students for whom we still need to foster the love of learning. We get 'em all."
Claire Dahl was among the first parents to send her kids to the newly formed Bryant-Pattengill. Dahl and her husband raised their two kids in the Georgetown neighborhood, whose prior school, Clinton, was on the chopping block. "I was very much against it, because we were losing our neighborhood walkable school," she says. "We didn't like the busing idea."
Dahl remembers "there was a lot of stress, tension, and angry words at school board meetings" about the closings and subsequent pairing. Outraged parents even tried to recall members of the school board. On the positive side, she says, the pairing brought "lots of teacher options" (Bryant currently has six kindergartens, including a Young Fives class). Dahl calls it a "sociological experiment, and it worked." Though moving Clinton students to Bryant was "us invading their world," she says, Bryant parents were gracious, and with the expanded neighborhood boundaries, her kids had a lot of friends by the time they moved on to Tappan Middle School. "It didn't hurt my kids," she says. "These were unfounded fears."
Kathy Brady--a Lake Forest resident who has two kids at Bryant and one at Pattengill and serves as a PTO co-president--agrees. She says the Super Pair helps to produce "global thinkers" and the diversity helps them as they "move into adulthood in friendships and careers." They are "not just learning from a textbook."
"Playdates will take you all over south Ann Arbor," Brady says. Pattengill parent Lisa Treat agrees: "You are not just in a bubble of your neighborhood. It grows me as a person." Brady also appreciates that "the second graders get a chance to shine and are prepped for the big time" as they move on to Pattengill.
Although Dahl's kids had a positive experience as inaugural students of the Super Pair, she recalls a few challenges. Kids couldn't stay after school with teachers or hang out at the playground because they had to catch the bus home. "Some of that cross-age interaction was lost" as well, she says. Also, she recalls, "We were told there'd be busing between the schools, but that didn't happen." She also wonders why there were never more Super Pairs.
Former superintendent Benjamin says he's not sure that replicating the Super Pair concept is what AAPS needs now. What's important, he says, is that it grew out of "community problem solving and community-generated solutions. People knew that they were being heard."
Principals Heyward and Alston understand that competition for students is stiff. "Parents are shopping for schools before they even have school-age kids," says Alston. "There is choice--it wasn't always like that."
Hurwitz-Greene wants prospective Super Pair parents to keep an open mind. She and her husband are committed to the school--and their neighborhood. They're currently building an addition to their house so they can stay in the area. "As the only pair, it's something to learn about--not to be afraid of," she tells other parents. "Once they learn about it, they'll be blown away."
[Originally published in January, 2017.]
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