In Play with Tom Markowski


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School of Choice an answer for many schools and families

By: Tom Markowski, September 30, 2014, 12:00 am
Michigan’s school-of-choice program, which was established in 1996, has received mixed reviews from high school coaches and administrators. From an athletic standpoint some coaches say it has ruined high school sports by eliminating the community aspect of high school teams. Some administrators say the program offers a variety of opportunities to students who would otherwise do without. Others view it as a necessary tool, one that school districts use to remain afloat financially.
The intent of the program is to allow parents to send their children to a school that offers opportunities educationally and socially. It allows parents from an economically troubled school district to send their children to a district that offers a higher quality education.
 Some say the program offers too many advantages athletically to some districts but not all.
Allen Park football coach Tom Hoover said it has "opened up a can of worms" with little hope of corralling the controversy it’s created.
"It’s not a level playing field," Hoover said. "It’s like poker. I have to stay with a pat hand and you get to draw three."
The schools-of-choice program permits students in participating districts to transfer. For example, a student in Oakland County can attend any public school in the county that participates in the program. There are some schools in Oakland County that offer schools-of-choice to students outside of the county.  
 In the 2010-11 school year, 82 percent of Michigan public schools participated in the program.
A few school districts in Metro Detroit remain completely closed; the Grosse Pointe school system, Farmington and Dearborn are among them. Allen Park and Romulus are like most districts. They have a limited schools-of-choice program which varies from year to year. For the 2012-13 school year Allen Park accepted applications for kindergarten through sixth grade but is closed for grades 7-12.
The Madison school district in Madison Heights is unlimited; it will accept students at every grade level from any county until the enrollment is full.
Saginaw Heritage is the only high school in the Saginaw Township Community School district. Athletic director Peter Ryan said his school system changed (in 2008) its schools-of-choice policy to conform to the wishes of its residents.
 "We were completely open," Ryan said. "A few years ago we couldn’t get a bond issue passed so we reduced the program to include K-6 only. We do have openings for the honors level for the ninth grade but we only get about a half dozen a year for that. We were able to pass the bond issue after that. (The parents) wanted the kids to come up through the system. It’s created less of an issue for us.
"It’s worked for us. I feel very fortunate that the kids we’ve received have added to our schools. The kids who come here from outside the district want to participate in more than just athletics. We’re the only ones in the (Saginaw) county to offer an International Baccalaureate program. In a metro area, where schools are located close to one another, there are tough issues athletically. The ADs in this area communicate well to avoid any problems."
The need for students affects nearly every school district, rural and urban. The Ionia school district in Ionia County located 42 miles northwest of Lansing struggles to keep its enrollment up. Athletic director Scott Swinehart said his high school used to have over 1,000 students in 2008. Enrollment has steadily declined every year since. This year it’s at 796. With each school district receiving approximately $7,000 in state aid per student the numbers add up. Swinehart said Ionia has approximately 400 schools-of-choice students enrolled K-12.
"We’ve lost about 200 (from within the district)," he said. "There’s no doubt. We use the program. Look at us. We’re a school district that doesn’t have a lot of schools around us. The closet one is Saranac seven miles away."
Trenton offered a schools-of-choice program for the first time in 2012. Administrators said they had no choice; economics drove this decision. The district took in 30 students from outside the district but within Wayne County at the ninth grade level, 20 at kindergarten and 10 at the first grade level. Trenton football coach Bob Czarnecki isn’t happy but realizes it had to be done.Anchor
 "It diminishes the sense of community," he said. "This is a huge departure for Trenton. If a decision is made to move from one school to another is done for academic reasons, that’s fine. Taking a look, I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t know how you can monitor the numbers (for athletic transfers). The rule was put in place to offer students another opportunity and to put poor-performing schools out of business.”
Trenton high school Principal Dr. Michael Doyle isn’t convinced it’s all gloom and doom Czarnecki envisions. Doyle said his school district will attract students who want to improve academically as well as socially.
"Schools-of-choice is necessary," he said. "It’s the only way for public schools to raise money. It comes down to a dollar and sense issue.
"(Academia) is a priority here. Without question academics is what makes families move (to another district). I think we’re going to get really good kids. We don’t provide transportation so that puts the burden on the parents. Those 30 freshmen won’t be able to drive. It could upset some people. Somebody might have their eye on the starting point guard position and loses it to a kid that moved in. What my message to an athletic parent is tell your kid to work harder."
Nevertheless many coaches say the playing field is no longer level because of the program.
"(Schools-of-choice) has ruined athletics," North Farmington boys basketball coach Todd Negoshian said. "Fifteen years ago you used to coach kids up to make them better. Now you just go out and get what you need. The kids in a community can’t play for their high school anymore. You look at a high school roster and it’s like looking at a college roster — you have kids from all over. High school education has become a business. Administrators use athletics to lure students. Every kid has a dollar sign on his head. It’s all a business."
North Farmington competes in the Oakland Activities Association Division 1 for basketball and is the only school in that division that is in a closed district (check Adams). Negoshian said it’s not a level playing field. He said schools-of-choice have an advantage in attracting gifted athletes.
    But Negoshian still wouldn’t have it any other way. He said there is something special about coaching at a school where the varsity players are the same ones that played at the junior high.
"It’s nice to know that the kids who played at the YMCA on Saturday mornings are the same kids you see on the high school team," he said.
While educators don’t like those students that transfer solely for athletic reasons, they say it’s difficult to prove. In many cases there are circumstances, in addition to athletics, that prompt parents to move their children into another district.
Taylor supports two high schools, Kennedy and Truman. District athletic director Loren Ristovski said his district turns the schools-of-choice program on and off like a faucet, depending on enrollment needs.
"The economics of the situation are such that we need to do it,” Ristovski said. “Money is the only reason. All the districts are bleeding (students).
"(But) we need schools of choice. There are districts that wouldn’t survive without it."
All but three states (Alabama, North Carolina and Maryland) offer some form of schools of choice. Virginia offers limited choice within the public school system but has not enacted an open enrollment policy to facilitate public school choice.
While some coaches say the biggest reason for the frequent transfers is athletics, this was never the intent of the schools-of-choice program. Coaches whose teams compete against teams with two or three transfers cry foul.
Under Michigan High School Athletic Association rules, a student is ineligible, with limited exceptions, to compete in athletics for one semester after transferring. But if the MHSAA determines that the transfer was athletically-motivated, the student is ineligible for 180 school days, equivalent to one full school year.
The MHSAA stiffened the transfer rule this school year. The new links rules, adopted the year by the MHSAA, states that if a student follows a trainer or a coach whom he or she played for, this student might have to sit out 180 days.
The entire wording of the rule change(s) is available on the MHSAA website. Here’s a snippet.
“If a student transfers into a new school where an “athletic coaching link” existed in the past 12 months, that student is ineligible for 180 school days in the specific sports where a link was present. Links include (1) Attendance at an open gym (and then transferring); (2) Playing non-school (AAU) or school-based summer sport teams (and then transferring to that coach’s school); (3) Transferring into a school where a former coach has just been hired.”
 There are no penalties for transferring if they meet one of the allowed exceptions for transferring but if a member school suspects a student of transferring for athletics, it must first file a complaint with the MHSAA. If a complaint is not filed, the transfer has not been contested, and that student is ineligible for just one semester.
The student is potentially ineligible for minimum for one semester.
"Parents will move their children from one school district to another for a number of reasons. Athletics is one,” MHSAA assistant director Nate Hampton said. "I can’t even guess on the amount of calls will receive from parents, coaches and administrators about transfers. There are so many different reasons (for transferring)."
     Hampton added that the telephone calls his office has received regarding transfers has increased since these new rules have been put in place.
The MHSAA’s power is limited. The association does not have adequate staff to investigate every complaint. The ones issued in writing by a school district take precedent.
Utica Eisenhower baseball coach Jason Gendreau said many coaches in Macomb County, in his sport and in basketball and football, would like to see the rule changed to where every transfer must be ineligible for one full school year, not just the ones mentioned above.
"The school of choice concept is fantastic if used the right way," he said. "It gives students an opportunity to get a better education. But we as coaches have discussed this at length and we’d like to see the state penalty be to sit out one year. It would fix itself. No parent would want to see their child sit out a full year of athletics. The percentage of kids who transfer for athletic reasons would drop. I think there’s a misconception that coaches recruit. It’s the program. The schools-of-choice program is a tremendous asset across the state, academically and socially, until that athletic line is crossed."
     A winning program and a coach’s success often lure top athletes. Who doesn’t want to play for a winner? If a parent believes a coach at one school will help his or her child develop more quickly, the result is often predictable. The cost of a college education weighs on parents, who may believe that their child, with the proper coaching, can be a candidate for a scholarship.
Brian Swinehart coached basketball in high school and has been an administrator in the Farmington Public Schools, the Wayne/Westland school district and for the past four years he’s been the athletic director for the three public high schools in Walled Lake (Central, Northern and Western). He also has a son who played travel baseball and understands that parents will try just about anything to help their child succeed.
"If a parent doesn’t like a coach they tend to move," Swinehart said. "That sense of community is lost. You will find pockets of programs where families gravitate towards because they’re successful. I tell my coaches, don’t worry about kids leaving. Build your program and coach the kids you have.
"I think there is a lure. I don’t think it happens on a large scale at the public schools. It doesn’t happen in sports like golf and tennis. It definitely happens."
To the individual and the parents, the opportunity to benefit academically, athletically and in other ways at another school is too much to pass up.
 Danny Larkins grew up on Detroit’s eastside but Larkins and his parents, Margaret Larkins and Chester Brown, decided Madison High was the best choice for them. Larkins also had an older brother attend Madison. Larkins received a scholarship from Toledo for football scholarship and recently left the school. He is a member of the coaching staff at Madison and is considering other academic and athletic alternatives.
"I probably couldn’t make it in DPS (Detroit Public Schools) because of how bad I was in school," Larkins said. "Plus I had gone to see so many games at Madison because of my brother. I think I had a better opportunity at Madison than I would have had in DPS. People pushed me to keep my grades up."
Larkins credits Madison football and track coach Drake Wilkins for being a mentor. "He was like another dad," Larkins said.
Joe Emanuele has also had his share of success as head baseball coach at Sterling Heights Stevenson. Stevenson won the Division 1 title in 2004 and reached the semifinals in ’11 and ’13. Stevenson is one of four high schools within the Utica system; Utica High, Utica Eisenhower and Utica Ford are the others. The district has a limited schools-of-choice program. When a school nears capacity, it closes access to transfers.
Emanuele said he’s received a "couple of complaints" regarding two players that transferred into his baseball program. Open enrollment has made it easier for successful programs to attract good players from outside the district. But Emanuele said he’s never recruited a player and never will.
"I don’t have any control over transfers," he said. "We get hundreds of kids who transfer in and out of the district.
"When I first started coaching, I went to (former Stevenson football coach) Rick Bye and asked him how to start a successful program. That was (16) years ago. He told me, ‘Take care of your own house.’ I don’t have to ask players to play for me.”
Wilkins isn’t so fortunate. Wilkins is in his seventh season as Madison’s head coach and he’s the only boys and girls track coach at Madison, a shrinking school district. When Wilkins came to Madison there were 560 students in the high school; at last count there were 393.
"It’s becoming the survival of the fittest," Wilkins said. "We get kids from all over — Detroit, Southfield, Roseville, Warren. It’s the sign of the times. The economy forces people to make decisions. Half of my track team is from Detroit. We’re trying to keep the doors open. You don’t want to turn anyone down.
“People think I coach an all-star team. That’s not it. They don’t give me credit.”
Madison is 56-16 under Wilkins and his teams qualified for the playoffs each year.
"Years ago when you played Roseville you played Roseville kids," he said. "That doesn’t happen anymore. Parents are choosing to send their kids wherever they think they can get the best for them."