Madison HeightsJuly 19, 2012
Madison superintendent shares vision for district
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS — He arrived at a challenging time, but Randy Speck has settled in as superintendent of Madison District Public Schools, having assumed the position April 1. Now he’s focusing on his vision for MDPS: improving student performance and opportunity while working with others in the community to keep families in the district.
“I want us to be known as a district that serves families,” Speck said.
Speck grew up in Nashville, Tenn., where he graduated from Ezell-Harding Christian School in 1990. He went on to get his associate degree at Rochester College in 1992, his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Lipscomb University in 1995 and 1997, and his educational specialist degree at Oakland University in 2003.
Professionally, he began as a high school biology teacher at David Lipscomb High in Nashville; he then moved to Michigan, where he served as the director of community relations at Oakland Christian School in Auburn Hills.
In 2002, he became superintendent of OCS and served there until May 2011, when he left to pursue other opportunities. From August 2011 through March 2012, he was interim principal of Angell Elementary in Berkley, and then on April 1, he became superintendent of MDPS.
Now he’s faced with the district’s downward trend in student enrollment. Numbers have been dropping over the last five years. In 2007-08, MDPS had 1,757 students, while in 2011-12 there were only 1,328.
“I think some of that had to do with the economics of the area,” Speck said. “That’s the big part, families leaving the area. How we address this is to give them a reason to come here, whether they’re families in Madison Heights or elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb or Wayne counties.”
The decline in student enrollment takes its toll on district finances with less money from the state, although the minimum state foundational allowance has increased $93 to $6,966 per pupil, which will help.
The district has a fiscally conservative $12 million budget planned for 2012-13. The goal is to continue to stay fiscally solvent. It was only several years ago that MDPS was in the black for the first time after 28 years in the red.
“Going back into deficit is non-negotiable,” Speck said. “We can’t. There are other districts (such as Highland Park and Muskegon Heights) now being taken over by emergency managers. That cannot be Madison Schools. Once an emergency manager comes in, as we see with Muskegon, the entire district can be charted, meaning all agreements with the teacher unions and such are nonexistent.”
Which brings Speck back to making sure the students are there: At press time, there are only enough students to fill about 50 percent of the schools for 2012-13. That being said, Speck is fairly confident there will be stable enrollment when the counts are done.
“Certainly, it’s my hope we increase enrollment,” Speck said. “As we’re doing that, it will provide the opportunity to fund even more programs for our students.”
The toughest challenge facing the district, he said, is the high mobility rate, sometimes referred to as “transient.” Families are moving in and out of the area; neighborhoods have higher rental rates than home ownership rates, so families aren’t in the district for long. The elementary schools, in particular, have upwards of a 50 percent mobility rate, meaning that less than half of the kids spend the whole year with the district.
The silver lining is teachers are learning best practices for how to teach students that might not be with them the whole year, but naturally it’s a situation Speck wants to fix.
The district is looking into alternative funding sources that would help address the issue, including a Promise Neighborhood planning grant from the federal government that would help formulate a plan with the city of Madison Heights to stabilize neighborhoods around the district.
A radio ad campaign in June also reached out to families across the tri-county area, trying to fill grades K-10, as well as a limited number of spots in 11th- and 12th-grades. The campaign focused on a “safe and secure environment,” nutritious breakfasts and lunches, and 40-minute longer school days at Madison High. Accompanying press materials vouched for sports with no pay-to-play fees, as well as an online diploma program, the accessibility of nearby SMART bus routes and the arts programs.
“A lot of schools are cutting music and art programs, but we have a K-12 band program, and we’re adding a certified art teacher to our high school next year, bringing back an arts program,” Speck said.
Changing the perception that Madison’s low foundational allowance means low-performing students or facilities is another challenge for the district. Increased performance will help achieve this.
To try to increase graduation rates, Madison High has been working with academic turnaround consultants from the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education, backed by a charitable gift of $27.1 million from the General Motors Foundation to the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.
The turnaround efforts include new strategies in math to make sure each student has true mastery of a concept before moving on, and a focus on technical reading so that students learn to parse through dense information, a useful skill for college and beyond.
The school has also been split into “small learning communities,” and within them, a student and family advocacy system where a staff member is assigned to every 15-17 students, providing support to them and their families throughout the high school years.
Speck said the driving force for him is serving families, and one of his top goals is to provide an environment where 100 percent of students see improvement in math, reading and writing, no matter how briefly they’re with the district.
While he’s only been with MDPS a few months now, Speck said he’s been warmly received by the community. In early July, Speck brought his family to see the fireworks at the city’s Pre-Fourth of July Festival in the Park. He’s been traveling around the district, from City Council to the Community Round Table, getting to know everyone.
Speck said he’s impressed by both the students who hop on a SMART bus to get to school each morning and with the faculty and staff for their professionalism and abilities. Even with the turbulence of contractual issues, they’ve welcomed him with open arms.
Madison Board of Education President Albert Morrison said he’s pleased with Speck.
“He came at a really tough time in this district,” Morrison said. “He walked into a whirlwind of things, took a week or so adjusting, and then jumped in with both feet. He’s trying to make things better and doing exactly what we were looking for.”
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