State superintendent weighs in on the state of education

Superintendents in Madison Heights, Hazel Park share concerns

By: Andy Kozlowski, Brendan Losinski | Madison - Park News | Published May 11, 2022

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HAZEL PARK/MADISON HEIGHTS — Teacher retention, caring for students’ needs and reorienting them after two uncertain years of COVID-19 are among the most pressing issues facing the state’s education system, according to Michigan State Superintendent of Schools Michael Rice.

At the top of the list of areas Rice thinks Michigan public schools need to address is attracting people to the teaching profession, meeting the mental health needs of students, and helping students and staff adjust to schooling after the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

In a series of emails, the superintendents for the Madison District Public Schools, Hazel Park Public Schools and Lamphere Public Schools weighed in on these matters.


Attracting and retaining teachers
“I would argue that the biggest issue facing Michigan’s public schools is recruitment and retention of staff members,” Rice said. “Right now, it’s the seventh goal of the state’s strategic education plan. We prepare the requisite number of people to be teachers, but that doesn’t mean that all the people we prepare want to go into the profession.”

He added that the issue goes beyond just hiring educators in Michigan but ensuring that they want to keep teaching in the state.

“We have to do a better job of not just recruiting them, but retaining them, and that means we have to improve the conditions under which teachers teach, and by extension, under which students learn,” Rice said. “I think we need to pay our teachers more. We undercompensate our teachers. We need to improve supports for teachers. This means doing things like reducing class sizes, increasing mental health support, increasing opportunities for teachers to feel efficacious, and by extension, for students to feel and be more productive and successful.”

Amy Kruppe, the superintendent of the Hazel Park Public Schools, said that this is her seventh year back in Michigan, after working out of state for a number of years. She said when she returned, she could see that fewer people were going to college to become teachers, which was taking its toll.

“The pandemic has only increased that problem. What was an issue seven years ago of the number of applications now has grown out of control,” Kruppe said. “You may have five elementary teachers apply for a position where you might have had 50. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to hire a new teacher, and hiring teachers with eight years of experience becomes a projected burden on your financial outlook. It’s heartbreaking to hear students say that they’re not going into education because of the pay and the mental health concerns. Students can name it as to why they’re not entering the profession.”

Dale Steen, the superintendent of the Lamphere Public Schools, said the staffing issue is real.

“There is a major teacher shortage in Michigan and the country. Universities are reporting a 50% drop in enrollment in the teacher programs,” Steen said. “In certain areas — special education, sciences and mathematics — it’s very difficult to fill the positions. Because of the shortages, districts are competing, offering more compensations for difficult-to-fill positions, which can make it difficult to retain staff.”

Angel Abdulahad, the superintendent of the Madison District Public Schools, described the challenges of retaining talent.

“We encountered that mobility is on the rise with the newer teaching staff,” Abdulahad said. “The biggest issues are the specialty credentials such as bilingual education, English as a second language, world languages, and physical education. And money continues to be a challenge, with inflation costs averaging over 7%, while most teacher raises are averaged at 3-4% per year. Teachers are literally being asked to do more for less pay. Staffing shortages are nationwide but have impacted the educational community far greater. COVID has also made a huge impact on educators deciding to retire or simply walk away from a career they were dedicated to serving.”

Kruppe added, “Teaching is the greatest job you can have — educating the youth of tomorrow — but they do not see the benefits of the position due to lack of pay, lessening retirement options, and the lack of respect for educators.”


Mental health needs amid COVID
Providing mental health resources and putting other measures in place to make sure students can readjust to school in a post-COVID world was also high on Rice’s list of pressing topics.

“Getting back into school daily was part of (our recovery from the pandemic),” he said. “It’s not just about getting back into the buildings, though. We need to provide children with what they need, and that isn’t just about academics — that also includes ensuring their social and emotional needs are met. Our young people, and our districts’ staffs, have been through a pretty rough two years, and we need to provide for them.”

Rice said that virtual learning is at the forefront of families’ minds when thinking about the course of education. Some families enjoyed the flexibility of learning from home, but many more were desperate to get kids back in the classroom.

In addition to the educational concerns that districts have to consider when discussing the future of virtual learning are the social and mental health impacts of not learning in a classroom. Rice said that while the lessons learned in the last two years about virtual instruction are important, having students inside a classroom learning in person with their peers is a critical component in their educational experience.

“With the pandemic subsiding, we are very much coming back,” he said. “It’s not just about the children who have been in school the last two years — it’s the children whose parents were uncomfortable having their kids in school. They are coming back, and there’s a power to that. There’s a need for some virtual instruction in certain cases, but for so many of our young people, it’s been so hard to work from a distance.”

Rice also stressed how this is an important time for education as it seeks to adjust to normalcy in the wake of two years of uncertainty.

“The reality is that it’s been a public health moment for most of the last two years, and it has increasingly become a public education moment as the pandemic subsides,” Rice said.

Abdulahad said that the Madison school district has been hiring additional social workers and guidance counselors to assist students at each building, and has gotten creative with incentives to keep students positive through peer groups such as the Student Council. The district has also partnered with the Madison Heights Community Coalition to provide additional resources to families.

“The biggest issue I’ve noticed is the lack of social development that normally comes with attending in-person learning and social interactions with peers of their own age,” Abdulahad said. “The last two years, students haven’t had the opportunity to socially learn how to be students in a public institution. Not only that, but there are the pressures created by social media. That’s why we’re focused on providing more extensive social emotional resources and programs, such as the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program that we’ve incorporated at all grade levels.” The system teaches kids to understand other points of view and to constructively resolve situations.

Steen said he has also observed an increase in the social and emotional needs of students.

“COVID had an adverse effect on everyone, but especially students, who at times had to face the challenge of remote learning. Social media also has the potential to negatively impact situations between students, which can make its way into schools,” Steen said.

“At Lamphere, we are addressing the social and emotional needs of our students in a variety of ways. We have added social work positions at all levels to help students develop social skills to deal with the different stresses they face. Our district has invested in building our capacity to provide trauma-informed teaching, and to build resilience in our students.

“This spring, we’re also opening a clinic in partnership with Ascension Hospital that will house a full-time nurse and a mental health worker,” Steen said. “We continue to offer student mentorship at pivotal ages in middle and high school transition grades (sixth and ninth grades), and we have a therapy dog at Lamphere High School, and we are looking to add more dogs in the future.”

Kruppe said that one challenge is the limited availability of mental health professionals.

“Even with insurance, families are waiting for weeks or months for providers to have openings. Families that have state insurance for their children may struggle to even find somebody,” Kruppe said. “We also see the impacts of unsupervised social media. The bullying that staff, parents and students endure has increased the unhealthy banter. This has led to poor self-esteem, trauma due to spreading and sharing false truths, and increased aggressive and unfiltered social relationships.

“The impact of COVID has only increased these aggressive forms of attacks,” she continued. “Children who would’ve had positive social interactions at the ages of 3-4 are entering kindergarten or the first grade with no experience of being in a classroom of 20-25 students. Simple skills such as standing in line, keeping your hands to yourself or simply using kind words have been diminished. We are seeing an increased need for social support across the board.”

She said that the Hazel Park district has started advisory periods on a daily basis that are meant to increase conversations between staff and students and from peer to peer. The district has also partnered with Ascension to further support their social workers in each building, and is partaking in two programs focused on social emotional learning in the classroom.