Full disclosure: this post is very much a product of my upbringing and my public school experience as a student. I am from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a fascinating and greatly misunderstood place. The UP has cultivated a culture unlike the rest of the state. Most “Yoopers” (yes, we do refer to ourselves this way) have never been to Detroit or Ann Arbor and don’t care to go. Even the story of how the UP became part of Michigan is quite humorous (the Michigan territory lost a battle with the Ohio territory and received the UP as a consolation prize). Culturally, we’re more similar to Wisconsin than the Lower Peninsula as evidenced by the multitudes of passionate Green Bay Packer fans (my father included).
My town has around 6,000 residents and is located 13 miles west of Marquette, the largest city in the UP and home to Northern Michigan University. In this way it is fairly unique as far as UP towns go as many are rural and very remote (consider Engadine, for example… where does one buy groceries?!).
The Ishpeming Public School district is where I started my schooling. My mother, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother all went through this school system. In the mid-1970’s, folks from Ishpeming township and surrounding rural areas broke off from Ishpeming to create their own school district (N.I.C.E. community schools), where I finished my schooling (I transferred to Westwood High School in 11th grade). Ishpeming High School once had over 300 students per graduating class. With the advent of the N.I.C.E. district and the uncertain nature of the local iron mining industry, enrollment began to decline. As the wealthier families moved to Ishpeming township and points west, the demographics and size of the Ishpeming district also began to change (IHS's graduating class is down to 60). Several years back, the district was forced to close C.L. Phelps Middle School (see picture below) and moved all middle school students to the Central School building (attached to IHS). All elementary students now attend Birchview Elementary, the only remaining K-4 school in the district.
Small districts like Ishpeming face a multitude of issues: educators who teach 2-4 subjects a day, shrinking budgets, outdated facilities (the IHS pool is a truly frightening place), cut backs in curricular offerings (IHS eliminated their visual art program), an aging work force, and the list goes on.
Those from outside the community often suggest consolidation with other districts (The Republic-Michigamme district just west of N.I.C.E. is an incredibly small district that has gone to a four day week to save money and stay afloat). What's difficult to understand about a town like Ishpeming is how important the high school is to the community. (My 83 year old grandmother still has breakfast with her graduating class on a regular basis!). High school basketball and football games are major civic events. High school sports players are local celebrities in a way. The pride of being an Ishpeming Hematite runs deep.... and the thought of consolidating with a neighboring district (while it may make financial sense) would be unheard of to most. Also, community members are well aware than in any consolidation, many teachers and support staff would be out of work. So, small districts keep on trying to maintain business as usual. My sense is that eventually there will be no choice. And this is likely not a bad thing in the long run, especially for the students.
This is not a new problem for Michigan school districts. Consider this story from 2002 and this report from the Michigan State University College of Education, and this brief story from 2011. It's a difficult issue and one not getting much attention, especially in wake of huge stories like Detroit's struggle with bankruptcy. It's not a sexy story and it's a complicated issue with even more complicated solutions.
As an educator and future teacher educator, it's a fascinating question to think about districts like this since large urban and suburban districts have been a constant in my life for the past decade (a constant in most of our lives I'd wager). How do we encourage future teachers to work for small, rural districts? Should we? Experiences in rural communities is outside the realm of experience of many Michigan undergraduates. Perhaps one point of influence I'll have at MSU is to make people aware that places like Ishpeming exist.