Q&A: New Ann Arbor Tech principal on closing Roberto Clemente: Keep both schools open
Danielle Arndt | AnnArbor.com
In the past five years, Ann Arbor Technological High School has been a focus of the district’s, as administrators have tried to eliminate the school’s previous negative image: “Stoner High.”
As graduation rates fell, the school experienced a new name, new mottos and new leadership through the years.
A2 Tech can add another new leader to that list: Former Pioneer High School teacher and administrator Tyrone Weeks, who recently was hired as head principal following former Principal Sheila Brown’s retirement.
- Previous article: Former Pioneer staffer welcomed back as Ann Arbor Tech principal
But the spotlight is not off A2 Tech yet.
Another change could be coming for these high school students and staff. This change would impact Ann Arbor Public Schools’ other alternative program, the Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, as well.
In April and May, prior to passing a $188.5 million budget for fiscal year 2013, the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education debated closing Roberto Clemente, for a savings of up to $508,000, and housing both alternative programs under one roof.
Parents and students from Roberto Clemente strongly protested the proposed move, and the school board agreed to study the two alternative programs throughout this school year to make an informed decision on Ann Arbor’s alternative programs next year.
AnnArbor.com sat down with new A2 Tech principal Tyrone Weeks, who also was a history teacher at Roberto Clemente for four years, to collect his thoughts on the possible combining of the two alternative programs, as well as the new school year.
AnnArbor.com: A2 Tech has undergone a number of changes in the past few years, from a name and motto change to leadership changes. What are your goals for the school? What might you do differently and what might stay the same?
Weeks: I think the school, with the name change, went in a good direction. For years, the school had a reputation of being a place where students who had a lot of issues in the past academically and socially would go and then, for various reasons, continue those behaviors. I think what Ms. (Shelia) Brown did in terms of pushing the name change was instrumental in actually trying to develop a culture within the school where kids realized that my challenges in the past have no input or impact on how I’m going to do in the future, both academically and socially, as well as being a successful citizen in the community.
I really want to help our staff continue to develop a philosophy centered on technology in the classroom, that’s predicated on 21st century teaching and learning. I’m a firm believer that alternative schools don’t have to be considered a dumping ground for students who aren’t successful, but just an opportunity for students to be taught in an alternative way. What I would really like for kids to be able to do is to understand their learning styles and their learning needs.
A lot of students who go to comprehensive high schools are taught by great instructors but because of the shear volume of the building, they don’t always have the opportunity to connect with each kid on an individual basis. So what we want to do is to understand our students learning styles and provide them with authentic learning experiences where they could actually go out and use those skills. So if I’m learning math and I’m learning Algebra 1 or Algebra 2, understanding how this connects to the community and potentially how this connects with me in the future professionally. So my goal is to develop relationships with our community partners, and hopefully every sophomore student that we have this year will have an opportunity to be in an internship as a junior or a senior. So that kids have the opportunity to actually go out and meet people who work here (in Ann Arbor), understand their stories and how they got there, and then begin to develop mentorships that can lead to partnerships for our kids.
AnnArbor.com: How do you feel your past experiences with Washtenaw Juvenile Court, Roberto Clemente and Pioneer’s Rising Scholars program have prepared you to succeed at A2 Tech?
Weeks: Personally, when I reflect on it, it’s amazing the path I’ve taken over the past 10 or 12 years. And I do believe that — and this might seem corny — but I do believe my steps have been in order. In terms of, this hasn’t been by happenstance or by coincidence. So with my experience working with the juvenile court, I learned how to connect with the community and I learned how to understand the needs of the people in the community. Because a lot of families are lacking, a lot of families are hurting, and when their kids come to school, they don’t always understand they can always take advantage of the resources that we have. It’s not just enough to say that you have these resources, it’s actually teaching kids how to navigate them. A lot of families don’t have those skills, so then the kids don’t know how to navigate the system.
So learning that with Juvenile Court was phenomenal, then taking that and going to Roberto Clemente, I was fortunate enough to work with (Clemente Principal) Joe Dulin. And Joe was a masterful school administrator, a great principal. One of the things I took from him, and I have no quarrels saying I stole it from him, is the importance of family and the importance of bridging the gap between school and the family. Home visits for the student, for example. It’s not just enough to say we want parent involvement. We have to go out sometimes and show ourselves and avail ourselves to families in the community. And then they are more likely to be comfortable coming into the school. That family emphasis is really important.
At Pioneer, for the Rising Scholars, we were able to develop a structure that was focused on actually improving equity in terms of the learning experience and in prepping kids to be critical thinkers — and to go out and be able to take (accelerated) and (Advanced Placement) courses. A lot of times schools have desires and goals and philosophies on eradicating or eliminating the achievement gap but they don’t have the framework to do it. We created that framework. We took kids from eighth grade, worked with them the entire summer prior to their ninth-grade year developing skills on communication, study skills, testing strategies and self-efficacy. Then when they got to the school year, we put them in cohort classes together so they traveled with each other in all core academic subjects so they could understand the importance of community. Part of the program that was important was kids having service learning opportunities and volunteers coming in to speak with the kids. Those are some of the things I want to continue to do here at Ann Arbor Tech. ... It’s going to take some time, but you can expect to see cohorts in the future.
AnnArbor.com: Has this been done at A2 Tech before?
Weeks: Not that I’m aware of. A cohort philosophy or a community-based program, where our kids are out doing service-learning projects, having guest speakers come in and developing partnerships, that hasn’t been done before, no.
Uniquely enough, when I was a high school student myself — I went to Detroit Northern High School. I was a part of a cohort program in high school. It was called the TOPS program, Totally Outstanding Proficient Students, and the focus was on providing cohort students with the exposure so that they could go out and go to college. If it wasn’t for that program and the support of teachers and counselors, I probably would not be sitting here in front of you today.
AnnArbor.com: Pioneer High School, which obviously was where you started as an administrator, has a position opening for head principal, too. Did you apply for that job?
Weeks: I did not. I was interested in here. When the (Pioneer) position became available, I received numerous text messages from Pioneer staff. I even sat in front of people within the central administration here in Ann Arbor and one of the first questions they asked was: ‘Why didn’t you apply for Pioneer High School?’ And the reason being was, Mr. (Michael) White was a phenomenal, is a phenomenal administrator. I owe him a great deal of gratitude because I was fortunate enough to work with him and to learn from him and I consider him to be a great friend. But as a staff person being a teacher in that building, going back as potentially the building’s principal, you’re in a very unique position. Because when you need to make difficult decisions that could impact people you were once very collegial with, it could be very problematic. So going into a new school where I’m not as particularly familiar with the staff, I’m able to be very objective when I work with them. Going into a school that you were once a teacher and once an assistant principal at is a very sensitive gray area. People who are your friends can’t always understand that your role is different.
AnnArbor.com: One big topic of discussion during budget season this past April and May was closing Roberto Clemente and combining that alternative high school program with Ann Arbor Tech to save money. Would that concern you? What are your thoughts on merging the two programs?
Weeks: It doesn’t concern me because I believe that the school district will do what is in the best interest of the kids. And I think what’s in the best interest of the kids is to keep both schools open. I think that both schools’ philosophies — although we both service students that were not able to be successful in the comprehensive high schools, we service two completely different groups. Roberto Clemente tends to serve students that are much younger. Our students are mostly 16 to 20. We have a lot of teen mothers in our program. We are fortunate enough to have a health clinic in our building as well as a childcare facility, in which our teen mothers are able to come and pay $1 a day. Their children can be here while they’re educating themselves. For Roberto Clemente and A2 Tech to merge — exposing children that are that young to this type of environment might not be advantageous.
At Roberto Clemente, the focus is on getting kids when they are young and helping them to redefine themselves so they can either graduate from Roberto Clemente or go back to their home schools and be successful. Here, these students are a little bit older, so we are trying the bridge the gap to give them access to college or to a future career. With kids that are 13/14 years of age, they are still relatively fresh and the interventions you can provide them are centered on their age and their social development. These kids (at A2 Tech) have experienced life a little differently.