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Defiant community rallies around Muskegon Heights students in face of potential closure

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Students at Muskegon Heights join a community rally Monday in support of their school.

The community held a pep rally to support Muskegon Heights students Monday afternoon.

The high school is on a list of 38 poorly performing schools that could face closure.

Listen: We Live Here - A neighborhood school on the brink of closure

Five years ago, an emergency manager converted Muskegon Heights into a charter school district to salvage it. Now it’s academics, not finances, that threaten the school’s existence.

1983 Muskegon Heights High School graduate Eddie Sanders Jr. organized the rally after talking to students he said were “downtrodden” after the state sent letters home to parents, breaking the news. He says it’s caused “a lot of uncertainty” among students.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Eddie Sanders Jr. preps for the pep rally he organized at his alma mater.

“I talked to some of the children and they was ‘I don’t feel like going to school. Why should I go to school? I feel like dropping out.’ And I’ve heard some even say that they wanted to commit suicide. It has gotten to that level because they feel like they’re not loved. That the people do not care about them. It’s too much,” Sanders said.

Sanders, also a community activist and preacher, thanked parents and adults who showed up for the mid-day rally from all over the region.

“We don’t want them coming to school and carrying this heavy burden every day, who are thinking ‘what’s going to happen to my school?” Sanders said.

Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross stood defiantly, walking past orange and black balloons on the gymnasium floor, working up the crowd for the pep rally.

“This district closed in 2012 and has changed three times – but they’re still here!” Zachery-Ross said, pointing to risers full of cheering, 7th-12th grade students.

A financial emergency was declared for Muskegon Heights Public Schools in 2012. The state-appointed emergency manager at the time laid off most all employees and set up the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy, a charter school authorized by the district.

State of Opportunity: Muskegon Heights schools were in trouble. Then the district made history. Twice.

The charter school company hired to run the charter schools left in 2014, sparking a new system, with Zachery-Ross staying on as superintendent. Zachery-Ross says all the changes over the years have caused a lot of upheaval for students. She says the graduation rate dropped because of the uncertainty.

“A lot of them went to other schools but 30% of those children that was supposed to graduate from the Heights just got lost in the shuffle, they dropped out,” said Edna McMurray, a retired teacher who lingered in the gym long after the rally was over.

McMurray and her husband, their children and her grandchildren – they all graduated from this school district.

“So you know it’s…” McMurray sighs, and shakes her head. “It breaks my heart and when I talk about it I get teary-eyed.”

In October, Governor Rick Snyder announcedMuskegon Heights schools’ financial emergency was over.The state says the district's deficit has declined $9.9 million to a projected $2 million earlier this year.

The primary reason for the deficit reduction is the more than $12 million in low-interest loans the state gave the district. The district has up to 30 years to pay those loans back through local property taxes. The district must continue to authorize a charter school to educate kids, at least until it pays off all the money it owes the state of Michigan. That will take another 25 years or so.

Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross and officials from Muskegon County’s ISD say the reforms need more time to work.

Officials from the state’s School Reform Office are expected to visit the school next week.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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