BEN DeGROW: Baldwin High School beats the odds

Isolated and poor, Baldwin, Michigan, doesn’t offer abundant opportunity to a native son with a freshly minted college degree. But Ferris State grad Duane Roberts returned home because he wanted to help those who were coming behind him.

Baldwin is the smallest of the state’s eight "promise zones" that offer a combination of public and private scholarship funds for every local high school graduate who attends a Michigan college or university. In Baldwin, graduates can receive $5,000 a year for four years, above and beyond other available financial aid.

Roberts, a 2008 Baldwin High School graduate, is back in school as the district’s Promise Zone Coordinator. In this role he oversees the district’s College Access Center, created in 2011. Because of his background, faculty members at the school say, Roberts has built strong relationships and credibility with students. Like his predecessor, he leads middle school students on college day trips and older students on overnight trips. He also has helped plan and coordinate elementary field trips that put the idea of college before even younger students.

The district’s deep and relentless focus on demystifying and breaking down the barriers to college has raised the bar on academic expectations. The school regularly hosts on-campus events with different university representatives. The emphasis on postsecondary learning is obvious throughout campus, including the student commons area that prominently displays flags from many of Michigan’s colleges and universities.

Baldwin Senior High School stood out as the seventh-best district high school on the Mackinac Center’s recently released Context and Performance Report Card, earning a solid A. The distinction doesn’t come from high raw achievement scores but by preparing students better than a demographer’s tables would predict. In other words, the school helps students beat the odds. Nine in 10 kids are poor enough to qualify for free lunch subsidies, at or below $31,590 a year for a family of four. Baldwin’s “CAP” score shows they are doing much better than their student poverty numbers would predict.

Four members of the senior class I met were all seriously grappling with decisions about which college acceptance letters to take. Two members of student government, including a star of the boys’ basketball team, want to be pre-med majors.

Postsecondary preparation is a strong emphasis at Baldwin, but high school principal Calvin Patillo is quick to point out that it takes different forms. “College is not a destination for every student,” he said, adding that the district offers students skilled trades and career education programs.

Tucked away in placid tourist country along the edge of the sprawling Manistee National Forest, a popular fishing destination, the small rural western Michigan school may be one of a kind. Only a few miles from the school, Idlewild, was founded in the early 20th century by middle-class African-Americans who had been excluded from other rustic resorts by racial segregation. It became known as the “Black Eden of Michigan.”

Today, the Baldwin school district is more racially diverse than other districts in the region. Nearly as many minority students as white students are enrolled, largely coexisting in harmony. Patillo and guidance counselor Stewart Nasson emphasized the absence of cliques in the school culture as one key reason for academic success.

Both Patillo and Superintendent Dr. Stiles Simmons, two African-American educators with years of experience in Detroit Public Schools, emphasize the differences between urban and rural poverty. In a place like Baldwin, poverty means fewer harmful distractions and less pressure to conform. But the sense of isolation from opportunities is greater. The school is the place for students to take part in organized athletics and extracurricular activities.

Several of the superintendent’s initiatives have borne fruit. Among other things, Simmons led an overhaul of the curriculum. He also got teachers to help in meeting a state requirement to develop meaningful evaluations of professional staff.

A trio of high school teachers highlighted the challenge of keeping parents connected with their child’s educational experience. They said that through bonding and observation, they know what students need to do. Sometimes, one teacher said, that requires them to act like “helicopter moms” to make sure children do what they need to do. That doesn’t mean, though, that the district has given up on students.

“Educators can use vocabulary and authority to keep families at arm’s length,” Simmons acknowledges, and he has tried to chart a different path. In an effort to create a more welcoming atmosphere for parents, Simmons hosted community meetings every month for two years so he could hear from students’ families and understand their concerns.

Talking with people in the community has improved home-school relations. It also has resulted in holding open gym nights and having a partnership with Feeding America, a mobile food pantry for some of the community’s neediest residents.

Simmons’ latest and perhaps proudest initiative is the balanced calendar, launched in the 2015-16 school year. The calendar now has a two-week break in the fall and spring. The change shortened summer vacation to six weeks — no small feat in a community dependent on summer tourism. Staff members see the change as mostly positive. It creates a modest challenge with scheduling the SAT. But it has improved the timing of end-of-semester exams and helped to reinforce programs that have reduced the number of punishable student infractions.

Under Patillo’s tenure, Baldwin High School has begun offering Advanced Placement courses. It offers economics and environmental sciences, and computer science is scheduled to come online next year. In 2016-17 the school added a robotics team to its slate of extracurricular opportunities. These changes have started to shift the campus culture so that peer pressure increasingly pushes kids toward classroom success and on-time graduation.

Based on its current trajectory, the school will keep beating the odds and give more students the chance to build bright futures.

Ben DeGrow is the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions.