Had I known how disillusioned and disgusted we would be about the public education system in Michigan after living here a couple years, I never would have consented to move at all. Adam was attending a small elementary, consisting of kindergarten through second grade. So before he started 3rd grade, he moved to a much larger school building. He was now in the same facility where big brother Josh had been going since we moved to Jackson.
|Joshua 11, Adam 7. Around the time we moved to Michigan, 1987…|
This elementary housed several 3rd through 6th grades. It wasn’t until Adam started 4th grade that we discovered a disturbing cover-up of sorts. Adam had been put in a trial program during third grade. But we were unaware of it at the time. Funded by a nearby college for an accelerated classroom. We were not informed, included in any discussions, or asked permission. The trial program ended after one year, so our 4th grader was now knowledgeable in doing 6th grade work, mostly math. But that was no longer an option, because he was doing regular 4th grade work, and bored spitless. When we voiced our concerns about the lack of parental input before the experimental trial, the superintendent of Jackson Public Schools gave me this quote, “you don’t realize in the state of Michigan, I have much more say in the decisions about educating your child than you do.” Wow. We immediately asked Jackson Public Schools to release Adam and Josh. There was a much smaller school district closer to our house where we wanted to send the boys. This was several years before Michigan adopted schools of choice. Well, we needed to prove that Western offered classes that were not available at Jackson. Jackson did not want to lose their state stipend from our boys. It really had nothing to do with the best education for our kids. Or what was important as parents. It was always about the money. And control.
We thought long and hard about selling our house. Seriously. We were about a block from the border that put us in another school district. It just didn’t seem right. We honestly didn’t have much say in our kid’s education choices. How could they possibly have more say over our children than John and I? We were already struggling with Jackson and Michigan’s education system with Shannon.
|Living in Jackson wasn’t all bad. Heading to the hot tub, 1990…|
Shannon was a very good student. She always had the best study habits. When she got home from school, she immediately went to her room and did homework. She taught herself to read when she was 4 and never stopped. If she were sitting somewhere, she was reading something. Whatever was within reach. A book, cereal package, Kotex box, bible. Didn’t matter. She’s been a voracious reader since she latched onto my Dick and Jane books. She was a sophomore when we moved to Michigan. From the get-go, Jackson didn’t have much to offer her in the way of classes. She was quite far ahead. Not that she was extraordinarily brilliant, just very smart. She ended up doing independent studies by herself most of her last 2 years of high school. And taking some college classes from the Jackson Community College, which were free to high school students at the time. This actually helped Shannon (and us) tremendously once she was accepted at Michigan State. She didn’t have to take several of the usual freshman and sophomore required classes. But that wasn’t the point. Jackson Public Schools had no idea what to do with Shannon once she enrolled. Guess that should have been a big red flag. But what were we going to do about Josh and Adam’s education? No way they were staying in Jackson until they graduated.
|Summer fun. Shannon reading, but wet, cool feet. With Josh, 1979…|
Someone told us there was another way to get our boys released from JPS without moving. You could petition the State Board of Education. Since our house was so close to another school district’s boundary line, we could petition our neighborhood be moved from one school district to the other. Wow, sounded like a great idea. However, this idea/option would now play a major roll in our lives for several years. (Had we realized this, we probably would have opted to just sell the house and move a couple blocks away). We needed to get the vast majority of neighbors to sign a petition saying they had no objection to becoming part of Western School District instead of Jackson. This included a lot of houses here folks. About 100. We had our work cut out for us.
|Outskirts in Jackson. The start of the homes we were petitioning, 1989…|
There were other neighborhood families just as unhappy with Jackson Public Schools as we were. Several parents were sending their kids to private schools. So we formed a group of ticked off parents. Just kidding, but we did seek some allies who wanted to help. We had petitions typed up and started knocking on doors. We knew this was going to take awhile. There was no way Josh and Adam were going to continue at JPS. We yanked them out of Jackson and enrolled them in Western. Which was illegal. Our address was in Jackson’s school district. So we rented an apartment a couple miles away in Western schools. We claimed John and I had separated.
In Michigan, public schools have Intermediate School Districts (ISD) throughout the state. A building full of employees, covering several local school districts. They oversee all aspects of these individual school districts. Lots of overhead. The local ISD would have first dibs on approving or denying our petition. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen before our petition was even submitted. There was no way they were going to approve this. It would mean taking thousands of tax dollars away from JPS (already hurting financially) by losing all of our homes from their district. Not a surprise when it was a quick no from the ISD. They decided to set an example with us and play hard ball. Using the Van Berkum’s. But they didn’t realize who they were dealing with either. Semi-smart Iowa parents, used to having a voice in their children’s education decisions.
The ISD hired a former retired employee as a consultant. His job was to make the lives of the Van Berkum’s as miserable as possible. His name was Jerry. And he was very good at his job. We now claimed to be separated and the boys were attending Western. Every afternoon Jerry parked his car on Pioneer Road, which was our side street. Sitting in his car, watching our house and back yard to see if Josh and Adam got off the bus at “my” house. Instead of their newly established address of the apartment, where they were supposed to be living. Taking notes if they were in the house or went outside to play. I started getting numerous phone calls daily, starting about 4, ending around 9 pm. All were hang ups right after we answered. It was the ISD. Speculating the boys just might answer the phone after school. How could I prove this since the caller never said a word? We were one of the first people to fork out an extra 7 bucks a month to have caller ID installed on our phone. The calls all originated from the ISD office. Ruthless, miserable, despicable people.
|Josh and grandma Mag. Near where Jerry watched our house, 1989…|
We rented the apartment for a year. Decided to take it a step further while we waited for our petition to be heard and ruled on by an Administrative Law Judge. A woman who had been assigned to our case by the State Board of Education in Lansing. The second year we bought a used mobile home in a huge trailer park in Western’s School District. We got cable TV, and their own phone number. I still can’t believe we went through all this. I really was kind of living by myself in that big, old rambling ranch. It was almost impossible not to fight what the superintendent said about our lack of rights as parents. Once we got past 4th Friday count though, the ISD usually let up some what. Fourth Friday count determined how many kids were in the school district and how much money they were getting from the state for the year. The boys were now legally enrolled in Western and state dollars from owning the trailer supported that. But the tax base from our home on McCain Road was still going to Jackson Public Schools. Which we were trying to change.
Well, the Administrative Law Judge agreed fully with our petition. Our whole neighborhood consisting of about 100 homes would now be included in Western School district instead of JPS. Yay, we won. Ugh, if only it had been that simple. Jackson appealed of course, not wanting to lose the tax dollars from 100 homes. We appealed our petition claim to a state judge, who threw it back to the Administrative Law Judge, who advised (“to get it right this time.” Meaning, figure out a way to change the decision in JPS’s favor. BTW, the ALJ, who had supported our petition of the neighborhood moving into Western School District had been fired). Stinking-wimpy-state-judge. The only time in my life I’ve been called as a witness in court. Jackson’s superintendent had called me a racist during a speech he had given. A couple of acquaintances of John called him after hearing say it at a public meeting. Claimed I didn’t want my kids enrolled in Jackson schools because they had a much higher ratio of black students than Western School District. In court, our lawyer held up a picture of a strikingly beautiful baby for all to see. “Who is this child,” Rick asked? I smiled, “Why that’s my granddaughter, Ariana. She is perfect. And I would not change one hair on her head.” Well that didn’t matter or the ruling come as any big surprise. This time the ruling was in Jackson’s favor. We lost. All this took over 3 years.
|Ariana, 18 mo, 1992…|
We spent years and thousands of dollars trying to get Joshua and Adam legally in Western, while remaining in our home. Which was one short block from where it needed to be. Josh did graduate from Western in ’93. Adam was a freshman when John was offered a job 150 miles west of Jackson. I should have seen this coming much sooner. We moved to Michigan when Shannon was a sophomore. We started this whole petition fiasco when Josh was in 9th grade, so he changed school districts when he was a sophomore. Only fitting that poor Adam would have to switch schools when he was a 10th grader. I will say we thoroughly researched the local school districts in west Michigan before we bought our house. None of the nearby schools seemed sub-par (well besides being much lower on the education totem pole, state wise, compared to Iowa). But some of the districts were huge. It would seem more likely for Adam to get lost in the shuffle or easier for him to get in with the wrong crowd. So we decided on North Muskegon Schools. One of the smallest districts in the state. But with some very good creds and high graduation ratios. There were only about 50 kids in his class. We were satisfied that we made the right choice when we bought our house. But what a painful learning experience and a wake up call. Determining what was in the best interest for our children’s education. A concerned mom and dad who insisted on having a say…