A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Calumet Students in Shop Class
Calumet students in shop class. Photo by Dan Armstrong.

Calumet is more than 500 miles away from Lansing. Trust me — I recently drove up to Michigan's nearly most northern point. Had I started in Detroit instead of Midland, the drive to Calumet would have taken more than 10 hours.

During this trip, the notion of drafting statewide policies to govern places as different as Midland, Calumet and Detroit seemed increasingly absurd.

State officials who have begun to call for increased vocational training could look to Calumet High School for ideas. Calumet is near Michigan Technological University, enabling its students to collaborate with Michigan Tech students on vocational projects.

Many Calumet students, who have access to up to two years of Computer-Aided Design training, as well as geospatial analysis training and conventional shop classes, go on to Michigan Tech. Some students have even received part-time job offers from engineering companies while still in school.

Calumet students with an exceptional interest in a subject or medium are encouraged to explore it. One student built a remote-controlled airplane using CAD to design it and machines to create the parts. According to Principal George Twardzik, the student managed to get the plane to fly. So much for Popsicle stick projects in seemingly advanced physics courses.

Despite its proximity to Michigan Tech, one of the school's main challenges, Twardzik said, is its geography. Though the school uses student competitions as a motivational tool, students cannot easily travel to most statewide competitions. Instead of giving up those competitions, the school has used taped lectures, "flipped classrooms," and internet-equipped buses to keep traveling students up-to-date with lectures and coursework.

Meanwhile, Detroit has its own benefits and struggles. Competitive schools with a strong history are just a short drive away for students who can make it in. Detroit-area students can choose to attend a school that provides years of Arabic or Spanish training. Meanwhile, the conventional school district has had to grapple with rapidly declining enrollment, high administrative turnover and power battles.

It is easy to see that Calumet and Detroit students have different needs. But it seems that the view from Lansing is hazy. Statewide curriculum and administrative policies apply both to Calumet and Detroit, and myriad other schools serving different students from different backgrounds and different needs.

Most recently, this has caused headaches when applying the state’s “focus school” designation to schools that host gifted programs, take in students from disadvantaged populations, or have widely diverse student populations.

Teachers unions have also attempted to use this diversity of circumstance and geography to disavow responsibility for failing schools while asking for increased school spending.

A better approach would be to use state policy to set standards for schools (and penalties for not achieving them) and then empower schools to figure out how to best achieve those standards. Calumet has been providing advanced vocational courses to its students in addition to core classes for decades, and without a directive from the state.

Instead of looking at Calumet  for ways to compel other schools to offer the same vocational training, state officials could ask Calumet administrators and teachers what struggles they have undergone to provide those courses while also complying with state requirements. Easing some requirements imposed under Michigan's Merit Curriculum would be a good place to start.

The very practices that have helped Calumet students may not be the best fit for Detroit-area students, and that’s exactly the point. The role of the state should be to empower schools to serve students and to empower parents to hold those schools accountable. Such policies could help schools with different student needs and different cultures — even if those schools are hundreds of miles apart.

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