Putting Final Touches On Fall School Plan, VanWagoner Tackles Multiple TCAPS Priorities
By Luke Haase | Aug. 7, 2020
New Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner has a lot on his plate after less than three weeks on the job. From shepherding 10,000 students back to class safely, to demands for a more diverse curriculum, accusations of student poaching by some of his peers, and potential record-setting budget cuts, VanWagoner sat down with The Ticker to share his perspectives on all of it - as well as an update on what parents might expect for instruction this fall.
Ticker: Anxious to hear how your new job is going, but everyone is more urgently interested in the latest with a return to school and the TCAPS plan being presented to the school board Monday night. Any preview of that?
VanWagoner: Right, we’ll present our “return-to-school” plan, which is really an obligation for the state. We have to show what our plans would be for each of the phases. Three, two, and one are pretty easy: They’d be virtual. So our plan will focus mostly on four and five, and we’re in phase five now, though there’s been widespread speculation the governor will drop us to four.
Ticker: So what percent done is that plan?
VanWagoner: We’re still working on it, but I’d say 90 percent done.
Ticker: Sounds like GTACS (Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools) and Grand Traverse Academy are going in-person full-time. And some sources have told us that TCAPS teachers and the union are pushing toward not in-person learning.
VanWagoner: I wouldn’t say that. It’s more than that. We have bus drivers and others who fall into those risk categories…we have a survey open now until Friday for parents and for staff, and I will keep that open until the last minute, because we want to feed that information to the board so they’ll have all the data to make an informed choice. But there are a lot of things to do regardless of what phase we’re in, even in a virtual environment, where I’ve had two decades of experience. We heard that students and parents this spring had to go to all these different places with different logins, so we will announce the adoption of a new learning management system to make all of that seamless.
Ticker: That’s basically a software platform?
VanWagoner: Right. The one we’ve selected is called Bright Space. That will then integrate with our student information system for attendance and grades and should be seamless for students, parents, and teachers.
Ticker: How much autonomy do individual districts even have in a plan for the fall versus state mandates?
VanWagoner: Very little, but there is some latitude in the options. But basically there are only three options: face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid. But you also could have the ability to have some students doing one option and some doing another. But you have to be able to turn on a dime. We’ll be set up so that if a kid is sick for a week, we can switch him to virtual learning for that period. Last year, several districts closed for a week because of the flu. We’ll be able to change to virtual whenever we need. It’s all going to be in our plan, and we also need our staff to have time to be trained for all of these things.
Ticker: I’m guessing you’ve seen some of your survey results?
VanWagoner: I’m keeping an eye on it, but the numbers are still shifting.
Ticker: I know school funding is complex, but is there a simple way to describe how dire the money situation could be for Michigan public schools?
VanWagoner: It’s pretty simple [pulls out a calculator]. There’s a $600-per-student cut on the table, so take that for our district…that would cut about $6 million, which is just about what we have in the bank. So we’d have no money in the bank.
Ticker: And what are some of the new costs that didn’t exist six months ago? I saw the masks and hand sanitizer at the building entry.
VanWagoner: Yep, hand sanitizers, masks. The biggest thing is additional cleaning supplies. We are in the process of purchasing Clorox cleaning systems for almost every building. Those are lightly automated and in 20 minutes sanitize a classroom. Then multiple non-touching temperature scanners in every building. And of course the digital platform costs. That’s a new cost for TCAPS. You know, one rule is that every student desk has to be cleaned between every hour. We’ll have to train the teachers on all this, but it’ll be tough because we’re only getting the teachers for three days before school would start. And people will say, “Why didn’t you figure this out over the summer?,” but we don’t have the money to pay teachers in the summer. Some are volunteering, but…
Ticker: What’s surprised you most about TCAPS?
VanWagoner: I would say that there aren’t more people that are just down, given all that’s happened. For people in every building to be so positive and want to help kids. They’re all asking, “What can I do?” They want to make sure the district and the kids have everything they need.
Ticker: Wondering how aware you were of the Ann Carden controversy while it was happening.
VanWagoner: Not much, really. I have a philosophy: I worry about keeping the leaves raked in my own yard. I had enough going on in Alpena, trying to pass a bond for the first time in 23 years and a lot more.
Ticker: When you saw our interview with a member of the anti-racism task force that talked about issues in the district around teachers and administrators not doing enough to curb racism, what did you think?
VanWagoner: I can only maybe learn from what’s happened in the past, but actually do anything about the future. We collectively need to do a better job not only recognizing diversity and social justice, but celebrating it. And that’s not just a TCAPS thing. If we’re going to be a welcoming region, we have to work on how to be inclusive, for instance, with the books kids read in literature class representative of people of color. And that means those books have to be in the local libraries. And the community college has to be on-board, as does the business community.
Ticker: Some have said this initiative has taken a back seat at TCAPS and isn’t making any progress. Has there been progress?
VanWagoner: Well, I’ve been here two-and-a-half weeks. But yes, it’s very high on the priority list. We’ve just been short-staffed and it’s summer and we’re looking at a $600-per-pupil cut. But I have already worked with Dr. Ciglarek at the ISD (Intermediate School District) to create a regional group, and we are going through the training, and I personally am sitting on that committee and trying to understand my own biases. I’m devoting as much of my time as I can and as staff comes in, I’m giving clear objectives to create a timeline and a process. But I’ve got a personal purpose: I am a parent of four children of Latina descent. My wife has faced racism…
Ticker: Sounds like some of your superintendent peers in the region are not happy about your online offering, saying you’re essentially stealing students.
VanWagoner: I did not invent school of choice. We cannot deny a kid if we are an open school of choice, and at no point did we say, “Leave your district and come here.” And apparently some people had a problem with the name [UpNorth Virtual]. The name was designed to have something catchy so we can compete with national and statewide cyber schools that make them sound more innovative than ours.
Ticker: If we asked your staff in Alpena or even Stacey [Hozak, VanWagoner’s executive assistant], what would they say about your working style and demeanor?
VanWagoner: [calls out to Stacey in the next office] I don’t know. Stacey, what would you say?
Hozak: I’d say he leads by example. He listens to people who are on the ground and give him feedback. We’ve been so busy, but I’d say he’s calm, cool, and collected.
VanWagoner: [shrugs]: This is how I am. It’s about kids and work. And right now, leadership is vital. It’s tough, but I’ve been in situations when working for the state superintendent during the economic downturn, I’ve been in buildings falling apart and the heat not working. I’ve been where we desperately needed a bond. Now this is definitely the biggest of anything I’ve faced, and any one of five or so things would be huge for an entire year…just the online learning! Then add-in the cleaning…and the financials are as bad as we’ve ever seen!
Ticker: I read that many superintendents are just bailing because they can’t or don’t want to deal with it all.
VanWagoner: Just in the past month we now have these jobs open: Kent County ISD, Ottawa, and Utica - which is the second largest district in state. And that’s just a few! You see people just struggling to get back. There was just no summer this year.