HARRIS - Despite being kept in Lansing due to scheduling issues, State Superintendent of Public Schools Michael Flanagan made an appearance via live video stream at The Upper Great Lakes Talent Summit in Harris Friday.
Flanagan noted that the change to a video conference format was ironic considering the way Upper Peninsula schools use technology to bridge geographic barriers.
"You are the leaders in technology. From when I was a local superintendent 20 years ago we used to hear about the U.P. and how you were starting to use technology for instruction because of the distances that you have," he said.
During his presentation, Flanagan mentioned six U.P. schools that have been identified as "Beating the Odds Schools" for outperforming their expected top to bottom ranking or for outperforming similarly-situated schools. The schools that have received this designation in the U.P. are: Baraga Area High School, Barkell Elementary in Hancock, E.B. Holeman Elementary of Stanton Township Public Schools, North Central Area Junior/Senior High, Sleight Elementary in Ironwood, and Stephenson Middle School. All U.P. Beating the Odds Schools have high populations of economically-disadvantaged students.
Flanagan also addressed a push at the state level to consolidate local school districts.
"I'm actually not a supporter of that mandate," he said. "Even though I think it makes a good case, in many cases I think it needs to be thoughtfully done."
Despite being against mandated district consolidation, Flanagan noted there is state grant money available to districts that choose to consolidate. Applications for consolidation grants are due by Oct. 18.
"Even though I'm not a fan of mandating it, I think we have to get our house in order when it makes sense," said Flanagan. "When it doesn't make sense because of geography or it really doesn't save money, then obviously it shouldn't be done. But if you think it would help your district either logistically or financially, I just can't encourage you enough."
Turning attention to the business community and creating a highly-educated workforce, Flanagan praised businesses which took an active role in math and science education. Specifically, Flanagan noted the work of Engineered Machined Products and their involvement with U.P. students.
"(EMP is) working with the FIRST Robotics program at Escanaba Schools and Career Tech program at the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD serving as mentors; working hands on with students. This is how I would have learned math and science a lot better, in a hands-on environment," said Flanagan.
Audience members expressed concern over preparing students to become skilled members of the workforce while still meeting educational requirements that are designed for college preparation.
"Career tech programs can and are being aligned to meet the requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum and you can end up with skilled trade workers that also know algebra, biology, and physics - it's a nice byproduct," said Flanagan, adding there was no downside to providing workers with options for jobs requiring more rigorous education later on.
Flanagan also noted community colleges are often underestimated, and students with training in technology and other skills can fill well-paying jobs with employers despite their location.
"Geography means nothing if you think about the folks that built the Grand Theft Auto Five video game," said Flanagan. "You didn't have to build an auto factory or facility for that and you could be anywhere, including the Upper Peninsula and they made $800 million the first day of release for that video game."
Flanagan believes products like the game could be good for the economy if the educated workforce is available.
"We had a depression. Let's face it we had a depression. We aren't like the rest of the country and we're coming out of it, but we're coming out of it without jobs," he said.
Flanagan added that despite the lack of new jobs, producing a game like GTA 5 is dependent on having workers who are educated in technology, science and math, not location.