Dr. Christine Johns

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What’s the cost of educating a child?

Over recent months, many of you have asked about the financial challenges Utica Community Schools continues to face.

The district has a proud history of receiving positive annual audits from Plante Moran, one of the most reputable independent auditing firms in the country.

Yet factors beyond our control are contributing to a worsening financial picture for the district. These factors include such things as declining enrollment, funding at a level less than the 2008-2009 school year, and receiving $318 per pupil less in revenue growth – or $8.8 million less in annual funding – than base foundation districts. 1,2

Recently, a statewide Michigan Education Finance Study found that Michigan schools are severely underfunded.3  The study found the base foundation amount and school funding formula are unequal.

It is time that we as a community acknowledge that the system for funding our schools needs to be changed.

If “UCS” is to continue meaning “success,” the district must keep ahead of our growing needs and we must demand better of our state lawmakers. We also have to realize that more layoffs, closures and cuts will not help us continue the level of achievement and success our families demand and deserve.

The true value of a UCS education will last a lifetime. Our schools prepare students for college and their careers which enables them to be well-rounded, productive citizens and responsible contributors to society.

I believe it is time for all of us to get involved. Call your policymakers in Lansing. Tell them it’s time to have a real conversation about the cost of educating our children – and the cost if we do not.


1 Budget Briefing, House Fiscal Agency, August 2016.
2 House Fiscal Agency Memorandum, Feb. 2016.
3 French, Ron, and Mike Wilkinson. “State Education Proposal Would Add $1.4 Billion to School Budget.” Bridge Michigan, The Center for Michigan, 12 July 2016. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.


UCS opens new school year with continued focus on student learning, safe environment


Welcome to the 2016-17 school year!

The new school year is always an exciting time full of endless possibilities and new beginnings.

At Utica Community Schools, we are adding to this excitement with important enhancements for our students as they start this new year.

For instance, we are creating greater access to computer science and coding instruction at all grade levels. This expansion will build on our commitment that UCS students have a competitive advantage for the jobs of the future when they graduate from our high schools.

We are also focused on making sure our students have greater access and success when it comes to more rigorous coursework at the secondary schools.

In addition to these changes inside the classrooms, students are also returning to important improvements in the infrastructure of the schools themselves.

These improvements, which were put into place when voters approved the 2009 bond issue, are centered are three critical areas: building infrastructure and safety, technology and creating parity between our schools.

The first area – safety – has and will continue to be a top priority for our schools. The focus on this issue, however, has gained more national prominence as a result of events from around the world and country.

As a result of these conversations and events, you may have questions regarding your student’s school. I want to assure our community of our efforts to make sure UCS students are learning in classroom settings that are safe and focused on exemplary teaching and learning.

Please be aware that we have instituted a locked-door procedure that requires visitor to use a phone system for checking in prior to gaining entrance to schools during the school day.

This year, we have provided additional security at our high schools by constructing a secure lobby entrance at Henry Ford II and Eisenhower high schools. Secure lobby entrances were created at Stevenson in 2010 and at Utica High School in 2013.

In addition to these building improvements, our district staff practice and follow critical policies and procedures that promote student safety.

For instance, we continue to conduct regular emergency drills for fire, tornado or lockdown. The dates of these completed drills for each school are posted on our website for your review at this link. Our local law enforcement agencies work with us to make sure we are communicating important information that keep our students safe.

It is not unusual to see a police car at our school, where officers are parked to write a report on something from their day or are visiting the school to become more familiar with our staff and building layouts.

We certainly hope that we will never need to use the safety procedures or drills. However, we will continue to work with our local law enforcement and district security team to focus on these procedures and make sure we are ready should they ever be needed.

Best wishes for a safe, productive and happy 2016-2017 school year.





The Spirit of Utica Community Schools

Our school district vision includes a focus on developing students into “productive, contributing members of their society.”

Through this focus, our students are demonstrating the care, compassion and service to others that also represent the fabric of our community.

This shared vision we have with our families and residents is never more evident than this time of year, when our staff and students support more than 200 charities.

Helping others is part of spirit of our community. In addition, we promote this commitment to service through our vision because it has a direct tie to a student’s future success.

Our work with colleges and universities shows the importance of community service to admissions. Service is also an important consideration in the scholarship opportunities that are offered to our graduates.

Beyond these practical reasons, however, is that volunteering is the right thing to do.
Recently, members of the superintendent’s advisory committee discussed the many ways they are supporting others – not only during the holidays, but throughout the school year.

Many of the students have visited the charity organizations that their schools are supporting to distribute the gifts or the food items.

The students were visibly impacted by how they are making a difference.

In addition, our students are also realizing how this community has nurtured their success. They also have a greater understanding that it is their responsibility to give back throughout their adult lives.
We have great young people in our community who care deeply about their friends, neighborhoods and world.

Clearly, our future is in good hands.

All the best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season.

Caring UCS community directly impacts student achievement

There are many great reasons why our communities are recognized as great places to raise a family: exemplary schools, strong and safe neighborhoods and a thriving business community.

Underlining all of these strengths is that we live in a community where residents show care for one another, particularly when it comes to the future of children.

This care is demonstrated in many ways: older students helping younger students; senior citizens volunteering to help students in math and reading; parents working hand-in-hand with teachers on their child’s academics and future goals; and business representatives mentoring the next generation on their career options.

You see it every day in our schools.

For instance, a UCS senior has been sharing her interest in computer science with junior high school students to inspire them to pursue computer science. She recently held a camp with junior high school girls to create excitement about programming and address a gender imbalance in female students pursuing computer science-related careers.

Many schools have created Project Unify clubs, where friendships are created between general education students and students with special needs.

We have more than 50 senior citizens who work with our elementary students as part of the “Reaching Higher Across Generations” program.

Our local business leaders mentor students through work partnerships or by advising our school district on their needs and the skills they seek in graduates. One of my favorite events is the Career Focus Luncheon, where 2,000 sixth graders have lunch with business leaders to receive guidance on their hopes and dreams.

These examples show a community that rallies around its youth because it is the right thing to do.

It also has a direct impact on student achievement in another important way.

The knowledge that community members care about them is an important indicator of student success.

Last year, our students were asked to give us feedback on a series of factors that are proven to lead to academic success.

Specifically, we asked students about their:

  • Engagement – their involvement in and enthusiasm for school;
  • Hope – the ideas and energy they have for the future; and
  • Well-being – what they think of their current experiences and future success.

The good news is that because of the strength of this community, UCS students are in a better place when it comes to these factors than similar responses received from students at a national level.

One reason for those positive responses?

The data we received from students demonstrated that a key factor for the optimism was that they know someone in this community cares about them – a significant caring adult such as a teacher, parent, coach or mentor.

No matter who you are in our community, your concern for the next generation is making a difference.

I wish you the best for the 2015-2016 school year.

Utica Community Schools’ formula for a seamless transition from ACT to SAT

Today’s students experience constant change in their daily lives. Thanks to rapid introduction of new technology, economic fluctuations and shifting world developments, events occurring in their backyards and across the globe impact the opportunities our young people have in school today and will experience later in the workplace.

In addition to offering nationally-recognized academic programming, the Utica Community Schools college culture is preparing students to adapt to change through problem-solving
and innovation.

One change that holds immediate significance for students in Michigan is the transition from the ACT (American College Test) to the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) as the required state assessment for high school juniors effective with the class of 2016.

While both exams measure degrees of college readiness, the Michigan Department of Education has determined the SAT is better aligned with state academic standards to which all public schools are held accountable.

As with ACT, SAT is also widely used by colleges and universities nationwide in evaluating student admissions.

A newly revised edition of the SAT will be given to all juniors next year. To prepare for the transition, UCS educators are engaged in ongoing College Board training to review exam samples and testing strategies.

Parents are also offered opportunities to learn more about the new exam. Nearly 500 parents attended a recent SAT awareness meeting conducted by the district.

Materials from the meeting are available at http://www.uticak12.org/sat/.

Additional parent meetings are planned for next year.

I am pleased to report that UCS students are already on track for SAT success. One reason – aside from strong K-12 academic preparation – is that we administer the SAT precursor known as PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) each year to nearly 2,100 tenth graders, which gives them an idea of what to expect.

PSAT provides detailed early feedback on where students stand on skills necessary for admittance to and success in postsecondary education. Both PSAT and SAT are designed by the College Board as a consistent means to evaluate students’ academic strengths and weaknesses.

As a longtime partner in our district’s mission to increase student achievement, the College Board also administers the highly respected Advanced Placement program – including the 27 rigorous AP courses we offer UCS secondary students.In fact, the College Board has recognized Utica Community Schools for increased student success and high rates of participation in this college-level coursework.

In UCS, students take more Advanced Placement courses than in any other Michigan school district. Seventy percent of UCS graduates have taken at least one AP course exam and almost two-thirds earn a college-ready score
on one or more exams.

UCS is initiating another important change at the secondary level – a new online academic planning tool called Naviance that is designed to broaden student opportunities.

Naviance is an easily accessible universal resource for everything postsecondary – from college applications to admission requirements, financial aid, course recommendations and scholarship opportunities.

A vital part of the software is a free service that provides SAT assistance of the type parents have been paying for to give their students an advantage.This extra component offers personalized tutoring via media tools that identify and give supplemental support in specific concepts where students have shown to need assistance.

In addition, the College Board has partnered with the Kahn Academy to offer SAT prep videos starting this summer. These free tools will be shared with UCS students prior to the end of the current school year.

Of course, a student’s foremost key to SAT success is to prepare for the exam by taking rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement, algebra I and II, geometry, physics and chemistry in their freshman, sophomore and junior years.

The goal of these and other district efforts is to give our students the best chance for success. The higher their achievement at every level leading up to and including the new SAT exam, the more opportunities they will be able to access once they hold that prized diploma from Utica Community Schools in their hands.

It’s true that change is inevitable. But whatever changes are to come, what matters most is every graduate’s ability to open doors and follow their dreams. It’s what the UCS college culture is all about.

Planning tool provides universal resources to make college and career dreams a reality

We are extremely proud of the college culture we are creating in Utica Community Schools.

This culture means – and will continue to mean – opening college and career doors for our students by emphasizing the importance of post-secondary experiences – whether that is a technical school, community college or four-year university.

As a result, our students are making conscious decisions to increase the rigor of their course offerings and take advantage of the Advanced Placement opportunities in our secondary schools.

These decisions continue to make a difference. Scholarship offerings for our students exceed more than $30 million annually. It is not unusual for UCS families to save a full year of college costs as a result of their child’s AP success. Our graduation rate at 90 percent is 14 points higher that the state average.

But there is still more work to be done.

For this reason, Utica Community Schools is introducing a new tool that will assist families in navigating the road that leads from students envisioning their careers to realizing and creating their dream jobs.

It is also a tool that is unique to UCS students, as we are one of the first public school districts in Michigan to use this system.

The tool, called Naviance, supports the college and career process by being a universal resource tool for everything post-secondary – resources, applications, admission requirements, financial aid, course recommendations and scholarship opportunities.

The system provides students with a variety of features, including college research tools, course planning, and career and goal assessments to help connect what they are doing in school to what they would like to do once they graduate.

These features are personalized for each student based on their career interests and goals.

Even better, the program takes parent involvement to a new level by making them active partners in this planning process.

An on-line tool called Family Connection provides families with access to resources and other collaborative activities that are supporting their students’ college and career-readiness activities.

These resources include a resume builder that provides students with a structured approach with intuitive instructions. The planning tool also walks students through completion of the Common Application for college admission and targets scholarship opportunities based student’s specific career and post-secondary choices.

Students who piloted the program this fall report that they love the expanded post-secondary opportunities that are identified for them in their field of interest. Students are finding a wide range of post-secondary institutions that support them in their career goals.

Other students and families like the test-prep features that are saving them both time and money. The free service gives students access to tutorials that systematically walks them through what they need to know to be successful on college entrance exams.

Naviance is currently being introduced to all UCS sophomores and juniors. By the end of the school year, all secondary students will have access to the system with parents having this resource by the Fall 2015.

Our college culture is about making sure that our students are on a solid path to their successful future.

The art of navigating that path has just become clearer for our students and their families.

School partnerships with parents, business community offer students keys to success

In Utica Community Schools, we build on our students’ sense of discovery by creating a wide array of academic opportunities that begin to provide clarity to a question they started asking in elementary school: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

We believe it is never too early for families to begin planning their children’s unique academic pathway toward becoming educated, capable adults.

Establishing early partnerships between home and school can only enhance a child’s learning. As we approach parent-teacher conferences, I want to encourage UCS parents to continue taking an active interest in their son or daughter’s classroom choices and experiences at every level.

My message today is focused on the more than 5,600 students in grades 7, 8 and 9 in UCS schools who are at a pivotal point along their academic path. This is truly a time of transition and self-discovery for students who start the journey as children leaving the elementary world and later emerge as independent young thinkers beginning to see their place in the college and career world.

We can gauge how well we as educators, parents and community members are preparing them for their next level by feedback from the largest universities and the smallest workplaces. It is feedback that tells us they see in UCS graduates the very basis of what they seek in their recruitment process – students who have challenged themselves, are proficient problem solvers and most importantly, have already completed a wide range of rigorous experiences in their K-12 education.

The fact that UCS students have these skills validates our ongoing commitment that a diploma from Utica Community Schools will continue to open doors for graduates. From their first day in kindergarten, UCS students receive rigorous academic experiences; pursue choices in the arts, athletics or community service and are provided multiple options to explore college and career interests.

For example, junior high is where, in addition to rigorous required classes, our students first experience the district’s comprehensive Career and Technical Education (CTE) curriculum. Here they can begin to explore diverse career pathways that show them the connection between academics and future professions – “connecting the mind and the hands,” as our CTE educators say.

No matter a student’s ultimate career goal, these experiences are wholly beneficial. One such example is our secondary mechatronics robotics program where, in addition to technology and engineering content, students also gain knowledge of physics concepts embedded in the course curriculum.
Beginning in eighth grade, UCS students develop an individual four-year career plan with the goal to explore potential work interests well before starting postsecondary education. This year, our focus has expanded to tie this planning more directly to a student’s course selection throughout high school.

The Academic Blitz offers information about the district’s specialized high school options, Advanced Placement, early college and dual enrollment, CTE choices and much more in a single evening designed to help form a student’s academic ‘game plan‘ for success.

Secondary students and families are also invited to learn more about college and career options and academic preparation at two other yearly UCS events: our Career Expo on March 19 from 7-9 p.m. at Eisenhower High School and our College Fair scheduled in April at Henry Ford II High School.

Students who are beginning their junior high journey are poised to make educational choices that have the potential to impact their entire lives. Our job as educators and as parents is to make sure they use these years wisely and productively so when the time comes, their learning experiences will be the keys that unlock a successful future.