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Washtenaw United: Increased resources and program expansions create optimism in Ypsilanti Community Schools

Ypsilanti Community Schools superintendent Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross
Ypsilanti Community Schools
Ypsilanti Community Schools superintendent Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross


Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross is an accomplished educational leader with extensive experience in K-12 school administration and central office management. She has served as the Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools since 2018 and has previously held leadership positions in Okemos Public Schools and Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System.

Dr. Zachery-Ross is widely recognized for her exceptional leadership skills. During her tenure in Muskegon Heights, she successfully transformed the entire district, improving student discipline, attendance, and graduation rates and reducing dropout rates.

Her educational background includes a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education/Psychology from Grand Valley State University, a Master's Degree in Education Psychology from Wayne State University, and an Ed. D. in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University. She has also completed several leadership programs, including the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators Horizons Leadership Program, AASA's National Superintendent's Certification Program, and AASA's Howard Urban Superintendent's Academy.

As a visionary leader, Dr. Zachery-Ross is passionate about leadership development and group collaboration. She has extensive experience in curriculum development, multicultural education, school safety, budget and finance, professional learning communities, group facilitation, team building, grant writing, community relations, and data analysis.

Dr. Zachery-Ross is a sought-after speaker, educational consultant, and professional development trainer. She has presented nationally for organizations such as AASA, Edmentum, Thinking Collaborative, Teachers As Facilitators, Michigan State Police, and the Warden's Conference. Her upcoming book series, "Unstoppable Leadership," expands on her vision for everyone to become unstoppable leaders.

In addition to her leadership roles in education, Dr. Zachery-Ross is also the Pastor of Lane Memorial CME Church. Her passion for youth and educators is evident in all that she does, and she continues to inspire and empower others through her work in education and ministry.


Ypsilanti Community Schools

The Toyota Effect


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to explore expanding opportunities in the Ypsilanti Community Schools community. There is so much going on, and new investments are being made, programs expanded. And the financial outlook--it's improving. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to the first edition of Washtenaw United for the month of December. Our guest today is at the heart of all that is happening. Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross serves as Ypsilanti Community Schools Superintendent. And thank you for making time for our conversation today.

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Well, thank you for having me.

David Fair: Early last month, the state Legislature approved a supplemental school aid spending bill, and it included $42 million for the Ypsilanti Community Schools to pay off old debt. That debt was pulling about $2 million a year out of the budget that could be applied to student success. What kind of difference is that going to make moving forward?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: This is going to make a huge difference in our schools. We anticipate that this is going to help us to attract and retain our outstanding staff. It's going to allow us to really put money into our classrooms and invest into improving student success.

David Fair: You know, a decade ago, we had two underfunded school districts in Ypsilanti and Willow Run. And when they merged, it was thought perhaps the consolidation of services might be financially beneficial. It didn't really turn out that way, did it?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: No, no. At this time, we're not able to pay our teachers and our staff what our competitors are able to pay. We see that we have outstanding staff. We have a high turnover of that wonderful staff. And so, although we've had the Teacher of the Year for this county every year that I've been here, we're not able to retain them. And so, we know our staff are the closest to our students. And so, we believe that this debt relief is going to be able to help us to have a better pay schedule. It's going to be able to put some programs into place and will make us more competitive.

David Fair: Beyond staff retention, there are other inequities in the educational system that have been persistent. It has most dramatically impacted people of color, and the majority of students and families you serve fall into that category. Where are you working outside of the retention issue to put balance into an unbalanced system?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Yes, we want to also improve some of the things that are happening in our building. We were able to have a thinking fund, but we haven't been able to do some of the improvements in our building. We haven't been able to offer some additional programs for our students. So, those are some additional things that we like to see, and we'll get some feedback from our students. We really want to offer more students and staff and family voice choice and agency. And so, this will provide us that opportunity to get that feedback and provide extended opportunities for those who have been most marginalized and because of that additional debt of that $2 million a year for the last ten years.

David Fair: We're talking about increasing opportunity in the Ypsilanti Community Schools on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Our guest is Superintendent Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross. Education, obviously, meant to create the foundation for career and life success and the future of many of today's students will lay in the STEM field: science, technology, engineering and math. That is going to often include the arts, making it STEAM programs. Now, traditionally. There have been color and gender inequities in these fields. But YCS recently was awarded a $15 million grant to, among other things, further invest in STEAM programs. What is that going to look like for the students of today and tomorrow?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Yes, you're going to see lots of hands-on learning in the classroom. And so, for us, we're really going to be focusing heavily on that Willow Run side. So, at Ford Early Learning Center, that's going to be a STEAM building. Holmes Elementary, the whole building, will be STEAM and at our middle school. And at the high school building, you'll see IT--so, hands-on learning, lots of connection with Toyota, integrated throughout the day. So, our students will be working with drones, working with claymation programs. Our parents will see them and then hear about what students are doing all day long, going on a field trip and working with our partners locally, with a lot of our local dealerships and other technology programs, and especially in the areas of mathematics. Because, as you said, those persons of color and females often are not working in those fields and especially not seeing what other careers are available.

David Fair: One of the things that students of color often fail to see is faces that look like theirs instructing, teaching and being a part of leading into new opportunity. Is that going to be a focus of the advanced and expanding STEM and STEAM programs in the Ypsilanti Community schools?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Absolutely. We want them to see that there are persons in the careers and that they should be looking at careers for themselves. And we'll be bringing in persons into the classroom who are currently working in those careers, so that, hopefully, it can be a positive influence for them.

David Fair: One of the things that happened when the school districts merged--Ypsilanti Schools and the Willow Run Schools--was that some students were put into other buildings. The Willow Run Middle School was one that ended up closing and then, now, is going to be reopened. So, as part of the investment plans that the district is making and part of the expanding programs, is it also a geographical look at how best to serve the families of the Ypsilanti Community Schools?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Absolutely! We're really looking at what we're doing well. We know that we're doing IT well. We're doing STEAM well. And the Willow Run community has been one that we have neglected in the past, and we see that geographically we can use that area that has, number one, a wonderful auditorium. We have the pool area. We have wonderful fields that we can access. And so, our parents and community in that area was certainly benefit from us moving the middle school to that area. Our bus garage is right there. And so, it will help us in terms of transportation. So, we believe that this is a win-win for our students and our community.

David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU, and Ypsilanti Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross is our guest on Washtenaw United. For a good number of students and families in the district, housing and food insecurity is a problem. Community violence is on everyone's mind. There are students dealing with day-to-day trauma that often relegates education to a lower place on the priority list. How can the Ypsilanti Schools continue to invest in the emotional well-being and sense of stability needed by all too many?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Yes. We see right now that mental health is a serious concern. Our students are expressing more and more need for social work services, for nursing care, and they are expressing it to us daily. And so, we are really thankful that this county has a mental health millage. We are using our Roth clinics. And so, we're thankful that they are also moving to the middle school with us as we make this transition. We are partnering closely with a lot of our services in this county because we have a 31-A social worker and a special education social worker in every building. We have the 180 Program in our middle school building. And it's still not enough.

David Fair: And let's be very clear. Ypsilanti Community Schools is not alone in the state of Michigan. The state Legislature, in fact, included $150 million for student mental health in the 2023 budget, another $328 million in the 2024 budget. Do you know how much of that is going to come to YCS? And is it enough?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: I don't know exactly how much will come to YCS, and I appreciate the fact that our legislators know that funding is needed for schools in the area of mental health. And it will continue to be needed. The aftermath of this pandemic is still not known, and we will continue to need this mental health support for our schools--for our students--for years to come.

David Fair: Well, there are certainly a lot of challenges that lay ahead and challenges that are being dealt with on a day-to-day basis. But as you begin to prepare to move into the second half of this academic year and plan for the next, how optimistic are you for the health and well-being of the district and its students?

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: I am extremely optimistic for the success of the district because of the elimination of the debt and with the support that we're receiving for mental health. We are just on the uptick. It's been ten years, our ten year anniversary, and we are the district that has survived the consolidation. We have students who are achieving. We have teachers who have stood with us by our side. We have mental health support services. We have partners who are with the district. And we have a board that is supportive. Staff that are here. And I just say, the YCS score, I just am excited with the magnet grant and the opportunities that are before us. 2024-25 is going to be an amazing year and with all of the opportunities that will be in place starting in the 24-25 school year.

David Fair: Well, I will look forward to the conversations that we have that lay ahead. Dr. Zachery-Ross, thank you so much for the time today. I truly appreciate it.

Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross: Thank you for the opportunity to share.

David Fair: That is Ypsilanti Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Alena Zachery-Ross, our guest on Washtenaw United. If you'd like more information on all that we touched on during our conversation, visit our website at your convenience at wemu.org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Recently, Ypsilanti Community Schools, has received a $10,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

Since receiving this award, YCS has invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff, and equitable STEM/STEAM programs for students.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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