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Outgoing Superintendent Tom Moline Reflects on Education, Being a Royal Oak Parent

In his last days in Royal Oak, the longtime educator gives his thoughts on schools funding, No Child Left Behind, arts education and what it’s like to be a parent in the school district.

When outgoing superintendent Thomas Moline, his wife Dawn, and sons Matthew and Sean moved to Royal Oak six years ago they didn’t know whether they would enjoy metropolitan living. Today, Moline can rattle off a list of things he likes about the city he considers home.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we came to Royal Oak from Clare. We were rural people,” the 59-year-old educator said. “Today, we consider Royal Oak home. We never imagined that.”

Before coming to Royal Oak, Moline served in Midland and Clare in the center part of the state. “That’s quite a difference,” he said, pointing out the 3,500 population of rural Clare then compared to Royal Oak's roughly 58,000 residents. 

The family quickly put down roots in Royal Oak. The Molines enrolled their youngest son, Sean, into Royal Oak High as a sophomore. Sean played football and was a member of the school band. Moline pointed out Sean started as a Kimball Knight but graduated in 2008 as a Royal Oak Raven, after he and the Board of Education decided to merge the district's two high schools.

Moline found being a parent in the district allowed him to make quick connections. It was not unusual to find him in the football stands or going to choir or band concerts, where he could be found volunteering with other parents. Moline said he was at such functions as a parent first “because it was fun;” being superintendent was his secondary role.

Sean is now 21 years old and a pre-med student at Oakland University in Rochester.

The Molines' son Matthew, now 24, was a recent high school graduate when the family moved to Royal Oak in 2005. Matthew, who works at the Apple Store in Troy, says he plans to “hold down the fort” in Royal Oak for his parents.

Moline is retiring from Royal Oak, but not as an educator. Next week, he starts work as superintendent of the Special Education District of Lake County, IL, where he will work with physically, mentally and emotionally challenged students. Earlier in his career, the outgoing superintendent served 10 years as a county Director of Special Education.

Tom and Dawn Moline will rent a house in Illinois. “I might work three, four or five years, and then we plan to move back here," Moline said. "Dawn is planning on coming back monthly and we all plan to be here in Royal Oak for vacations and holidays.”

As the community gets ready to bid farewell to Moline, Patch sat down with him at the , his favorite place to have informal early morning meetings. Here are some of his reflections:

The Value of Performing and Visual Arts

“The arts are important. We want students engaged in learning things they can do for the rest of their lives — things that can be perfected over decades,” Moline said.

He believes one of the best expenditures a school district can make is offering experiences, like the arts, which cultivate a sense of lifelong learning.

The Future of Education Funding

“The state will remain the primary source of funding,” Moline said, “but how they continue is the big question." He believes the state is going to have to redefine the whole support system.

Moline believes there needs to be a referendum presented to the voters to absolutely qualify what funds should be provided to K-12 education and higher education. He calls the current state of funding "convoluted."

“I do think the state will move to local communities being able to raise funds for their districts,” he said, eliminating the notion that all schools need to be equal.

“Districts are telling the state, You’re killing us," Moline said. He believes state lawmakers will revisit the 1994 property tax and school funding reform and allow communities to “spruce up their school districts.”

No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 supports standards-based education reform. Moline says it stimulated completion, made schools show evidence of student achievement and gave parents a way to compare districts.

“There are some positive benefits,” he said. “But by no means is it a thorough measure of what kids learn. It falls short. It relies on a single measurement.”

Moline says some factors can’t be measured, such as the programs and services a district offers students who have difficulty with attendence. Class size ratio, summer school programs, before and after school programs and athletics are other things you can't test.

“Our district website has personal testimonies by consumers of the school system,” he said. “When parents shop for a school system, NCLB is just one of many things they should look at.”

Moline believes he is leaving a school district worthy of a parent's consideration.

School Closings/Consolidation: Is it Paying Off?

Analysis on declining enrollment was the catalyst for merging the two high schools in 2006, the two middle schools in 2007, and closing five elementary schools. Moline says it was a “common sense” decision.

“We were able to preserve $400,000 annually for each building we closed,” he said. “That meant more money could be funneled into existing buildings for class services.” The sale of school properties also allowed the district to upgrade some buildings. Only Oakland and Oak Ridge remain in need of HVAC and building security overhauls.

“We had the ability to withstand the bad economy and still increase student achievement,” he said. “We became a model for other districts. The whole process of getting smaller was the smartest thing we did over the past decade.”

Is Handwriting the Lost Art?

Poor student handwriting disturbs Moline, who said he has noticed a deterioration to the point that much of it is not clear or legible. “Print is at an all-time low,” he said. “Maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about teaching keyboarding in the first grade. There is an art to handwriting. Students need to take their time, slow down.”

Moline said handwriting is a part of tactile- kinesthetic  learning, the idea that using your hands and involving your whole body gives you the best chance of learning. Tactile-kinesthetic learners remember things by doing.

Moline noted that whenever he reviews applications he always examines the handwriting. If it’s good, he said he assumes the candidate thinks with clarity.

Video Games: Good or Bad?

 “I’m not inclined to promote too much video gaming,” he said. While Moline accepts the notion video games spark creativity in students, he thinks time spent in front of a television is passive.  

“Students today seem to have great difficulty in expressing themselves in written form; in areas of nonfiction,” he said. “They can’t describe in words what they are thinking and feeling.” He attributes this in part to the amount of passive involvement spent playing video games and watching TV.

Visit to China

Moline went to China two years ago to examine its education system and discovered its main emphasis was trying to stimulate students. “They want students to be less restrictive in their thinking and more like us in the 1980s and '90s,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re trying to be more like China, stressing math and science.”

China wants more students to participate in visual arts. “They want their students to be divergent thinkers and creators, which has been a part of our heredity for many generations,” he said. “They no longer want to be the nation that just makes the toys. They want to invent them, too.”

Moline said Chinese students knew about American sports, dressed like us and even talked like us. “In a few short years they will blend in easily," he said.

Advice for People Thinking of Moving to Royal Oak

Royal Oak achools’ brand is “neighborhood schools" because, Moline says, “community is important here and the schools remain very attractive.”

“We meet with real estate agents every year and they tell us the main attraction for people moving here with children is the schools are very good,” he said.

Royal Oak Parents Excel to Head of the Class

“The vast majority of Royal Oak parents want to see their children perform well in school. They have high expectations,” Moline said, “far more than the six other locations I’ve been at.”

Royal Oak parents are good at networking, he said. “The membership of the PTAs is high – again, higher than the last six locations I’ve been at. People here work at building relationships and they are particularly interested in making sure the school system remains strong.”

What Will He Miss?

“We’ll miss the people,” he said. “Dawn and I have made strong personal relationships here. We have at least 150 people we will continue to be involved with.”

Moline says he likes this quote from Stephen Covey, “Life is about relationships and little else.”

“It’s true,” he said. “When you look back, it’s going to be about the relationships you’ve made in life and people you met along the way. So what will we miss? It’s the people we’ll miss the most.”

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