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Mark Miller

Urban schools

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Last night I had the opportunity to watch a school board meeting that was telecast on public access, and it was a very painful thing to behold. This was the meeting before last Saturday's and dealt with the school closing plan. There was a stream of concerned parents, each of whom seemed to be very convicted to what they believed in with regards to the potential closures of schools.

These parents made some very good points and one of these points, in particular, is of interest to me as it relates to the viability and ultimate livability of our city. We currently have a school district that has the appearance to be in dire straights. Whether the GRPS is as bad as it appears, or whether the suburban districts are as well off as they appear, is another debate. I have my doubts that either is what they appear.

The point is that the middle class is essentially not being serviced by the district at this point in time. The consequences of this is that they (the middle class) are moving out of district and in some cases out of the city. What is left, is people who can not move (mostly the poor) and people with-out kids. This sends the schools into a cycle of failure. But it also begins to gut the neighborhoods of diversity, economic opportunity, tax base and children. Without these vibrant neighborhoods we will not have a vibrant city.

The middle class is what our country has been built on, particularly within the last century, and without a strong middle class, a city will struggle. So, is our city at risk because of its school district? Is the continued resurrgance of the city at risk? Will there be a big enough middle class within the city to make it viable?

One of the plans for tweaking the district is to make adjustments to two programs, the Montessori and City High. Both of these programs are relatively healthy, while much of the remaining district is not. It seems odd to me to make tweaks, in the form of relocation, to the two things that work. It was clear during the televised meeting that many parents feel strongly about not relocating these programs.

Another issue is the creation and/or maintainance of neighborhood schools. Again, in trying to maintain strong, viable neighborhoods, why doesn't the school district concentrate on creating an anchor for neighborhoods via a neighborhood school? This could not only strengthen neighborhoods, but almost certainly cut down on cost of transporting kids across town via the big yellow busses. How much does it cost to bus kids each year, per pupil? Thousands of dollars? In a neighborhood scenario, they can walk.

I currently live in Heritage Hill. I am middle class. My wife and I chose to remain in the city, despite the fact that we have three children who will all be entering school soon. We chose this path because we believe in the city, not in the schools. We are now forced to make other arrangements for education, which may lead to additional cost and certainly car trips. There are many kids on our street, almost none of them go to public schools. This is a failure. We have no neighborhood school. I suppose Vandenberg once was, but that is now closed.

The last item from this meeting is the continued issue of "if we only had more money", "if we could only get the same per student subsidy as Forest Hills". If we could only build more new buildings so we could offer the same quality facilities as the suburbs. This issue of money is one that will not go away. The district is currently spending millions of dollars on new buildings, while abandoning great historic structures that have lasted for 100 years. The justification of this is that these buildings no longer work. But they do work for the private sector which continues to rehab old buildings for lofts, apartments, offices, stores, etc. They just don't work to educate our children? It is indeed tragic.

Money will not solve this problem. New buildings will not solve this problem. Concerned parents will. These concerned parents are of the same mentality as those that strongly support the schools of Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids. These parents are primarily composed of the middle class. The same group of people who are not currently being serviced by the GRPS.

The GRPS is now once again at a cross roads, I can only hope that the new superintendent can guide it through this mess and create at least a glimmer of hope.

I realize that this issue may not be as sexy as what new development is occurring where, but the school district continues to be a drag on the city and could prove to be a limiting factor to its future potential. I know that at least one school board member is on this list and I certainly do not mean to be disrespectful to anyone who sacrifices so much of their time to the cause of education, but this is a topic which has long reaching potential problems.

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I have to be VERY careful what I say here, because it is a public forum and anything I say here can and will be held against me in the media. But I cannot let these comments go. Both the Ottawa Montessori program and City High are great programs which are limited in the number of students they are able to enroll due to the size of their building. GRPS is often accused of not marketing itself. In trying to position these two programs to expand and attract more students we are now being accused of tinkering with successful programs.

To those that accuse GRPS of not servicing the middle class I would ask, what are you asking us to do? Open exclusive middle class schools where middle class students and parents won't have to mix with lower income students and families? Exactly what does it mean to service middle class familes?

Let me take this a step further. The arguments we have heard about not servicing the middle class surround City and Ottawa Montessori. The plan calls for both of these schools to move into new buildings offering them the chance to expand, allowing more kids to take advantage of their great programs. We are being told this will drive out the middle class. Are those promoting this argument saying that if lower class kids come into my middle class school I will take my middle class kids out?

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In regards to Montessori and City High, the trouble that I have with tinkering with these two programs is two-fold, one is about location/relocation and one is primarily related to scale.

The location issue is simple. As it relates to Montessori, it is my understanding that many people (of varying economic means, but probably composed primarily of middle class) have moved into the neighborhoods close to the Montessori school, because of its success. These neighborhoods are successful, because of this influx. Now these people see their neighborhood school, which was why they moved to the neighborhood (and maybe not to the suburbs), being moved to another part of the city, to the detriment of their neighborhood.

With respect to City High, I have heard many students of the school voice concerns over the move. These students like the quirkiness of their location, with the combo gymnasium/cafeteria/etc. Again, this school has helped to keep the middle class in the adjacent neighborhood.

The issue of scale is also simple. These programs work. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that one of the reasons for their success is because they are small. Class sizes are small and they have exclusivity. By increasing the size of these programs, the overall product can be diluted, lowering them to the standards already in place elsewhere.

Instead of enlarging and expanding these programs, why not create similar programs in different locations, maintaining the smaller overall size and uniqueness. Large doesn

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Say a family is middle class and moves because their children are going to school with lower class students. Is there evidence of this?

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A few more comments on this subject. GRPS currently has about 24,000 students in 70 schools. Almost 80% receive free or reduced lunch. The Black and Hispanic population make up almost 75% of the student population.

Rizzo-you ask if there is any proof of middle class families moving out of the district due to their kids having to attend school with lower income families. I would say the proof is in the numbers. In the late 70's and early 80's the demographics of GRPS were significantly different. I do not have them in front of me, but I believe it was around 30,000 students with less than 50% receiving free and reduced lunch and whites made up about 60% ore more of the student population. What changed? Why did the mostly white, mostly middle class families leave GRPS? I have a theory, but would love to hear someone else's hypothesis.

GR Planner-It would be awesome to have a whole bunch of small neighborhood schools, but it is not possible from a budgetary standpoint. You say that City has helped keep the middle class students in the adjacent neighborhood. That is not true. I could provide a map of where City High students come from and I think it would suprise many. They come from all over the City. City High is absolutely not a neighborhood school. It is the same with Montessori. All of our theme schools attract families from all over the City. They are in no way shape or form "neighborhood schools."

In fact in making the facilities recommendations maps were provided for every single school in the district that pinpointed where every student that attends that school lives. Of all the schools potentially being affected by the facilities plan only Henry and SEAC come closest to being considered a neighborhood school. I personally oppose the Henry and SEAC merger and think these two schools should be left alone.

Another fact about Theme schools such as City Middle, City High, and Montessori. It costs the district just under $600,000 a year more to run these schools that a traditional school. If the families that are currently benefiting from sending their children to a school that costs exponentially more to run than a traditional school would like to continue to receive this benefit in light of the tough economic times, I twould think they should be willing to move to a location that allows a more cost effective way to run the program. For example if we can expand City to add an additional 90 students it will add little to no cost to the school yet bring in an additional $600,000 to the district.

Last, there are a lot of opinions and ideas being bantered about in the media right now about GRPS. But opinions and ideas are one thing...experience is quite another. My kids both went to Ottawa Hills-New Century Montessori High School. 50% of my kid's classes were Montessori classes and 50% were at Ottawa Hills. By their junior and senior years about 80% of their classes were in Ottawa. I have been an active Ottawa parent for 7 years. My over invovlement at the school resulted in me running for and winning a seat on the School Board. It is easy for many to sit on the sidelines and form an opinion. It is quite another to roll up one's sleeves participate, experience, and work to find solutions for our kids.

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LighthouseDave, what is your oppinion on Sherwood Park? I was there for my cousins PTA and this school has something, I saw active particpation by parents, teachers, and even the children. Is this because it is on the fringe of the city or is it because they have adopted a sucessful model that maybe the rest of the community can emulate? As from what I was told, Sherwood Park consists of low-mid-high class working black and white families.

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LighthouseDave, what is your oppinion on Sherwood Park? I was there for my cousins PTA and this school has something, I saw active particpation by parents, teachers, and even the children. Is this because it is on the fringe of the city or is it because they have adopted a sucessful model that maybe the rest of the community can emulate? As from what I was told, Sherwood Park consists of low-mid-high class working black and white families.

Sherwood is a GREAT program because again it has adopted a very successful model that creates high expectations for the parents, students, and staff. I believe it has more to do with this than its location. Although its location does eliminate some stereotypes.

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LighthouseDave, what is your oppinion on Sherwood Park? I was there for my cousins PTA and this school has something, I saw active particpation by parents, teachers, and even the children. Is this because it is on the fringe of the city or is it because they have adopted a sucessful model that maybe the rest of the community can emulate? As from what I was told, Sherwood Park consists of low-mid-high class working black and white families.

Maybe it's the principal. The name escapes me, but if I'm not mistaken, she was the principal at Ridgemoor Gifted and Talented in the late 80's, early 90's. She is terrific. In my limited experience, a Principal can make a world of difference. For instance, my son's principal at Fountain read to the kids during their lunch hour every day. By contrast, at Vandenberg where my son attended for one year, the Principal jumped in her car every day at lunch time and drove around the neighborhood having a smoke! Not a very scientific example, but you get the idea. :rolleyes:

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To those that accuse GRPS of not servicing the middle class I would ask, what are you asking us to do? Open exclusive middle class schools where middle class students and parents won't have to mix with lower income students and families? Exactly what does it mean to service middle class familes?

Simple. Provide a rigorous education in a safe and orderly environment. GRPS doesn't provide that, for the most part. There are exceptions.

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Preception of GRPS schools being unsafe: Ottawa Hills. All you would hear about Ottawa Hills in suburban schools is that there are metal detectors, school shootings, constant lock downs, you know the general rhetoric. Whether that is true or not, you still hear the constant undertone.

Here are my experiences with O.H:

I remember being in business law class in high school and we had a guest speaker for the class. She was an attorney and graduated from Ottawa Hills, she was white. When she said she was an alumni of O.H. you could hear the whispers and even a lot of this going on: :shok:

My Aunt, based just on perception, pulled out my cousins from GRPS just so that they wouldn't have to goto Ottawa Hills. If Sherwood Park included a high school I am positive my cousins would have been in GRPS still.

I've never been to Ottawa Hills, but my friend who just so happens to be white and metally retarded was a hugly popular grad of O.H.. He tells me that there wasn't shootings or anything "big" there..

So I have a feeling that Ottawa Hills isn't as ruff as everyone makes it out to be. I trust his judgment and I am rolling with it.

My point being on thoes experinces is that GRPS has an image problem just like any other urban school, but it probably isn't an accurate one. Perception is always on a parents mind it seems, even without the facts. They don't want to "tempt fate," so to speak. In every situation I hear about GRPS it always seems to culminate from that school and it just so happens that this is probably one of the "blackest" schools in Western Michigan, that infamous Ottawa Hills.

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Ottawa was not that bad when I went there in the early to mid 90's. It was rough for those of us who were nerds. That isnt unique to just that school.

But, from what I've heard from the son of a friend that currently goes there, as well as my nephew, it is not the place I would ever want to let my child to attend class, and I believe them.

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Yah, but no gun shootings or constant lock down, correct? That stuff would be on the news, so I find it hard to bleieve that this stuff would happen in Ottawa Hills undetected by the local press and media. I don't doubt that its not exactly a safe school, but its hardly a war zone either.

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My son and daughter graduated from OHHS, my son graduated last year. I hate the stereotypes of OHHS and all GRPS schools. OHHS is no rougher than any other school. There are 1500 students at OHHS. You put 1500 14-18 year olds from all walks of life in any building for 8 hours a day and you will have "issues."

Unless you actually go there or your kids go there all you have are others opinions, which are mostly urban legends.

On a related note during all of the years that my kids attended OHHS the word around school was thatr if you wanted to score any drugs you go to Christian High or Catholic Central students. The word was that Christian High students have the best drugs!

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Interesting Dave, thank you for that first hand expeirence. I did think all this image was just urban legend.

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if you wanted to score any drugs you go to Christian High or Catholic Central students. The word was that Christian High students have the best drugs!

This was true when I graduated from Creston in the mid ninteies. Or was it that Chirstian High kids were the best customers? :whistling:

Creston had/has a similar rep as OH, and this sort of rep is compunded by stories such and the Central vs. Creston spat at houseman last fall. There are problems there, you can't deny that. But anyone seeing those news reports is thinking to themselves: damn i'm glad I got outta there when I could.

Lighthousedave has a point that, most of the talk is just that, talk. Shoot, sometimes I'll front like I was hardcore cuz I was from Creston, when really I was president of the French Club and on the Golf Team.

I made a decision when my daughter turned 5 that I had to move to the whitey-ville aka the burbs. Catholic schools were simply not gonna do it, we tried that for pre-k and K at BS (Blessed Sac). and say what you will, but charter schools just don't have a rep, to me they are thrown together modular buidlings which screams sub-par.

I regret my decision to move out here but I feel like I had no choice. I was born and raised NE side GR, Kent Hills Elementary, Northeast Middle, Creston. It was a defining thing for me to be "from the city", but would I raise *my* kids there. NO. The neighbors out here are sooo bland. They guy behind me has a city sized lot, but he drives one of those 4 wheelers with a trailer to move his leaves from the front yard to the back. We used to live in Alger Heights, but the day my daughter was drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, and a swat truck rolls down the street with cops hanging out the back followed by a swarm of marked and unmarked cars as they are on their way to bust a drug house at the end of the block. That's all folks...

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Unfortunately, the failures and negatives are reported on in the news more frequently than anything that would be a positive. That is just the nature of the beast, sensationalism sells.

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Perception is 90% of the problem and whether the perception is true or not, is largely irrelevant to anyone who is thinking of sending their kids to GRPS AND has a choice.

About 5 years ago, I was doing a lot of work with the Grandville Police and Fire Department and had a pretty good relationship with both the fire chief and police chief. One day the fire chief told me about an "incident" that occurred the previous day. He knew about this incident because many local public safety officials were alerted to this.

It happened during a telecast of the Today Show, when they were doing a story describing the profile of a typical student who could turn into a shooter. A student from Forest Hills called in and said that he fit the profile and asked what he should do? They immediately got the local affiliate, WOODTV involved. This story never made it any further. It was handled internally. Whether it is really true or not I do not know. But districts like Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids understand that they need to maintain a positive perception. How many times do you hear any mention of drugs or teenage pregnacy or bringing weapons to school in regards to FH schools? Does it happen there? It sure does and probably more than people think.

When our school superintendent says that it is his priority to educate kids and not to worry about the people who are not sending their kids to the school he is missing the boat. It is the superintendent's job to create and maintain a positive perception of the district. This is a competition that GRPS is losing badly.

Again, whether the perception is true or not, will I take the risk with my child? In most cases, probably not.

Obviously the parental involvement is a very important thing and getting more parents who are actively involved to send their kids to the district would make huge inroads into some of the problems. Currently these parents are not being cultivated and a majority of them seek other avenues, like private schools, charter schools or school of choice or completely moving out of the city.

Maybe the idea of vouchers needs to be looked at again? I think it worked in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately GrandRollerz's sentiments are that of many. They do not want to move to the lilly white burbs, but feel that they have no choice. And the decision to move can not be frowned upon, because they are doing it because they feel it is best for their children.

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I read somewhere that reported urban schools vs private/charter schools were neither better or worse in any compared category, go figure. I think it starts with parents.

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For what it is worth, test scores at Knapp Charter Academy are much more closely aligned with Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids, while test scores at GRPS are lower. What this is worth is questionable because life is not a standardized test. But why is it that their is such a discrepancy? Are the teachers better? Are the students better? Is the administration better? Or are there more actively involved parents, who demand results?

I would say that it is most influenced by the latter.

Another example of perception. The recent news of yet more suburban kids coming into GR to tag buildings. This does not seem to be an isolated instance. How many times has a city kid been caught tagging GR buildings compared to how many times a suburban kid is caught? This just leads to outsiders saying that the city has a "gang problem" or "crime problems".

I would say, with some humor, that since most buildings in these suburban settings are already so degraded (just because of their design), that the kids have to go to the city for the tagging to have any impact.

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Yah theres also a whole site devoted to this suburban teenage psuedo art... I believe the site was created by a suburanite. This whole suburban-urban fight is so relative. I have to say that one tagger I know, (he only tags pieces of plywood in the back of his house in Burton Heights) is quite the artist. Keep up the good work George.

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I agree with Town Planner in that it doesn't seem like anyone currently on the GRPS Board is selling the "features and benefits" of enrolling there (except this one guy named Dave ;) ), therefore the perception is that they are only chasing dollars down a hole and closing schools. I think that the success of suburban schools is more closely related to parent involvement, as well as who the parents are (ie, a child growing up in a household of higher-earning professionals is probably more likely to be instilled with more academic discipline), as opposed to a higher level of teaching going on in Forest Hills or EGR.

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Thank you Dave for the info on Sherwood, and confirming what I would agree is the explination for such a terrific school. Keep up the good work Sherwood!

Maybe cultivating Sherwood's expectations from parents, students, and faculty can be an outstanding model for the entire community.

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[Maybe the idea of vouchers needs to be looked at again? I think it worked in Milwaukee.]

Vouchers are not working in Milwaukee. Test scores for voucher students have not shown long term marked improvement. Charter schools across the nation are having HUGE accreditation issues. I do have to say that there are some charters which buck this trend and one of the most successful in the nation is West Michigan

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[Maybe the idea of vouchers needs to be looked at again? I think it worked in Milwaukee.]

Vouchers are not working in Milwaukee. Test scores for voucher students have not shown long term marked improvement. Charter schools across the nation are having HUGE accreditation issues. I do have to say that there are some charters which buck this trend and one of the most successful in the nation is West Michigan's own National Heritage Academies. They are successful because they are VERY narrow in their focus (which is a good thing). For example it should be noted that Heritage is K-8 only and very very little special education students. Heritage Academies has less than 1% Special Education students. At GRPS we actually ran a comparative case study where we looked at K-8, excluded special education costs and test scores from our K-* Schools. In this scenario our K-8 schools would be HIGHLY profitable and the test score were exponentially higher.

I have a question, and it's going to come off wrong, but I don't intend it to....

Is a "public school" REQUIRED to accept all special ed students? Is there some sort of cut off where it isn't reasonable for that student to be accepted? I ask only because I don't know how this all works. I'm assuming any citizen has a right to attend a public school?

I will throw the disclaimer out that I attended private school from day one, so I'm not sure how the public school system REALLY works. And yes, we had all the same problems as public schools, just kept them under better wraps. Although parent involvement was HUGE at every school I attended (to the point of being a pain in my young butt at times)

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