The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Welcome To a City with a New Brand of Community Schools

on June 19, 2017

As readers of this blog and other sites about education, you have certainly heard about community schools. But what that term means in specific places is not always the same. Today’s post, taken from “When Your School is a Museum” by Beth Hawkins and published in Edutopia gives a detailed description of Grand Rapids, Michigan’s version of community schools and why they were created in the first place.

By the end of the last century the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan had become an undesirable place to live, especially for families with school age children. The city was shabby in many places and the public schools were run down and  uninspiring.  Between 1997 and 2015 many of those families left the city or placed their children in charter schools. The total school district enrollment dropped by 12,000 students, 35 public schools were closed, and 600 teachers were laid off. In the eyes of the school district’s superintendent, Teresa Neal, that decline in school population meant it was time to take some drastic actions that would bring students back to the city’s public schools because they were much different—and better—than before.

Working with the city’s School Board, parents, and community groups, Neal developed a plan to make the city’s schools far more attractive and better functioning. What she believed had to be done was to close several of the oldest and  most shabby schools, improve the physical conditions in mediocre school buildings, and create several specialized schools in appealing and easy to reach places around the city.

The city’s mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, supported Neal completely. She declared that “We want families to move here and to live here and stay here, and that’s pretty hard to do without a strong school system.”

The first new schools created were the Museum school and the Center for Economicology.* In the beginning those schools had only 7th grade classes, but they would add one grade each year until they were complete high schools.  Since then, 15 more theme schools have opened; one of them is in the city zoo and another in a nature center. The other theme schools are traditional in their placement and building structure, but unique in their themes, the classes offered, and the emphasis on project learning.

During the first few years of operation these new schools have brought in hundreds of new students, and the total district enrollment has risen to 16, 840. In addition, there has been a 50 percent increase in the district’s graduation rates, especially among black and Latino students.

In 2016 the city’s experiment in theme schools with multiple places for special studies  earned them a coveted $10 million grant  from XQ: The Super Schools Project, one of 10 awards made to unique schools and  forward moving districts around the nation .

In reading this article I was impressed by the willingness of the school administration and city government to make drastic changes in the nature of their schools and the variety of learning opportunities. They recognized the conditions that had driven families away from the city and moved quickly and strongly to make schools more unusual, appealing, and effective.

Although the article did not tell me enough about the various school themes and how students were able to move from one educational site to another, I was impressed with the system’s willingness to have students use so many of the city’s facilities for educational experiences.

Clearly, the officials of Grand Rapids were smart and daring in their efforts to revive their city and serve the families who chose to live there.  The city’s concept of community schools is quite different from those common in other places, but they represent  a new way to improve education in public schools and give students a wide range of meaningful learning experiences.

*That word means the study of economics


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