Thursday, October 15, 2015

Investing in what's working: GRPS offers diverse options

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
(Photos by Adam Bird)

Investing in what's working: GRPS offers diverse options

At Grand Rapids Public Schools, neighborhood schools offer traditional education, theme schools offer experiential education in unique surroundings, and Centers of Innovation offer students a career-based curriculum that connects them to community business leaders. With so many choices in schools and approaches to learning, GRPS is contributing to the growing vitality of the city of Grand Rapids, attracting families to move to the city for the first time or to return.

Nancy Haynes couldn’t help recalling her physics class in high school as she watched her kindergarten-age son sliding a lunch tray, then a carpet tile down a snowy hill. He slid the piece of carpet down the snowy hill first with its smoother bottom side down, next with the carpeting side down. She saw his face light up with understanding.

“And he got it. He understood the principle of friction in kindergarten, a principle I struggled to understand in my own high school days,” Haynes says. “With hands-on learning like that, my son understood what I never quite got from reading a textbook.”

Haynes is the executive director at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan. With three sons in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system, the very best in school options were at the top of her priority list.

“We looked at charter schools, Catholic schools, neighborhood schools, Christian schools—we looked at them all,” Haynes says. “We chose to send our son to C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. Once we walked in the front door and met the principal, we were hooked. There was magic in the classrooms. The kids really enjoy themselves at Frost.”

The magic Haynes witnessed was a combination of teaching techniques that allows students to apply what they learn in a practical manner. Topics are woven into all manner of subjects—math, reading, science, art—while taking advantage of every opportunity to apply that learning to life experiences.

“You won’t ever hear my kids say, ‘I’ll never use this in real life,’” Haynes says.

She tells a story about how her son studied food-related issues in his science class, followed by a field trip to a farmers market.

“Now when we go to the farmers market, my son buys himself fresh dill to munch on. We go to the store, and my kids will ask me to buy chard. Chard! They’ve learned about food waste in the food system, and they know what’s good for them and why and how to use it.”

Because of her work at the Fair Housing Center, an organization that strives to ensure housing opportunities are open to all on an equal basis, Haynes is keenly aware of parents in the district making choices about where they live based in great part on the available options in schools.

“GRPS makes choice in schools a reality for everyone,” says Haynes. “They combine the old-fashioned traditions of the classroom with experiences out in the world.”

Students work in small groups at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.Diversity in programs for a diversity of children
Omar Cuevas, an assistant vice president at Fifth Third Bank, refers to his six children as the Brady Bunch. The two boys and four girls have been enrolled in Grand Rapids Public Schools from the beginning, and this year, two of his children are seniors. He also parents a junior, a sophomore, a freshman, and still has one in 8th grade at C. A. Frost.

What makes him such a believer in GRPS, he says, “is the diversity in programs to challenge our children. They take individuals with different goals and give them options to fit their interests. Instead of pigeon-holing the kids into one discipline, the kids can all choose the disciplines that interest them.”

Cuevas says he had options open to him, options to enroll his children in other schools, but he’s committed to GRPS because he feels that GRPS is committed to his children. He’s watched the changes over the years, the downs and now the ups, and he believes in the improvements he is seeing. He has nothing but praise for the new leadership, beginning with Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

“I see her knocking on doors, gaining support,” he says. “Not only are the individuals at the top working for improvement, but parents are engaged, too, and community. We want quality. I’m committed to be involved in my children’s education and they’ve opened the door to that.”

As important as diversity in programs, Cuevas says, is the diversity and inclusion he sees in the leadership, staff and teachers, and the student body. “The programs offer diversity in thought, and to learn in a school surrounded by diversity in people—well, that’s a life lesson.”

The view from the inside
Arguably one of the most groundbreaking innovations in education that GRPS offers is ...

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