Evolving education

    Grand Rapids Public Schools already touts the state’s best high school, and the district continues to strengthen its offerings
    Photo by Bryan Esler

    Throughout the state of Michigan, pencils are sharpened, backpacks are filled and first day outfits are planned as the beginning of the 2022-23 school year hits. For young scholars at Grand Rapids City High Middle School, they’ll return to some of the top classrooms in the country.

    Back in April, the Grand Rapids Public Schools institution was named the top high school in the state of Michigan and No. 18 in the nation by US News & World Report in the publication’s 2022 rankings. City High posted an overall score of 99.9 out of 100 by the publication’s metrics, which takes into account college readiness, graduation rates and performance on state-issued tests, among other factors. In addition to boasting a 100% graduation rate, City High also was lauded for 100% of its students passing at least one International Baccalaureate exam and its 98% reading proficiency, well above the state average. The school measured in the 99.7th percentile score on the SAT.

    City High Assistant Principal Charlie VanderVliet said those rankings not only are a symbol of the school’s academic achievements, but also are reflective of the school’s commitment to analyzing data, finding new approaches to teaching and differentiating curriculum and programs to suit students’ needs.

    “We know our work is never done and we see these rankings and celebrate them, but we always have that growth mindset to keep improving and offering the best educational opportunities to the scholars we have in our building,” VanderVliet said.

    City High has been a mainstay on US News & World Report’s rankings as it also was ranked No. 1 in the state in 2020 (No. 21 nationally). This year’s placement at No. 18 on the national list represents the highest ranking in the school’s history.

    VanderVliet commended City High’s staff and students for the way they strive to find best practices for learning that fits the needs of the individual rather than working from a place of “one-size-fits-all” style of education. Students are encouraged to self-select methods that best demonstrate their understanding of the curriculum and VanderVliet noted that isn’t always the more “traditional” method.

    “Maybe a scholar would prefer speaking over writing an essay, so we allow students to demonstrate choice and choose something that better meets their learning needs,” she said. “It’s not just pen and paper tests, it’s about implementing best practices that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery of concepts in a variety of ways.”

    While City High prides itself on its academic reputation, VanderVliet said the diverse background of its student body and the educators’ focus on creating a safe and open-minded environment fosters community development and helps to create well-rounded and active members of society.

    City High’s emphasis on strong character development is reflected in its partnerships with the surrounding community in the Creston neighborhood and business association. That community building is at the heart of GRPS’ mission, and theme schools like Grand Rapids Public Museum Middle and High Schools, CA Frost Environmental Science Middle High School and Zoo School further leverage partnerships within the city and strengthen the students’ relationships with West Michigan.

    At the Museum schools, students are taught by full-time staff, but also are provided with resources to meet and learn from a wealth of “people of passion” in the Grand Rapids community, incoming Museum School Assistant Principal Kim Rowland said. Getting students out in the community is one of the school’s three core tenets, alongside design thinking and utilizing the resources provided by the museum itself.

    “We try to get our students out of the building as often as possible,” Rowland said. “And the school is that way by design. There’s no gym and no library, so we utilize community resources like the YMCA and park spaces to provide a physical education space and we use the city public library as our library and that gets our students out and about in the downtown area.”

    This approach to place-based education encourages students to get to know Grand Rapids, learning how to get around, understanding public transportation options and introducing students to organizations in the city that are focused on solving problems in their hometown.

    As students advance through the school, opportunities to expand real-life learning experiences advance along with them — for example, incoming sixth-graders might learn the city bus system and street names their first year, leading to field trips to Chicago and New York where they navigate more complicated public transportation systems and visit some of the most celebrated museums in the world.

    “When they come to us (as sixth-graders) we sort of lovingly say there’s a disorientation that has to happen,” Rowland said. “I think they can come in thinking there’s a correct answer for anything and that everything’s black and white. So, we have to disorient them to open them up to seeing multiple solutions to a problem and there isn’t just one linear path that will get them to where they want to be.”

    Another major tenet of the Museum School is its focus on project-based education, which has students going through the process of researching an idea, putting it out there, receiving feedback and working toward a solution. In doing so, students are encouraged to research their projects using primary sources — that is, reaching out to experts in the city and at the museum to conduct interviews and lead discussions on topics relating to their studies. Additionally, students have access to museum artifacts that help them learn how objects from the past can tell a comprehensive story.

    “We kind of stretch the idea of what a classroom means,” Rowland said. “The community is our classroom, and the community members are part of our education team.”

    Students at the Museum School also are required to complete capstone projects that demonstrate an understanding of issues that impact the outside world and find ways to help solve them.

    For example, in ninth grade students are taught about The Great Depression and assigned to read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” an assignment that likely sounds familiar to generations of high school students across the country. But scholars at the Museum School take that lesson a step further, meeting with administrators and visitors at Dégagé and Heartside ministries, getting to see first-hand how homelessness affects people in the community and the efforts in place to help solve the issue.

    “Our students have the opportunity to meet our unsheltered neighbors and learn about their situation as humans and how they navigate life in a difficult scenario,” Rowland said. “They conduct interviews and talk with people, then come back to science class and lab and will make personal care products like soap, or lip balm or lotions that we then donate back to Heartside and Dégagé.”

    After their initial freshman year project, students are asked to branch out from the Museum School’s curated experience and reach out to community partners on their own.

    “Our students have a lot of energy, a lot of free time and a lot of opinions about what’s happening in our community, so I think we really are empowering them to be able to reach out to folks and say, ‘This is something I want to learn more about — How can you help me?’” Rowland said.

    CA Frost Environmental Science Middle High School and Zoo School principal Brad Lundvick echoed his district colleagues’ thoughts on the importance of community building in teaching. He noted CA Frost’s diverse student body — about 57.8% minority enrollment, as reported in US News & World Report’s rankings — as one of the strengths of fostering a strong community within the school. As it turns out, the “Environmental” part of the name has a double meaning.

    “We want to acknowledge the diversity of all our students — and their own family environments — as having a unique purpose that makes our culture and community here at school better as we learn about and from one another,” he said.

    Lundvick said educators at CA Frost also understand the importance of providing alternative learning styles and working to meet each student at a level that works for them. While “sit and get”-style learning works for some, Lundvick said CA Frost students can benefit from the school’s specialized amenities, like the on-site greenhouse, several acres of woodland and a year-long restoration project that created a natural-flow stream using a recycled drainage pipe that had been removed and donated by the city of Grand Rapids.

    That restoration project is a particular point of pride for the school, Lundvick said, and was born from CA Frost students gathering data and presenting it to the district and city about how they could improve the land use on the school’s campus.

    “Being able to have those different aspects and mind frames in how students learn different allows our staff to also have open mind frames as to how they can learn and teach differently,” he said. “Our students are talking to real-life individuals and relate what they’re talking about in a classroom setting to real-life projects.”

    In addition to his duties as principal of CA Frost, Lundvick also oversees Zoo School, another theme school in the district. With its campus on-site at John Ball Zoo, 60 sixth-grade students have the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with professionals in the field of zoology.

    In addition to the core competencies, Zoo School students can get hands-on experience at John Ball Zoo as junior zookeepers, helping make meals for the animals, cleaning exhibits and feeding the animals. Additionally, the school organizes two camping trips per year to help establish collaboration and teamwork skills.

    While not every student that attends Zoo School stays in the field, there are some who do — Lundvick noted that John Ball Zoo veterinarian Ryan Colburn is an alumnus of the Zoo School.

    As cities everywhere grapple with talent retention, these unique educational opportunities in Grand Rapids that leverage strong community partnerships could have a positive effect on students’ willingness to plant roots in the region. VanderVliet said City High is intentional in building on those relationships to encourage students to form a bond with the neighborhoods where they attend school.

    “The people that surround the building welcome us with open arms — we’ve made great connections with businesses here,” she said. “It’s been amazing to see, and I think that for the people that work in the city of Grand Rapids to connect with the school can only further show GRPS students what the community has to offer them.”

    It’s no secret that teachers have faced extraordinary difficulties in recent years as the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges that had no precedent. But VanderVliet said she feels that her school has been strengthened by the experience as teachers and students learned together how best to move forward in a tough situation and grow from it. For example, VanderVliet said some teachers still opt to record their lessons as an aid for when students are out sick.

    “It was a huge learning curve, but I really truly believe it’s helped us recognize our strength as educators,” she said. “Each teacher in our building has been able to learn over the last few years what they would like to keep and what they would like to discard from the new learning styles we had to adapt to.

    “And I don’t think we’re ever done; challenges will always come up and be in our way. So sometimes we need to step back and be reflective about how we can meet the best needs of the scholars in the building.”

    GRPS schools have worked to demonstrate that sometimes the best way to meet the needs of the scholars in the building is to also give them the room and opportunities to learn and grow outside of it.

    “While academics are important, so is character development and so we try to produce students that are open-minded, understanding and well-rounded,” VanderVliet said. “And it always comes back to our community. It’s people at all different levels and abilities working hard to be successful. And most of all, it’s about our hard-working students.”

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