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Partnerships create a stronger school system

The secret to the recent string of Grand Rapids Public Schools’ success stories? GRPS is not going it alone. Success stories are accumulating fast, and behind all of them stand strong partnerships. These teams of partners include members of public and private sectors, business and community leaders, volunteers and parents, and, of course, the students. Each brings a vital piece to the whole that has resulted in a diversity of innovative options in education for the children of greater Grand Rapids.

From the hands of volunteers
“Why wouldn’t we do this for our children?” asks Sue Garza, Cook Library Center director. “I volunteer at several schools because when I was growing up in Lansing, that’s what my mom did. It’s a way for me to be a part of my sons’ education.”

Sue GarzaGarza has two sons, attending 11th and 8th grades at City High Middle School. The school is ranked in the top 5 percent of all Michigan schools on combined measures of student achievement and growth, and ranked among the top high schools in the United States by U.S. World News & World Report for four consecutive years.

“When my husband and I moved to Grand Rapids from Lansing, we were dumbfounded by all the choices in schools,” Garza says. “Yet many parents were choosing schools outside of the district—too often out of fear. But when you talk to them, you realize many of them have never even walked into the schools. We did. And we immediately found that people’s fears were unbased.”

Garza has been in an out of many schools in the GRPS system, and she readily acknowledges what she calls glaring issues that need to be addressed. All are part of aging facilities that need a caring hand but also caring donor dollars.

César E. Chávez Elementary and C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy are now pillars of our community,” she says. “But there’s still work to be done. Southwest Community Campus needs our help badly. The school is over capacity and it needs to grow. I’ve been in schools where there are holes in the floors and in the ceilings. It’s a shame.”

Despite her observations in deteriorating and aging facilities, Garza maintains a bright attitude. She trusts the new GRPS leadership, she says, to be fiscally responsible.

“If the millage passes,” she begins, then quickly corrects herself. “When the millage passes, we need to invest in our community. The city is only as strong as its school district. We owe it to our children.”

From the hands of neighborhood associations
Elizabeth Hoffman Ransford was thinking about the best schools for her children before they were born. She was nine months pregnant when she attended her first school open house. And she wasn’t the only one there who was so well-rounded.

“Families are thinking about schools long before their children are ready,” Ransford says. “When we moved to East Hills in 2010, we were seeing a family drain, people moving away when their children were getting old enough to start school. I got involved in the East Hills Council of Neighbors because I didn’t want to live in a neighborhood of just college-age people or empty nesters. That doesn’t make for a healthy community.”

By 2012, Ransford was co-chair of the council’s board of directors, and she has been an enthused member of East Hills Loves Congress since, a grassroots effort to sustain and support Congress School, the neighborhood school at the center of the East Hills community. Now with two children, Ransford is hard at work to build a neighborhood cohort of supporters and volunteers.

“We need everyone in this neighborhood to see Congress as important, even if only for property values,” she says. “And it’s working. For the first time, we are seeing families move into the neighborhood so that their children can attend school here.”

One of several projects the neighborhood association has accomplished in support of Congress School includes a garden on school grounds. With a donation of $5,000, volunteers gathered to build a garden now called the Cornelius Kos Community/School Garden. Part of the garden is for the community, part for the school, and a 3rd-grade class has since incorporated a section of the garden into a lesson plan.

Another project involved large, colorful letters that spelled C-O-N-G-R-E-S-S across the length of a school fence.

“It was remarkable how many people in the area didn’t even realize there was a school there,” Ransford says. “It sits far back from the street. It brought a positive energy to the school and everyone around it.”

Ransford points to the numbers for the last count at Congress, a count that results directly in state funding per student. “Last year, we had 150 students. This year, 178. That’s a gain of 28 students, mostly in kindergarten and 1st grade. Families are moving back.”

From the hands of foundations
Blandford School is not just a top-ranking school in academics—the school has also been ranked as one of 25 “Coolest Schools in America” by Parent and Child Magazine. Its coolness factor is in great part because the school is set adjacent to Blandford Nature Center.

“The Wege Foundation awarded a grant of $1,500,000 to the Blandford School because Peter Wege felt so strongly about kids being educated to care for the environment,” says Ellen Satterlee, president and executive director of the Wege Foundation.
The other requirement for the grant was that the school be LEED-certified, built to be “green” to the standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Other donors added funding to construct the $2.3 million school.

“It was a natural fit for us, what we wanted to accomplish with a partnership,” says Satterlee.

Classes at Blandford are often outdoors in the fields, along ponds and streams, and in the woods of the nature center. Children learn hands-on about biology, cartography, computer literacy, rocks and minerals, forestry, Native American culture, Michigan history, pioneer experiences, and more.

“It’s been a joy working with Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal and her staff,” Satterlee says. “They understand and embrace the different ways in which children learn. For some, learning outdoors makes all the difference.”

From the hands of business leaders
It was about 25 years ago, Dan Behm says, that he was volunteering at a Grand Rapids school and overheard the principal remark to someone how many kids had never traveled outside of their own neighborhoods.

Students on an OST sponosored trip to the lakeshore.Behm, who is the founder and board member of Open Systems Technologies (OST), an information technology company, was stunned by the remark. He never forgot it.

“I wanted to do more,” he says. “I wanted to do something that would have real impact.”

Behm recruited Mike Lomonaco, OST director of marketing, to brainstorm with GRPS Superintendent Weatherall Neal and John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs, and the idea of filling school busses with children and taking them to Lake Michigan was born.

“Writing a check is the usual,” Lomonaco says. “Dan and I talked about what we could do beyond that. We estimated that probably 90 percent of the kids at GRPS had never seen Lake Michigan.”

The idea seemed simple enough. Gas up the busses, let the kids board, and go. Making it happen, however, was a different affair. The logistics of the field trip took a year to arrange.

“We took 200 5th-graders from three schools to Lake Michigan that first year,” says Behm. “That was two years ago. This past year we took more than 600 from nine schools, and next year we’re shooting for twice that.”

Something happens when a child first stands at the edge of an immense body of water. Some of the children thought they were looking at the ocean. All of them had their horizons broadened.

“I can’t point to a direct link with the couple dozen volunteers from OST on these trips, but it’s been invigorating to watch,” Lomonaco says. “The effect goes both ways. For us, it strengthens our sense of community, brings energy into the workplace. Serving is incredibly powerful.”

The field trips have been so inspiring, in fact, that OST and GRPS staff are talking about making these project into a national model.

“I’d love to see 10,000 kids taking these kinds of trips someday,” Behm says. “Maybe to the Grand Canyon if that’s what is nearby. Showing kids the world gives them hope. It gets them to dream.”

What makes this partnership between GRPS and OST so powerful, Behm and Lomonaco agree, is that they found the people at GRPS to be open-minded to new ideas.

“They are outside-of-the-box thinkers,” Behm says.

“This wouldn’t have been possible five years ago,” Lomonaco adds. “As we look at GRPS today, at the leadership, the energy, it’s a model to the entire community of what is possible when we work together.”

Into the hands of those who need it most
At-risk children must have equal access to education. The hurdles they face must be diminished if not removed entirely. That was the premise that motivated a group of business leaders in 2008 who wanted to build a new kind of school for a different way of learning. The project was founded by Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase at the time, along with other local CEOs, after seeing a similar school in Detroit (see sidebar).

John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam Medical, was a member of that founding group and continues to be a board member. The project conceived became the Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy (UPREP), and in 2013, the state-of-the-art, $9.2 million-dollar school (funds raised among 70 donors with a lead gift from the Steve and Cindy Van Andel Foundation) opened its doors to more than 500 students.

“Others have tried to build this kind of school outside of the school system and failed,” says Kennedy. “We wanted to work with the school system, and we believe that’s why we are succeeding.”

UPREP is the first tuition-free public school in West Michigan for 6th through 12th grades with more than 700 students, offering an individualized, college-focused curriculum to prepare students to go on to post-secondary learning.

“About 85 percent of the families sending their children to UPREP live in poverty,” Kennedy says. “Yet most of these kids want to go on to college. When we have offered a summer program to prepare for their ACTs, there’s great participation. Last year, we had the highest average participation of any school in the GRPS system. All of our students—100 percent—have gone on to secondary education.”

Kennedy is a fundraiser for UPREP, assessing capital needs and raising dollars annually for ongoing needs—the internships and mentorships that make the program work. A wish list for the future, says Kennedy, includes a gym and, eventually, adding K through 5th grades.

“This model works,” he says. “It works because we are partnering with the people in the trenches.”

Asking for more hands
There can never be too many hands to help, says John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs at GRPS. The school system continues to seek new partnerships to help support the schools and the needs of the students.

“We created the first of its kind model with UPREP and Blandford whereby we built both schools without a single local or state taxpayer dollar,” Helmholdt says. “Our superintendent wants the taxpayers and voters to know that she is not asking them to pick up the full bill. In addition to the bond proposal on November 3, we will be seeking support from local philanthropists, foundations, and the private sector.”

GRPS is currently in the process of finalizing a feasibility study that is exploring launching a capital campaign later this year with a goal of raising up to $25 million.

This special report was made possible with support from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for 
Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.

Photography by Adam Bird

Brian Cloyd
Brian Cloyd
Vice President, Global Corporate Relations
Steelcase Corporation
A Private-Public Partnership That Works
Brian Cloyd is vice president, global corporate relations, at Steelcase, a leading manufacturer of furniture for office, hospitals and classrooms. He has been with Steelcase for 37 years, 25 of which have been in human resources. Cloyd oversees global corporate giving, government affairs, and diversity and inclusion.

In addition to having a hand in founding University Prep Academy (UPREP), Cloyd serves as chair of UPREP board of directors.
RAPID GROWTH: What role does Steelcase play in the founding of UPREP? Please share the story of the CEO founding the school in 2008, the birth of the idea, and its goals.

Brian Cloyd: After West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) became operational, Jim Hackett (former Steelcase CEO) was concerned about a broader role the business community could/should play in urban education. He convened a small group of peers to discuss ideas (Steve Van Andel, Dan DeVos, John Kennedy, Fred Keller, Dave Frey, and Michelle VanDyke). The group wanted to explore the idea of starting a school that would focus on innovative learning and could be an incubator for change that could eventually be scalable within the GRPS district.

We consulted with then-superintendent Bert Bleke to determine the district’s support, and I began looking at innovative models around the country. We found that Detroit had a charter school called Detroit University Prep Academy started by Doug Ross. After learning more about its program and successes, we decided to replicate that program in Grand Rapids.

The major difference that we wanted for the Grand Rapids school was that we wanted it to come out of a partnership with the district rather than taking children out of the district, thereby creating a further decline in students and revenue. A non-profit organization was created by a group of community and business leaders called Grand Rapids University Prep Association (GRUPA), and a joint operating agreement was formed with GRPS. The school began with 6th and 7th grades at the old Vandenberg school. After the first two years, UPREP moved to the old City Middle/High School building on the Central High Campus. After a successful capital campaign, UPREP moved to its current local on South Division which is a state-of-the-art facility, uniquely designed for the type of innovative learning envisioned by the CEO group and the GRUPA board.   

RG: And the value of UPREP to Steelcase—and the business community—today? Why is it important for Steelcase to remain involved with UPREP?

Cloyd: The value of UPREP is really a value to the community as a whole. The belief is that it really does take a village to raise a child. Everything in the school is built around improving the student experience. When students are placed in a setting that provides the latest and most advanced learning tools and a conducive-to-learning environment, where teachers are allowed to use innovative teaching and pedagogy, and where parents are encouraged to be part of their child’s learning plans, students will overcome prior obstacles to learning thriving up and beyond expectations.

The school also builds in a tool of design thinking, which enables students to think creatively and energetically. The business community wants to build its future workforce with the most talented, creative and diverse people possible. We have an obligation to provide every opportunity possible to make this a reality!

RG: What are UPREP’s financial needs that are not being met … and what kind of fundraising is underway? What are your goals?

Cloyd: UPREP, like other GRPS schools, runs lean from a financial standpoint. Students simply don’t have the same resources that most suburban schools and families have to provide for extra success tools like tutoring, ACT/SAT prep, computers, field trips, extra learning materials not covered by the state foundation grant. In order for our students to be successful and to be able to compete on a level playing field for college and careers, they need appropriate additional financial resources. Like other non-profits, GRUPA has an annual appeal for resources and last year inaugurated the first fundraising event called Sweet Success, highlighting two successful graduating classes and the amazing work that our students have doing both in classes and outside of the classroom with extracurricular activities. The other needs are non-financial. We need volunteers for tutoring, workplaces for internships, job shadowing locations, and guest speakers. So, it really does take a village, but we have proven in 8 years that there’s an enormous return on investment in our kids.

RG: What is the unique public-private partnership UPREP has with the community? How is this beneficial?

Cloyd: I don’t know of any other situation in the K-12 education world that has a public-private partnership like ours. Steelcase belongs to the national Business Roundtable of major U.S. corporations, and we participate on the Education and Workforce Development Committee.

I’ve often spoken about how the business community has come together with the school district. The response has been a combination of both surprise that we could have a successful partnership and perhaps some wonderment about how this might be replicated. I give a ton of credit and thanks to Superintendent Weatherall Neal for her unbending belief and support in this venture. We would not have the success we’ve had without her leadership and support of her board and team. It is not an easy proposition, but together we’ve made it work. 

The other significant benefit of the UPREP is that this idea helped spark the district’s focus on other schools of innovation and the growing interest in educators thinking differently about how children learn. The Superintendent’s strategy and passion for changing learning techniques is creating a resurgence of quality education in Grand Rapids.
RG: Do you have any stories to share about students in workshops, job shadowing at Steelcase or working with mentors?

Cloyd: The principal and teachers have tons of stories about their students and how amazing they are. From my observations, the best I can do is to describe the continual growth I see in them over time. I have frequently said that if I’m having a bad day at work, all I have to do is go to the school and be around the kids. I immediately feel better and wonder what more we can do to help their growth and development.

I’ll share one story that is broader about GRPS students. West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology hosted the first Global Youth Forum. It involved students from Monterrey Mexico and Cluj Romania where Steelcase has offices. Our employees worked with students in those locations. WMCAT students from UPREP and other GRPS schools along with staff developed the curriculum using design thinking and focused on sustainability. Each group worked separately on their individual projects and came together as a large group three times using technology and video conferencing. They overcame language barriers, shared ideas of their culture and their projects. This summer the students from Mexico and Romania spent a week in Grand Rapids continuing to share ideas and cultural exchanges. Not only was the experience a huge success, but this was a small step in students from different parts of the world becoming global citizens. We were very proud of our Grand Rapids students.