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RapidBlog: East Hills Loves Congress (and Vice Versa)

Elizabeth Hoffman Ransford serves on the East Hills Council of Neighbors Board of Directors. She is a freelance writer and historian, with a PhD in American History and Public History from Loyola University Chicago.
Recently in this space, Wendy Falb of the Grand Rapids School Board blogged about community schools and East Hills Loves Congress, a partnership between the East Hills Council of Neighbors and Congress Elementary School. East Hills Loves Congress is a grassroots effort to sustain and support a successful neighborhood school in the center of our community -- a neighborhood school for everyone.
Over the last 10 years, East Hills has undergone an astonishing revitalization. Today, our community is home to great shops, restaurants, and small businesses; we boast the densest, most walkable cluster of business districts in the city. We’ve seen the quality of our housing stock rise and experienced an influx of residents of all ages and backgrounds. It’s a true urban success story.
Scores of young couples have been drawn to East Hills because of these amenities. They fix up houses, frequent the bars and restaurants, take runs and walks through the neighborhood, and start to put down roots. Then, they have kids. They start thinking about schools, and they start thinking about moving to another school district.
My husband and I are one of these couples. Our daughter is eight months old, and as we started talking to fellow parents, the “to move or not to move” conversation came up over and over again. Everyone we know loves their houses, their neighbors, the East Hills community -- and everyone also wants a first-rate education for their children.
If we want to keep these families in the city, we need great public schools.
That’s why the East Hills Council of Neighbors has decided to make Congress School a neighborhood priority. The reinvention of Congress as a vibrant community school for everyone is the next logical step in the revitalization of East Hills.
Why spread the resources of time, energy, and money between different schools all over the city and suburbs when we can focus on making the school that sits in the center of East Hills a success? Place matters. If we live, do business, and raise our children in the same place, we can invest our resources and energies efficiently, where they make the most impact.
The diverse demographics of East Hills make it an ideal place for a neighborhood school. All of the children in our community would benefit from going to a school where they can be exposed to a diversity of cultural, socio-economic, and racial backgrounds.
A community school provides opportunities for volunteering and social connections between parents and neighbors that a magnet school with a bussed-in or driven-in population cannot. It provides a space for classes and events outside the school day -- not just extra-curriculars for kids, but yoga, art, and language classes for adults, too. A community school provides opportunities to create the kind of relationships that sustain a community over the long haul.
How will we get there?
Several public meetings hosted by the East Hills Council of Neighbors have produced a strategic plan for Congress School that has been ratified by community members. On the academic front, the plan calls for the expansion of Congress from grades pre-K-5 to grades pre-K-8 and the introduction of a dual language Spanish/English immersion program that takes advantage of the linguistic diversity in our community.
This plan also endorses the use of the existing structural resources at Congress. With the support of GRPS, we are seeking the inclusion of the 1921 building in the Fairmount Square Historic District (a school building has been on the site since before 1873) and the restoration of the original windows so that all the classrooms once again will be flooded with natural light. We also look to beautify the school grounds, the site of the first public playground in Grand Rapids in 1902. Our Greenspace Plan calls for a manicured soccer field, more trees, more play equipment, and community gardens for school and community use.
Finally, the strategic plan looks to create a vibrant after-school enrichment program at Congress. Let’s take advantage of the deep pool of creative talent that resides in East Hills. We have artists, musicians, naturalists -- why not enable members of our community to share their skills with our kids? Let’s institute some arts education partnerships with organizations like the Grand Rapids Ballet and the Grand Rapids Symphony, so students can be exposed to music, art, drama, and dance. Why not a chess club, extra language opportunities -- perhaps Mandarin Chinese? The list could go on and on.
Then, after the kids go home, let’s use Congress for community enrichment classes for adults, turning the school into a humming hub of constant activity.
East Hills Loves Congress is building on a strong base. We have the support of the School Board and Superintendent Teresa Neal. At Congress School, we are working with a talented, energetic principal -- Bridget Cheney -- and a committed staff. The school offers a comfortable learning environment and small class sizes. All day kindergarten and all day preschool are available. The school has a new library and computer lab, and a long history of community partners.
Meaningful partnerships between Congress and the East Hills community are already underway. Volunteers from Trinity United Methodist Church recruited a local landscape architect to help create Seed to Table, a program that will give students an opportunity to plant and care for gardens on the school property, with community gardens on the side. The owner of Sparrows coffee shop, Lori Slager, is leading the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center, an after-school creative writing program. Reagan Marketing and Design designed a brochure to publicize the East Hills Loves Congress partnership, and Brewery Vivant made a generous contribution to purchase much-needed practice equipment for the Congress soccer team -- at a day’s notice!
These are the connections that East Hills Loves Congress is making, because a great neighborhood school doesn’t just benefit children and parents, it benefits everyone. Business owners gain a strong customer base of families. Homeowners gain in property values and neighborhood appeal. The school becomes a center of learning and activity that everyone can be proud of.
Strong schools make strong neighborhoods. Strong schools make desirable neighborhoods. East Hills Loves Congress is committed to the success of a neighborhood school that draws families to our community – and keeps them here.

If you want to learn more about East Hills Loves Congress – or get involved! – attend our open house at Congress School  Nov. 29 between 6 and 8 p.m., or contact Claire Fisher at the East Hills Council of Neighbors (clairefisher@easthillscouncil.org or 454-9079).
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