'Before the time of us': How trips to Lake Michigan are changing students' worldviews

While many of us may take for granted how easy it can be to make the 35-mile trip to Lake Michigan, the overwhelming majority of Grand Rapids Public Schools' fifth grade students have never seen this body of water. Financial hardship, lack of transportation and other barriers prevent many of the children from seeing this Great Lake, but GRPS and Open Systems Technologies are quickly changing that.
As Suhila Alhasan and Mario Wixson, two 10-year-old fifth grade students, navigate the hallways of Grand Rapids’ Mulick Park Elementary School, they traverse a wide range of topics with ease: their affinity for reading, excitement at the prospect of attending theme middle schools next year, the brightly colored and meticulously painted artwork that lines their school’s walls. As we walk past Mario’s former kindergarten classroom in this elementary school on the city’s southeast side, there is giddy talk of both of the students’ love for history and science  just the mention of the two subjects lands emphatic nods from each of the children.

It’s this love for history and science that makes Suhila and Mario particularly excited about their class’s recent escapade to Hoffmaster State Park, a place of towering dunes along Lake Michigan  an expanse of sand, water and sky that Suhila, along with the majority of her class, had never seen before.
“I pictured less trees, and I thought the lake wouldn’t be as big,” Suhila says, smiling. “I thought the trip was interesting and enjoyable, and I liked learning about the history, Lake Michigan, the environment, and the animals.
“You learn a lot when you go there,” she continues. “You can learn about history and what was before the time of us.”

Mario expands upon this idea, explaining that the dunes (which he notes were “easier to climb when you follow in someone’s footsteps") were the result of an incredible history  a story that spans to a time when continental glaciers covered the Michigan landscape for more than a million years, providing the major source for the sand and other sediments that, after centuries of being blown by the wind, have become the dunes we now know.
“It makes you think about how you always want the dunes to be there and what humans do to them when they pollute,” Mario says. “That makes the environment go away. It makes the animals want to go away.”
“The people of the future, they want to be able to experience the environment,” adds Suhila, who notes that the excursion has inspired her to read “a lot more books about the environment.”

'I didn't know it got so quiet': Seeing Lake Michigan for the first time
This enthusiasm, and often awe, over everything from the beauty of Lake Michigan to the concept of ecosystems is exactly what leaders at the Grand Rapids Public Schools system and Open Systems Technologies, a Grand Rapids-based information technology company, want to hear. GRPS and OST have partnered to offer these field trips to GRPS fifth-graders for the past four years, and this year marks an important milestone: every single fifth grade student (about 1,200 children) will take a school trip to Lake Michigan.
It’s a big moment for the students  especially for the approximately 85 percent of the children who have never before seen the lake: it’s a day when they, for the first time, get to see and touch a body of water that, as the two students tell me, connect us to history, to other people, to the environment.
It’s a day that says: there’s a huge world out there, and people  especially those in your city  want you to see it.
“I always go up ahead of the kids to watch their reaction as they come up over the dune and see Lake Michigan  you’re perched up overlooking the lake, and it looks like it never ends,” says Michael Lomonaco, OST’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “You’d think they would be all, ‘Woo-hoo, let’s run down the dune!’ But you could hear a pin drop. They are in awe. They’ll say, ‘Is that the ocean? Where’s Lake Michigan? Oh, it’s so blue! Do you smell the water?’ It’s breathtaking.”
And it’s not just Lake Michigan that the children are connecting with: these trips inspire ideas about the future, about careers and opportunity: Lake Michigan, along with the other Great Lakes, provide about 823,000 jobs in Michigan and represent approximately 25 percent of the state’s payroll, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“I want our kids to not only have the experience of going to Lake Michigan, but to know the importance of keeping our water clean,” says GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. “The majority of our students have never been to Lake Michigan  it’s hard to appreciate something you’ve not touched and been a part of. But when you think about the available jobs connected to the water, it’s their future.
“It’s been a huge game changer for these children,” the superintendent continues. “It has opened their horizons. It’s been so successful that we’ve talked about how we can make this happen for kids across the state  especially for children of color.”
Opening access to Lake Michigan, and new experiences in general, is something school and OST leaders have seen significant support for from the community at large, and especially among the teachers and students.
“Watching them interact with the environment and watching them learn hands-on, hearing them tell me about their excitement, is incredible,” says Helen Gillespie Metcalf, a teacher at Mulick Park Elementary. “They’re all grasping nature. This is a chance for them to appreciate the environment and understand the ecosystem.”
And, it’s a chance to bridge a divide, to bring students and parents facing significant financial stress, as well as barriers to transportation, to a world that Mario, the fifth-grader from Mulick Elementary, calls “one of the most beautiful places you’ll see.”
“For the 85 percent of these kids who haven’t been to Lake Michigan, there’s a reason for why that is,” Lomonaco says. “It’s important for people to realize, and have empathy around, why they can’t go: maybe mom and dad work multiple jobs; maybe they can’t afford transportation. There’s so many layers to these things.”
Lomonaco, who, along with others from OST, have accompanied the students on the trips, explains the power, and poignancy, of these events.
“My very first trip I ever went on, we were walking up this trail at Hoffmaster, and the guide from Hoffmaster was educating the kids on the ecosystem  the plants and trees and animals,” Lomonaco says. “He said, ‘Everyone, I want you to be quiet, and we’re going to listen intently. When I ask you to open your eyes again, I want you to shout out some of the sounds you hear, some of the smells.
“So, this little girl tugged at the bottom of my shirt, and she said, ‘Mr. Mike, I didn’t know it got so quiet,” he continues. “With every last bit of me, I had to try not to burst into tears. She had never been outside of the city; she had never experienced the quiet of nature. I knew then what we were doing was way more than bringing kids to Lake Michigan; it was changing lives by offering different perspectives.”
GRPS and OST: A partnership
Prior to the trips first being offered at three GRPS schools four years ago (Harrison Park, Sibley and Stocking Elementary Schools), Lomonaco says OST was looking for new ways to partner with the community, beyond providing financial assistance. When GRPS Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs John Helmholdt first informed OST founder Dan Behm, who’s now retired and is a member of the company’s Board of Directors, that about 85 percent of their fifth grade students had not been to Lake Michigan, Behm’s first words were, “That’s not right.”
“I grew up in Grand Haven and absolutely loved the lake,” says Behm, who, along with his wife, Barb, serve as volunteer chaperones for the trips each year. “For a kid to be just 45 minutes away and to never have seen it? They need to see it.”
Once the major idea  bring the kids to Lake Michigan  was born, then came the nitty gritty. First, how was this going to fit into their educational experience? That was a question quickly answered, in large part by Jonathan Harper, the head of science curriculum for GRPS who once worked at Hoffmaster.

“Jonathan is an amazing individual, and right away he saw the potential in this idea and has been a rock with all of this,” Lomonaco says. “In fifth grade, one of the students’ core lessons is about ecosystems, which fit perfectly with this. It’s this whole idea of place-based education.”
After all the other details  transportation, where they’d go (they started with Hoffmaster and then added Rosy Mound Natural Area), and more  were figured out, then came the fun part: going.
Like Lomonaco, Behm says he has been positively overwhelmed by the students’ response.
“I watch their eyes when they first see Lake Michigan, and I see the wonder in their eyes, and that’s what we’re all about,” Behm says. “When they look out there, they see this thing, this lake, that they’d never really envisioned before. It’s really fun to see that.”

All those involved, including Weatherall Neal, Behm and Lomonaco, stress the importance of the trips being the result of a successful public-private partnership.
“When I took this position, I said, ‘These children do not belong to me. The children belong to our community,’” Weatherall Neal says. “We can’t educate the children without the community.”
Behm is hoping OST’s work with GRPS will inspire other companies to follow in their footsteps.
“The community really needs to reach out,” Behm says. “The kids need to have 20 different experiences like this, so they can build on them. There needs to be special things in their lives that give them encouragement. It’s a combination of a lot of these things together that give them hope; it’s not just one thing.”
Beyond Grand Rapids
The field trips have been so successful that OST is aiming to grow the program in other cities, including Detroit and Washington D.C.
“We feel that every fifth grader out there, they have their own Lake Michigan they should be able to see,” Lomonaco says. “It could be the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument. We’re working with [Michigan State University] to expand this program.”

And, here in Grand Rapids, OST plans to continue supporting the field trip program
— something that Mario and Suhila stress is incredibly important.

"If you haven't sat in the wilderness, you can't notice all the animals," Mario says. "If you can't notice all the animals, maybe you won't really understand to not pollute. It's important to sit in the wilderness and be quiet." 

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. You can reach her by emailing [email protected], or connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Photography courtesy of OST.
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