The City of Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority has is granting Grand Rapids Public Schools $384,306 for the Innovation Central Advanced Technology Educational Initiative, which at its centerpiece includes creating a new state-of-the-art engineering lab. Funds will be dispersed over a three year period.
The initiative will expand the existing lab and outfit it with cutting edge technology like prototyping equipment and 3D printers. Grant funds will also help to further develop the school’s engineering curriculum. In addition, the Initiative will partner with West Michigan Center for Art and Technology (WMCAT) and Grand Circus to provide even more opportunities to students in the program. (According to Talent 2025, annual openings for engineering positions in West Michigan are going to continue to rise steeply.) Other partners involved in the initiative include Grand Valley State and Ferris State University, Steelcase, Van Andel Institute, and Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber.
“We’ve taken what our community partners have told us and implemented new courses that will help our students succeed within the engineering field,” adds Gideon Sanders, GRPS director for Innovative Strategies. “The grant will help us modernize the equipment so students will have access to things they will see in their profession or where they intern. The industry has a desire for students who can code and do computer programming. The grant will help us establish a lab dedicated to engineering.”
Innovation Central is one of three Grand Rapids Public Schools Centers for Innovation. Launched in 2008 in partnership with West Michigan’s universities, colleges, and industry leaders, the Centers of Innovation encourage students to focus on specific career or college pathways. University Prep offers middle and high school students an individualized, college-focused curriculum. The Public Museum School embodies place-based education and design thinking within an immersion environment within two Grand Rapids Public Museum and nine through twelve at the renovated 54 Jefferson building.
In addition to the Academy of Modern Engineering, Innovation Central houses the Academy of Business, Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Academy of Design and Construction, and Academy of Health Science and Technology. In all, Innovation Central enrolls more than 700 students; 160 currently take part in the engineering program.
The City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) also joined the partnership, specifically The Pubic Museum School and Innovation Central, as both lie within Grand Rapids’ downtown boundaries.
“When our friends at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. developed the GR Forward plan, we met with them. We asked, ‘Hey what's the role of K -2 within this?’ If you want to have the best downtown for a midsize city, having strong school choices are a part of this,” says John Helmholdt, GRPS executive director of Communications & External Affairs. “They wholeheartedly embraced it. GR Forward includes a chapter around K-12 schools.”
Every eighth-grade student in the district applying to Innovation Central gets in, regardless of grades, attendance, or behavior. However, if students wait until they are in ninth grade or later to apply, those factors are weighed in the admission decision.
“It’s open access to everybody. GRPS has one school that’s a test-in (City Middle and High). Our superintendent (Teresa Weatherall Neal) does not want more than one of those,” Frost says. “We want all the kids we can get because we think we’ve got something for everybody.”
Innovation Central’s four academies had been housed with larger high schools but, according to John Helmholdt, some were getting “lost in the shuffle.” Consolidating the four Academies under one roof has proven successful: Innovation Central now boasts as 93 percent graduation rate.
“Centers of Innovation act like charter schools but within the district, with our teachers, and with the union,” he says. “Principal Mark Frost is absolutely a rock-star school leader. Innovation Central is now the strongest and best program in the district.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools