Expanding the base

MLive reports on the plans by Grand Rapids Public Schools to establish a Museum school. At first blush this looks a tad precious, a frou-frou sort of program while the district faces intense challenges on the educational performance front. However, looking more closely, one may see the outline of a two pronged approach. What makes the educational needle so difficult to thread in Grand Rapids is the relative diversity of the community as a whole, coupled with the concentration of minority and poverty-impacted families within GRPS proper. The strategic challenge for the district is how to avoid being known only as a provider for the poor, a school of last (and worst) resort. So two broad directions need to be taken.

First, GRPS needs to address the performance impact of poverty on the students. The correlation between poverty and lagging achievement has been long recognized. While schools can compensate for this impact to some extent, tht path is not only costly, but still subject to the external factors. Success here can be achieved, but it is of a slow variety.  In the meantime, hopeful parents look to charters as an alternative.  GRPS therefore needs to address the issues arising from poverty: safety, some fundamental achievement, better retention (which is to say, better hope).

But that is one side of the coin. Grand Rapids is more than minorities and poverty. Much more. If the district is to thrive, it needs to find ways  to make room for more middle class families. And just to be clear, the Census has been recording a vanishing of families with teens for decades. Retention, too may be subject to significant external factors (e.g.  size in the City versus house size in  the new suburbs). What makes an Initiative such as the Museum school so hopeful is that it appears to recognize another truth in educational reform, that students from poverty background do better in a more economically diverse classroom. Thus if one is to meet the challenge of the concentration of poverty, one ought to be looking at ways of adding more middle  class families to the mix.

The innovation programs far from being something of a frou-frou, are strategically working to broaden the base, and so diminish the impact of concentrated poverty. Moreover, one needs more programs that are not test-in.  Further, such programs along with neighborhood schools also need more expenditure of social capital by those “outside.” 

In a complex educational environment that includes varieties of schools, programs, and opportunities, GRPS needs to think about what it has that can contribute to the health of the entire community. it is not at all clear that schools and parents will easily match up by neighborhood. Within the urban area we are far more likely to see a number of programs that parents choose from or participate in. More options within the district are an essential for GRPS if it is to remain competitive and not simply fall into the school of last (and failed) resort. That would be a tragedy for the region.

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