On Saturday, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) Superintendent Bernard Taylor delivered the first annual “State of Our Schools” address. The address evaluated progress made by GRPS over the past year and outlined where the school system is going. Taylor’s address had three goals–to elevate GRPS as a regional priority, address false perceptions, and to educate the public about what GRPS does. He said that all too often GRPS is the subject of sensationalized news accounts and false perceptions rather than the accomplishments of the district.
Taylor began by giving a basic overview of the school system. GRPS is the third largest school district in Michigan. It has more than 3,400 employees and half of them are “outstanding teachers.” He said that everyday the teachers “give their heart and soul to teaching and educating our youth.” Moreover, these teachers are increasingly playing roles beyond teaching and often play parenting and social worker roles. Each day, these teachers teach the district’s more than 20,000 students who come from 70 different countries and speak 49 different languages. Of these 20,000 students, 81% qualify for free or reduced lunch, 25% receive special education services, and 20% are learning the English language for the first time.
He said that despite the perceptions, GRPS offers a diverse array of educational choices. He said that the district runs year round programs, has schools where uniforms are required, has a college preparatory school, has a pre-engineering program, has a health sciences school, has a Montessori school program, has a day-long kindergarten program, has a Spanish language immersion program, and has hands-on experiential education programs.
These programs have resulted in several successes:
* City High/Middle School students had the best MME test scores in the entire region. U.S. News & World Report also named City High/Middle among top 300 schools in nation.
* Campau Park Elementary received Distinguished Title 1 School from the Michigan Department of Education for reducing the racial achievement gap by more than 117% over two years.
* CA Frost, Sherwood Park, and MLK were awarded Meijer Good Schools for excellence in education
* Union and Creston High Schools were 2 of 38 schools in nation to received Small School Consortium grant to further develop small schools
* GRAPCEP – our Small School on Engineering – a program of Davenport University celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over the last 10 years, GRAPCEP has achieved a 99% graduation rate and of the college bound students, more than half are enrolled in math, sciences, or engineering – 36% above the national average
* In 2007, the Academic Games Team won the national championship for Senior Equations and the state championship in Junior Linguistics
* Gerald R. Ford Middle School received the “People’s Choice” Award for Best New Construction by Neighborhood Business Association
* Harrison Park School received the “People’s Choice” Award for Best Interior Renovation by Neighborhood Business Association
* More than 3,200 of our recent high schools students were awarded the National Career Readiness Certificate since the program was launched
Taylor then began discussing some of the “tough decisions” that the district has made over the past few years. The district has cut $60 million from its operating budget, has privatized bussing and substitute teachers, cut administrative positions, and re-organized the school leadership. At the same time, enrollment has declined from 25,663 in 2001 to just over 20,000 today, resulting in less funding for the district.
Despite these challenges, Taylor said that the “State of Our Schools” is that they are “getting strong,” “getting better,” and bringing more people “together” to support the district’s students. He touted gains in academic progress made over the past year. Among these are gains at the elementary and middle school levels:
* Elementary Schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in both English Language Arts and Math in 19 of 26 schools in SY 2006-2007
* Elementary Schools exceeded state average gains on ALL MEAP sub-tests, except for fifth grade writing
* 7 of 12 Middle Schools made AYP in ELA
* 10 of 12 Middle Schools made AYP in Math
* The number of students meeting or exceeding MEAP proficiency in math has increased at EVERY grade level EVERY YEAR for 3 YEARS in a row – increasing by as much as 17% and an average of 13%
* The number of students meeting or exceeding MEAP proficiency in Writing at 7th and 8th grades has increased EVERY YEAR for 3 YEARS
Unfortunately, Taylor said that at the high school level all four of the district’s comprehensive high schools have failed to meet AYP for 4 years in a row. However, the district is making efforts to address this. He explained that a new partnership with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning (IFL) to established “effort-based schools where every child in every classroom has access to rigorous and coherent educational learning experiences.” In practical terms, Taylor said that this means teaching in a way that assumes every student can “learn to high standards.” He said GRPS is also working to “expand choices, build choices, and work outside the traditional box of education.” As an example, he cited the Centers of Innovation program to foster public-private partnerships.
Following this section of the speech, Taylor took a moment to address “safety.” He again mentioned that the media has had a role in perpetuating a myth that GRPS is unsafe. He said that there are “3,500 incident reports annually” covering everything from parking violations to assaults. At the same time, “assaults” are relatively rare, particularly when it comes to teachers being assaulted. He cited the following numbers:
Incidents reported as assaults on teachers are few, far between – and have declined since the 2005 school year (SY):
* 22 – SY05
* 17 – SY06
* 11 – SY-7 to date
Incidents of general assaults have declined:
* 420 – SY05
* 346 – SY06
* 133 – SY07 – to date
Incidents of larceny have declined:
* 454 – SY05
* 415 – SY06
* 190 – SY07 – to date
Incidents with weapons have declined:
* 159 – SY05
* 113 – SY06
* 44 – SY07 – to date
Even with though much of the perception of the schools being unsafe comes through a distortion of reality by the media, the district is still taking several precautions. The district has installed surveillance cameras in all of its high schools, has implemented electronic card access systems to most of its schools, has increased training for security officers, partnered with the GRPD and GRFD, and is planning further training.
He then went on to explain that GRPS has “reached a financial tipping point.” He said that the district desperately needs new state funding initiatives–such as those announced by the governor–and a reformed funding equity formula. He urged West Michigan residents to support the current equity formula and called on area Senators and Representatives to support funding for the schools. He further said that state and federal mandates such as special education and “English Language Learner” programs are causing significant resources. Similarly, costs such as retirement, health care, and energy are exacerbating the district’s financial difficulties.
Finally, Taylor outlined three priority areas for the schools–”academic improvement and instructional reforms,” “strengthening security, improving discipline, and reducing truancy,” and “health, safety, and improved learning environments.”
In the first area, Taylor said that GRPS must improve academic achievement–particularly at the high school level. He further said that he is working towards offering an Early Resignation Incentive to Grand Rapids Education Association (GREA) members to reduce costs, offer multi-year contracts to principals, and consider switching to trimesters. He also announced a “Focus on Results” partnership that would elevate the status of teachers, support teachers and principals, and focus on improving student learning. Additionally, he said that a partnership with the Steelcase Foundation would further support these initiatives. The Centers of Innovation program that he announced earlier in the address will also incorporate a University Preparatory Academy, while other programs would include a Health Sciences school.
He addressed security, discipline, and truancy by announcing a variety of measures. He said that he would seek federal funding for additional surveillance cameras and would increase safety training for its employees. He further said that there needs to be a new Truancy ordinance from the Grand Rapids City Commission that would give police officers the authority to pick-up students and bring them back to school. He further said that public and private funders need to prioritize funding to support the GRPD, neighborhood associations, neighborhood block captains, and school public safety officers as part of a comprehensive effort to address truancy. He also called on the legislature to pass legislation increasing the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18.
Lastly, Taylor mentioned some of what the GRPS will do with regard to his third priority of creating “healthy, safe, and improved learning environments.” He expressed support for Granholm’s proposed “21st Century Schools Fund” as a means for funding continued physical improvements to GRPS. He also highlighted the recent process through which GRPS gathered public input to determine how GRPS’s high schools should be improved. He further said that he is encouraging the Board of Education to pursue a bond proposal to fund the project, in addition to other fundraising including government grants, private fundraising, Brownfield tax credits, New Market tax credits, and private fundraising. He also praised the Kent School Services Network that is operating in the district’s schools and said that he wants to bring it into the high schools. The program brings health and human services into the schools to serve students and their families, and Taylor said that it has been instrumental in lowering absences, increasing student health, and increasing parental involvement.