The Rapidian

Dear GRPS - It's Time For A Big Change

This week’s news about no mask requirement for unvaccinated students in the fall is the latest example of chaotic, inequitable, and deeply insulated decision-making. It’s time for a parent advisory subcommittee to bring real accountability to our children’s education system.
Franklin Campus - the administrative building for GRPS

Franklin Campus - the administrative building for GRPS /Marta Johnson

Participate in the next GRPS Board Meeting (June 7th)

Board information is available here:

GRPS Board meetings have been live streamed this year on Facebook; tune in and make your voice heard. Be sure to email ahead of time to request to be added to the public comment section of the meeting: [email protected]

Response from GRPS superintendent to a parent (who has requested to remain unnamed) asking about safety precautions this fall

Response from GRPS superintendent to a parent (who has requested to remain unnamed) asking about safety precautions this fall /Anonymous

About four years ago I was spending my time in community conversations, encouraging fellow parents to consider Campus Elementary, our neighborhood school in the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) district. In fact, every friend that was a parent would hear loads of encouragement to send their children to GRPS. Many joined me in becoming a GRPS parent, and of those that haven’t already left disillusioned, many are now considering leaving the district. Even I, the former cheerleader for the district, is questioning that choice.

This pandemic didn’t create new problems. Instead, it made obvious the problems parents were already struggling with on their own. These problems desperately need to be fixed but we currently have no real mechanism to start that work. Parents do not have a collective voice with the district.

But we could.

To rebuild trust, GRPS will need to start with a foundation of transparency and true inclusion of parent voices in the decision making process. 

One of the ways the foundation of trust has been crumbling is the lack of information and parent voice inclusion during decisions about how to keep our children safe during a pandemic while also providing their education. Parents were left ill-informed and excluded again just last week, when GRPS announced that parents will have two options: 100% in person or virtual, available only to those with a documented medical condition. The news came without any details as to what the safety plans are for either option. When pressed for what this would mean so parents can make an informed decision, GRPS superintendent Dr. Leadriane Roby emailed a parent that no masks would be required in the fall for anyone, and no details as to what virtual options would look like. 

This plan puts all kids at risk, most especially those at higher risk for complications. Conditions like asthma, which have a 40% higher incidence in Black communities, are included in these lists of higher risks.

Decision making and communication like this has been pervasive throughout the pandemic. Throughout the year, decisions were chaotic and not convincingly designed to prioritize our kid’s safety or development. For example, in September 2020 we were sent a commitment form for hybrid in-person or continued virtual with no details on what either option entailed--and given just a week to make a commitment. There was a lot of pushback about the lack of details and no prior surveys on what we would like hybrid in-person or virtual options to look like. All of this was happening while our community numbers were climbing and parents experienced two last minute changes as the district delayed.

Beyond the obvious issues with this past year, the entire district provides such uneven experiences, which also has eroded trust.

GRPS seemingly has some great options: zoo school, museum school, Montessori schools, and a consistently top ranked school with an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, City Middle and High School. These “theme schools” and other options seem to have been created to stop the flight to the suburbs because of a stressed city school system.

What is more obvious though, once you start to engage with the district, is that there is no guarantee your child will be able to access these special schools. Further, there is a huge difference in the experience at a special, magnet school and a neighborhood school. Even more depressing? There is a clear racial disparity between those that go to neighborhood schools and special, magnet schools.

Unfortunately the pandemic only exacerbated these problems, and also highlighted why this disparity in equitable access to quality education options has been so hard to change, despite community efforts to do so.

If you are a parent in the district, you may have been relieved and frustrated that your child wasn’t going to be sent back in the fall of 2020 into a building with a more than likely outdated HVAC system. However, despite this being a safer option health-wise, when parents came together to try to address the inequities of this last summer, there was a refusal to both hear the nature of these real complaints and explore ways that parents could support solutions with the district.

Plenty of other districts pursued small group supported instruction (Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor as two specific examples), but Grand Rapids was unwilling to even consider that or supported outdoor classes. Their “risk assessment” legal team said that it was out of the question. Nothing beyond one phone call with GRPS Executive Director of Communications & External Affairs John Helmholdt came out of the entire effort to help this district make education more accessible to working family households expected to return to a normal workload and facilitate their child’s education.

Working families were expected to just do largely undefined and completely unsupported school work on top of their existing expectations to produce paid work at normal levels. Any complaints or concerns to the district about being fully not prepared or able to do this were met by the district with “this is hard for everyone” and “we’re all on a team.”

We are very much not on a team. At least, parents are not valued members of this team. Parent concerns and ideas, which could help improve our schools and stop the flight away from the district, simply are not engaged seriously.

It boils down to a few central issues, both related to how the pandemic response was handled and to the deeper organizational issues experienced pre-pandemic.

  1. There is too much denial or refusal to believe that problems are problems. Parents have raised concerns repeatedly about safety conditions during the pandemic or lack of resources for schools even long before the pandemic happened, especially neighborhood schools. When the district excuses away HVAC concerns with a reference to old HVAC inspections, while parents know the lived experience of heat not working at their child’s school (which in a pandemic also indicates air circulation not happening), it’s obvious there isn’t a real interest in helping solve problems.

    Another non-pandemic example is the state of the playground at Campus Elementary. Situated right next to the administrative building for GRPS, the playground for Campus Elementary was frequently covered in caution tape because the bottom was literally falling out from some of the play structures. Parents of Campus students have complained for years about the state of the playground as well as the lack of an easy way for students to access it (look at these kids trying to access their playground in the winter sometime, even today!).

    As a parent in the community and with a prospective student I expressed concern and excitement about helping raise funds to fix it in a meeting a few years back with Bridget Cheney, GRPS Executive Director of Pre-K, Elementary, & K-8 Instructional Support, and then-principal of Campus Elementary, Bernard Colton. Ms. Cheney looked me in the eye and said “it was the best playground in the district” and refused to consider any attempts to improve it. Shocked at the audacity of referencing a playground with caution tape as the best in the district, I gave her two chances to reconsider: no, she knew I wasn’t talking about the newer playground for younger kids and yes, she knew I was talking about the one currently with caution tape.

    This experience of such a blatant lie from district leadership, destroyed almost any remaining hope I had for working with GRPS to get resources and support for my local neighborhood school. Because this school was also predominantly attended by Black students, it told me everything I needed to know about how much they truly were committed to equity and inclusion.

    Every parent complaint isn’t an attack on the district. Instead of denying problems exist, we need a district that has a culture that embraces opportunities to improve schools.

  2. There is a lack of transparency and accountability that urgently needs to be corrected. This is where the rebuilding can start. I can’t speak for all parents, but there needs to be much more transparency around what problems parents are bringing to GRPS and how the district is solving them. As a parent that deeply values the perspective of educators, I’d also like to see some transparency around the issues that teachers have.

    Currently we are all directed to our principals with any questions or concerns. This creates an even deeper burden on neighborhood school principals, which in turn deepens the differentiation between schools with fewer resources and those with more resources. Principals with fewer resources are spread thin trying to solve problems that should lie in the district’s hands to repair, as evidenced by my neighborhood school’s playground covered in caution tape. Neighborhood schools already are required to do more work to serve students in poverty. Adding another requirement just adds another task to be dropped.

    A fellow parent at GR Montessori, who has opted for in-person education, has contacted our principal to encourage the school to embrace the practice of opening windows to reduce opportunities for viruses to spread. Studies have shown that open windows are much better in terms of diluting viruses and the HVAC system in our school is grossly out of date. The principal of the school indicated that she would pass it on to her superiors, but has yet to respond with a resolution. An email to Dr. Roby afterwards still hasn't received a response. Perhaps our principal hasn’t either.

    What does transparency and accountability look like for this? It doesn’t mean apologizing: we’ve already received many apologies or statements of responsibility. To be frank, many parents are beyond apologies. We need to see changed behavior.

  3. District-wide standards informed by stakeholders. While I applaud giving principals some room to innovate within their own schools, the pandemic has highlighted the clear limits to that.

    From an equity perspective, it’s critical to ensure that every child has access to a safe environment. While every child deserves a school that has a modern HVAC system and well-considered protocols, it is especially critical for our higher risk kids with compromised immune systems, diabetes, asthma, and congenital heart disease. It deserves being stated again: Black children are 40% more likely to have asthma, and certainly deserve equitable consideration.

    It is deeply unfair for principals to be forced to create their own protocols, both to them as employees and the students being sent into these buildings. With no judgement at all, I do wonder what courses could have ever prepared them for this task? Again, it creates inequitable experiences between schools based on how much capacity a principal has in making building-wide protocols.

So here’s what I think the solution is, and what would make me consider staying: a parent advisory subcommittee to be established through the board of directors. Currently we rely on PALS, made up of parent representatives that are recruited by GRPS and paid a stipend for their time by GRPS. The problem with the PALS system is that it is dependent on how engaged the school’s PTCC and PTO/PTA groups are on issues beyond fundraising. So many parent groups tend to focus on things like fundraising, that they can create a rewarding outcome--unlike their experiences attempting to make change--instead of continuing to attempt to organize parents to yell into a void about problems they want to help fix. 

This committee needs to be representative of parents in the district and be provided with a framework that likely needs funding from the board. The work of Karen Mapp, Ed.D at Dual Capacity, is one option that specifically rises to the top for urban school districts with our issues. Part of what makes Dr. Mapp such a unique resource is her direct experience as a Deputy Superintendent in Boston, developing frameworks from experience in that district to improve schools alongside parents and the community. Her resources are focused on building trust, which is a crucial need for many parents at this point. 

This subcommittee needs to 

  • be representative of GRPS parents throughout the district 

  • partner with the district leaders

  • be run and supported through the school board

if it is going to be successful.

I encourage all fellow parents to ask for the establishment of such a committee in advance or at the next board meeting. Board information is available here:

GRPS Board meetings have been live streamed this year on Facebook; tune in and make your voice heard. Be sure to email ahead of time to request to be added to the public comment section of the meeting: [email protected]

Parents and community members can also contact their school board members:

Jen Schottke  [email protected]
Dr. José A. Flores [email protected]
John Matias, Min., M.A. [email protected]
Tony Baker, PhD [email protected]
Raynard Ross [email protected]
Katherine Downes Lewis [email protected]
Kristian Grant [email protected]
Kymberlie Davis [email protected]
Kimberley Williams [email protected]



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