Comments on the GRPS Transformation Plan

Below is the complete text of my comments in support of the Grand Rapids Public submitted for the record on November 11, 2012.

Superintendent Neal, Board President Lenear, GRPS Board of Education members, District Staff,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the GRPS Transformation Plan. I have met some of you before. For those who don’t know me, for six years now, I’m a Creston area homeowner, a GRPS parent of two boys at North Park Montessori, a former PTA officer, and current participant in the reforming and expanding the GRPS Montessori PK–12 program.

First off, I find the plan as published to be thoughtful and comprehensive. Your process is collaborative, open, professional. As you finalize the details, I would like you to consider my remarks on these topics:

  1. Support the Expansion of North Park to Montessori PK-8
  2. Grow the Montessori program by building the base with Children’s House
  3. Keep Central HS as the site for current Montessori MS/HS program
  4. Repurpose the Creston High School site
  5. Providing migration resources for displaced students and their families

There are also additional reference materials at the end of this letter to support some of my remarks.

Support the Expansion of North Park to Montessori PK-8

The primary question here is ‘Can the district support two PK-8 programs?’ The answer is ‘Yes, as long as we build the base over the long-term starting with Children’s House and Lower Elementary.’

The PK-8 model is a successful one for Montessori, both public and private. The curriculum work is mature. There are several PK–8 Montessori schools here in Michigan in Spring Lake, Ann Arbor, Monroe and Dearborn. With the GRPS embracing the K-8 model for its overall elementary program, it’s a natural fit to support Montessori in the same configuration.

Planning for growth into the Middle/High School grades has been addressed before with two plans commissioned by the GRPS in 2000 and 2011. Both called for growing the grade 7/8 headcount of 130 to 160+ grade to sustain a 200+ student grade 9–12.  By offering Montessori PK-8 at both sites, GRPS provides the Grand Rapids community an equal set of choices for their child’s education and creates two distinct feeders for the Montessori 9–12 program at Central HS.

But is there demand? Your own market research from 2011 shows there is a high level of awareness and interest in Montessori education–equaled only by City. Also shown in your own research data, you will retain parents and students by creating and maintaining a Montessori environment. The Superintendent’s commitment to teacher training will build a professional foundation.

Montessori Coordinator NIkki Jones is working to insure robust instruction and professional practices at the elementary level will improve student performance and retention into Middle School at Central. Through the Montessori Advisory Council, our staff stepping up as professionals to challenge and provide support for each other which will pay off in the classroom. Based a few short exchanges this past week, I am certain your teachers will get behind this change.

Based on the immediate, positive response from our Montessori parent community, My sense is North Park will sustain two additional grades if typical Middle School amenities such as band/orchestra, athletics, middle school clubs are provided in addition to rigorous Montessori instruction. On a persnal note, my sixth-grade son and his upper elementary friends are excited that they will be in school together for two more years.

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Grow the Montessori program by building the base with Children’s House

As  you all know, research has shown over and over that early childhood education is the best investment in the future success of a child.  Please add more Children’s House sections to insure a growing program based on proven student excellence for any child regardless of race and income.

Montessori education is most successful when there is a flow from Children’s House upward into Elementary and then Secondary. North Park has wait lists. Fountain has wait lists. Over 100 years ago, the Montessori method was developed to meet the needs of those most disadvantaged. If you are serious about growing a robust offering of public Montessori, please start with expanding Children’s House.

As Grand Rapids population becomes more socio-economically diverse, a montessori early childhood program would be a powerful recruiting tool and visible equalizer in our community. Urban public school districts in Milwaukee, WI; Longview, TX; and East Dallas, TX; have all invested heavily in Children’s House with direct, measurable outcomes in terms of student success regardless of race and income. The city of Vancouver, BC has Children’s House in many of its elementary schools to meet the needs of its international population who recognize the value of a Montessori education early in life.

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Keep Central HS as the site for current Montessori MS/HS program

Regarding a conversation around closing Central instead of Creston. While I don’t have a sense that this is being considered seriously by GRPS leadership, I do want to state that this would be a serious misstep. The Fountain building is at capacity for PK-6. Closing Central would mean moving grades 7-12 somewhere else if not on the Central campus. Creston has been suggested as a site, but, it lacks the outdoor space integral to Montessori Adolescent education as we have at the Central campus.

The Fountain/Central campus provides the outdoor space for creating an Urban Agriculture component—Erdkinder— that is a cornerstone to most Montessori Adolescent programs. We are starting partnerships with GVSU, the YMCA, and  Medical Mile organizations for a community garden managed by our students.

The COI consolidation plan with Montessori 7-12 at Central is the right plan of action. I support these actions because a fully populated Central build while create synergies through each of the 5 schools through of shared services and staff with better access to district partners. This ‘Small School/Sane School’ strategy is have a great deal of success elsewhere in the US—a link is provided in the resources section of this letter. As a parent I find this it a compelling having all of these varied programs in the same building, sharing resources with  access to the richness of downtown museums, colleges, universities, libraries, performing arts, and businesses as their campus. I would love to see a school play on campus or a concert at St. Cecilia populated by students from these 5 different schools.

My one caveat is that I would like to see recruitment goals for the entire building to insure all five schools will be able to mature without having to move again in a few years. Currently, the Montessori program has been planning to grow to 350-400 7–12 grade students in the next 5 years. The Schools of Health Technology; Business, Leadership & Entrepreneurship; and Applied Design and Construction programs to Central, brings 700 students under the COI umbrella. Will this site hold 1300–1500 students when the programs mature?

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Repurpose the Creston High School site

I want to add my support to the discussion of moving City MS/HS to the Creston site. It will allow for a full IB program to put in place with additional classrooms, performing arts spaces and athletic facilities. The program can blossom in a way that it never will at the Fuller site–a property that may be easier to divest.

But, City MS/HS can’t fill a 1400 seat building on its own. The Northeast side still needs a destination for its 4 neighborhood schools that serve K-8 students: Aberdeen, Kent Hills, Palmer, Riverside. A 300–500 student 9-12 traditional program must be a part of the equation at the Creston site. After attending the Creston community meeting on 11/1/2012, I was very impressed with the +40 Creston students who attended or spoke. They had a strong sense of civic engagement, with respect for the Superintendent and passion for their cause. They wanted to own their situation.

This level of engagement is a powerful starting point when trying to remake a school, especially given that Creston and City MS/HS  already collaborate with athletics and theatrical productions. These kids are my neighbors. If we do right by them, they will do the same for the Creston neighborhood.

Long term, planning for a successful Creston, City, Palmer, Kent Hills, Riverside, Aberdeen, and North Park Montessori will create anchor points to encourage emigration back to this area of the city by those who left for the suburban rings. These actions will revive the Plainfield corridor. if carried out as a community-centered action, the GRPS will promote socio-economic diversity as you provide with educational excellence.

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Providing migration resources for displaced students and their families

I have a personal concern for the families of North Park traditional and their reassignment to Aberdeen. To sustain the long-term success of the final transformation plan, It would be valuable for the GRPS to develop migration resources and encourage local communities impacted by consolidation and re-purposing of schools to collaborate in the process.

PTOs, PTCCs, GREA, neighborhood associations, church groups, and other volunteers should all be enlisted to avoid creating a diaspora of disenfranchised families and teachers. Ideally to have classrooms—both students and teachers—migrate as whole units, at least for the first year, would help minimize the anxiety of a new building of our parents. Also, what of the schools receiving these new families, how will they be prepared? a district sponsored potluck or family night would be a great gesture.

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Its an exciting time in the GRPS. People don’t just choose schools, they choose communities. If we change our schools we will change our city. Thank you for your time and consideration.

With regards,

Matthew Patulski

Additional reference materials

GRPS commissioned Montessori reports

Below is a link to a library containing  the three studies and surveys the GRPS has commissioned to build a sustainable Montessori PK-12 program. This includes the 2000 program assessment, 2000 master plan, the 2011 MS/HS proposal, and 2011 Market Research. You can view online or download as PDFs.

Outcomes of Montessori  elementary in urban public school setting

East Dallas Community Schools:

Milwaukee Public Schools:
2006 Lilliard Study:

2011 NAACP assessment of Milwaukee public Montessori  successes in key subject areas:

Montessori and Autism

This article makes several good points about Montessori and its value in an Autism Spectrum Disorder environment. You may want to keep the ASD program at North Park:

Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools

I also want to make you all aware of the ‘Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools’ report from 2007. This report makes the case for multiple small to mid-sized High Schools. From the abstract:

This report provides a summary of research on small schools and shared facilities showing that, on average, smaller schools provide a safer and more challenging school environment that leads to higher academic achievement and graduation rates, fewer disciplinary problems, and greater satisfaction for families, students, and teachers. Also includes 22 case studies of public schools in 11 states, representing urban, suburban, and rural communities; district-run and charter public schools; and co-housing of almost 50 schools and social service agencies. These studies document the ability of smaller schools to improve academic achievement and behavior in safe, nurturing, and stimulating environments.

The studies further suggest that sharing facilities with other organizations can enable schools to offer broader learning opportunities for students, provide higher quality services to suggest that sharing facilities with other organizations can enable schools to offer broader learning opportunities for students, provide higher quality services to students and their families, and present a way to efficiently use tax dollars.

You can read the full study here:

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