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Equipping Students with More than Academics

Gerald R. Ford Academic Center’s Bengal tiger school mascot lets you know this school is different than the rest. It’s not just an image of a tiger, but a tiger wearing glasses and a graduation cap.

Besides preparation for college, the school focuses heavily on character building and positive behavior. And parental involvement is mandatory.

One of the most important factors in student success at school is parents who are truly involved with their children’s learning. It’s so important, the Ford Academic Center puts it on paper. The new school requires parents to sign a contract saying they’ll be actively involved in their child’s education, including participation at the school. Parents are expected to attend monthly parent meetings, sign-off on nightly homework and bi-weekly report cards, and be visible at events.

“This is not a school where you send your kids, and the teachers and principal do everything. Parents are very involved,” said Principal Jerry McComb, who was principal at the Coit Creative Arts Academy for five years before coming to Ford Academic Center.

The school at 851 Madison Ave., SE, is on the site of the former Madison Middle School, which President Gerald R. Ford attended. A new building was constructed in 2007, and it operated as a middle school until last year. The new Ford Academic Center has 205 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, with one classroom per grade. There are two split classrooms with third and fourth graders, and fourth and fifth graders.

The school runs on a positive behavior program, which sets high standards for the way students and staff work together and act in hallways, the cafetorium, the playground, restrooms, with guests, and more. Principal Jerry McComb explains how the school builds character

When the students walk into school on Monday mornings, they go straight to the gym, not their lockers, for a brief meeting. Principal McComb talks to them about the previous and coming weeks, teachers and students are given opportunities to speak, and all of them recite the school’s very own pledge.

When they leave the assembly, it’s a quiet exit. That’s because of a rule that makes people’s mouths drop: no talking in the halls.

“Students wave to their peers and parents,” if they pass them in the hall, said Synia Jordan, a mother and grandmother of students at the school and a Parent Action Leader (PAL), which is a group that helps educate and recruit parents and volunteers.

“Lunchtime is so impressive,” Jordan says. “They talk quietly, and clean up after themselves.” When lunch is over, Principal McComb dismisses them table by table.

Being quiet in the halls is one of many expectations at the school, as is the wearing of uniforms (becoming universal throughout GRPS). So are actions like saying “thank you,” “please” and “may I,” walking on the right side of the hall, greeting people with respect, using indoor voices and always using kind words.

McComb puts it this way: “Don’t be trash talking.” He doesn’t want to hear his students using slang because they need to have a good vocabulary.  He teaches students to look at people when they talk to them and to dress appropriately, especially on school trips, because they are representing Gerald R. Ford Academic Center.

“My biggest thing is to get our boys and girls on the right track,” McComb says.

Deanna Wilson is one parent who thinks that’s exactly what the new school is doing after seeing improvements in her son’s grades and attitude. “I’m blown away at my son right now,” says Wilson, a mother who is also a PAL and volunteers at the school two days a week.

“I like a small school,” she says. “It makes it personal. It makes it home.” 

Seventh-grade teacher Christy Price likes the highly structured format of the school and the parent involvement. “I believe you can’t go wrong with parents, teachers and students working together as a team. If we put in 100 percent and if they put in 100 percent, it will work.”

She recently heard an example of the positive attitude that fills the school from a student, who told her “There is no way to go but up.”

The school strives to create a caring atmosphere and environment. “You’ve got to build character, get to their hearts,” McComb says.

McComb, who knows most students by name, likes to ask them, “What can I do to make your day better?” He keeps a treasure chest in his office and when students get enough Bengal Bucks, they can pick out something from the chest, which is filled with stuffed animals, glow sticks, jump ropes, pens and many more items. Bengal Bucks are an incentive given to the kids for good attendance and positive behavior.

“He’s our Morgan Freeman from “Lean on Me,’ ” Jordan said, comparing McComb to the actor who starred in a movie about a dedicated principal working to improve an inner-city school.

Jordan says community support is another key to the school’s success. It partners with Our Kitchen Table, a non-profit serving the Grand Rapids area, helping people grow and prepare healthy food.  Eventually, volunteers want to sell produce from the school garden while teachers using the garden for science, math and art lessons.

Community involvement teaches other good lessons, according to Jordan. “Networking is a big part of being successful, she says. “You have to know who to go to.”

Enjoyable activities like Muffins with Moms, Donuts with Dads and Family Fun Nights, encourage the required parental involvement.  In addition to the fun (which might include the opportunity to throw a pie at the principal), educational workshops are offered for parents and students. “Attendance has been awesome,” Wilson says of the parent activities. “They want to come.”

McComb says the school is doing things that are truly different.  “We’re changing mindsets,” McComb said. “We’re changing the way kids have done things. And it’s working.”

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Gerald R. Ford Academic Center

Parent Action Leaders

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.

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