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Student for a Day: Lawmaker Learns about Schools from the Inside

No sooner had Michigan state Rep. Peter MacGregor returned to school for the first time in 32 years than he found himself taking a vocabulary quiz at Northview High School.

“I was sand-bagged,” MacGregor cracked after he scored 74 percent on the Advanced Placement English class quiz, correctly answering 14 of 19 questions. “Those kids are already smarter than me.”

Things went more smoothly in the afternoon, when MacGregor attended classes at West Oakview Elementary.

It was all part of a day-long experience of going back to school at the invitation of a Northview student.

The Republican representative for Michigan House District 73, recently elected to the state Senate, said his return to school will help him evaluate education policy.

“I can tell you all about the Department of Human Services and Appropriations (Committee), but when it comes to policy, you have to get out there,” MacGregor said as buses and parents picked up West Oakview students after school.  “You have to get out and experience some of this stuff. So I recommend spending a day in your school district – all day, not just one or two hours.”

MacGregor spent more than eight hours in Northview schools and went to a football game that evening. Local education leaders hope he learned more than vocabulary.

Chris Glass, a lobbyist for WestMichigan intermediate school districts, said inviting legislators into schools accomplishes more than just talking to them when controversies arise.

“It’s really painting a clear picture of who you are, what you do and why it’s important so they have a better perspective,” Glass said. He hopes to get every area legislator into a school in the next year.

Students Issue Challenge  Principal Tricia Hampel accompanies MacGregor on his way to class

MacGregor’s mid-October visit was prompted by high school student Lucas Story, who issued a video challenge on behalf of B.J. Schroder’s English class. Schroder said he asked Lucas to help him create the video after hearing education reformer Jamie Vollmer say how much spending a day in school changed his perspective.

“My hope was that this would have some sort of domino effect that allowed legislators to see the hard work that we put in every day, that the kids put in every day, and not to discount educators, administrators and the support staff,” Schroder said.

MacGregor accepted the challenge, also by video, saying on camera, “It’ll be a whole lot better than sitting in a room with adults talking about budget.”

Local education officials hope the visit will influence MacGregor when he’s talking about school budgets and policies. Northview Superintendent Mike Paskewicz, who regularly pushes MacGregor and other lawmakers about the need for more funding, said in 40 years as an educator he can’t recall a legislator spending a full day in a school district. He told MacGregor, “Your commitment is valued and appreciated.”

From Calculus to Choir  

A member of the House Appropriations Committee, MacGregor represents districts in Cedar Springs, Comstock Park, East Grand Rapids and Rockford in addition to Northview. Two of his children graduated from Rockford and one is still in high school. His wife was a paraprofessional at Meadow Ridge Elementary.

His back-to-school day began at 7 a.m. and a meeting with Lucas, whom he gave a U.S. flag from the Capitol. The rest of his morning included classes in criminalistics, chorale, AP calculus, art and government. In the latter, students asked him about how bills get processed and what’s being done about lousy roads.

He spent the afternoon at West Oakview, home to 378 pre-K through fourth-grade students. He visited all grades, including a kindergarten with children in the Kent County Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program. Teachers talked to him about class sizes, parents’ challenges at home and students with special needs.

“I could never do what these teachers do,” he said later. “I don’t have the skill set or the courage they have.”

Reading Program Impresses

He paid close attention in Mary Lou Ohnsman’s third-grade classroom, where she demonstrated the school’s reading workshop method. The approach includes periodic testing of students’ reading levels, individual help from a reading specialist and Aquinas College tutors, and students reading to themselves for long periods. MacGregor watched as Ohnsman read to them from “Sarah Plain and Tall,” then worked with two students individually.

MacGregor later said the strategy impressed him and caused him to rethink proposed legislation to hold back third-graders not reading at grade level.

“I don’t know if what’s proposed is the right solution,” MacGregor said. “I am glad we still have time to dig deeper and learn more.”

Principal Tricia Hampel said she urged MacGregor to consider the reading program’s effectiveness in a high-poverty school like hers.

MacGregor observes a reading lesson in Ohnsman’s third-grade classroom

“If something’s working in a school, why can’t we use that?” Hampel said. “I don’t think it works when you come down from the state and say ‘this is how you’re doing your reading program.’”

All in all, MacGregor said the day educated him about what goes on in quality districts like Northview, as opposed to the “horror stories” about some schools he hears in Lansing.

“This is perfect for me,” MacGregor said. “Before, I’m trusting colleagues or other experts on their opinion. But now I can start to form my own opinion and come up with my own questions, because of the experience I’ve had here.”

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Rep. Peter MacGregor accepts challenge to attend Northview schools

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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