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Students Advise Superintendent on School Culture, Needs

It’s not often students get invited to lunch with the superintendent, and that they get a chance to ask about anything at school, but it happens frequently at Thornapple Kellogg schools.

Superintendent Tom Enslen has been periodically meeting with small groups of students in every grade since he started as superintendent four years ago. About a half dozen students at a time meet with him for a lunch of pizza and questions at their school buildings. It’s a way for him to explain how things in the district work, he said, and a chance for students to talk to him about what they like and dislike.

The meetings are started with asking students what they like about Thornapple Kellogg Schools. “Everyone cares, including the teachers,” said one student. “They like to help you.”

Enslen likes to hear that. “Every time I go to a building I hear about how they appreciate their teachers, and I can go back and tell their teachers,” he said. “That’s valuable information. Teachers don’t always get pats on the back. It makes them feel good for all their hard effort.”

Subjects like alcohol and drug use also have been discussed, and he’s been made aware of instances of bullying. What he hears, he says he shares with the staff.

“We need new science books,” a middle school student told him at a recent meeting. Comments like this give Enslen an opportunity to explain district-level thinking. The school is getting away from textbooks and doing more computer learning, he told the student. “This is why we have these conversations,” he said. “I can explain how things work.”

Anthony Clisso and a couple of others in the meeting complained about the age-old lunch food issue and said they would like different types of food. To this, Enslen — who admitted he loved junk food as a student — explained how the government regulates what the school offers.

Lunch Lightens the Atmosphere

The comments from students also can make Enslen aware of simple-to-fix problems that he otherwise wouldn’t know about: A window on bus #17 needed to be fixed, a student at the recent lunch told him. “I can follow up on that,” Enslen said. “This is how you help me.”

Anthony said he appreciated how many computers were available at school. “We have your parents to thank for that,” Enslen told them, using the question to explain how computers were among the items paid for by a $6 million bond issue approved in 2014.

Enslen quizzed the students on what they knew about the school system, including asking them how much they thought the state pays for each student in the district to fund their education. Answers started from less than $1,000. For every student the school has, it is paid $7,300 from the state, Enslen explained, adding the district operated on a $28 million budget.

Enslen spent 20 years as a teacher at every grade level, and said he came from a school where the halls were louder. “When I came here you could hear a pin drop in the halls,” he said. To him it seemed too quiet for a school, and he thinks holding the meetings has made him more accessible to students and lightened up the atmosphere. “I like that energy,” he said.

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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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