Kendall Alexander’s wide grin pretty much says it all: She loves going to Congress Elementary School.
“I like to read,” Kendall said the other morning as her father, Jamon, dropped her off for kindergarten. Her teacher, Mary Voogd, is pretty cool too, she adds. “I like when she reads a book to us.”
From learning to read and counting to 10 in Spanish, to playing her first notes on a violin, Kendall is enjoying herself in the East Hills neighborhood school. For Jamon and her mother, Jasmine, Kendall’s enthusiasm reaffirms their belief that Congress is the right school for her. After researching Congress and a local charter school, they chose Congress.
“We really wanted a school where our daughter could learn,” Jamon Alexander said. “We wanted a school that was diverse, not only racially and ethnically but socio-economically as well.”
They’ve found that and more at Congress, which this fall saw one of its largest kindergarten enrollment increases in years.
Their choosing Congress is one reason Grand Rapids Public Schools grew its fall enrollment for the first time in more than 20 years, according to district leaders. Student-count day on Oct. 5 showed an increase of 160 students over last fall, for a total enrollment of 16,840 full-time equivalent students.
“We made history today,” Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal declared in a press conference on the steps of the Rev. Lyman S. Parks Administration Building. “We can say once again that Grand Rapids Public Schools is growing. We are stable. We are ready.”
Transformation Plan Reunites Community
The upward bump halts two decades of decline in which the district averaged a loss of between 400 and 600 students per year, officials say. That’s resulted in a loss of some 1,000 jobs, closing more than 35 schools and some $100 million in budget cuts, Neal said. One year GRPS lost over 1,000 students, she noted.
By contrast, this fall’s enrollment grew by 135 students more than a projected increase of 25, adding about $1 million in per-student aid to district coffers, Neal said. It will be up to the Board of Education how to spend those extra dollars, but Neal said she would recommend some go to pay increases for teachers and other staff.
“I just think it’s the right thing for us to do, is to share the wealth,” Neal said in an interview. “It’s hard to do this work here in Grand Rapids. I think people should be rewarded for that.”
The increase signals public confidence the GRPS Transformation Plan is working, and opens the way for developing a third phase of that plan, she said.
“I think it is a huge turning point, to know we’ve actually stopped the flow of students (out of the district). We have more people coming to say, How can I join this family?”
People are coming not only to highly touted theme schools such as Blandford Nature Center, Museum School and the Montessori program, but to traditional neighborhood schools, officials say. After years of instability and “incredibly low” morale, Neal helped rally the community behind what is becoming one of the leading urban districts in the country, said Board of Education President Tony Baker.
“She and the entire GRPS team of educators have restored pride in GRPS,” Baker said. “We have reunited this community.
“People that used to leave, aren’t. They’re staying.”
School Success Bolsters City’s Prosperity
From a long-term perspective, this upward arc in a system that had 26,000 students in the late 1990s indicates a fundamental change of public perception, said Bert Bleke, a retired area schools administrator who was GRPS superintendent from 2002-06.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Bleke said. “Not that size alone is an indicator of quality. But the idea of finally ending that long-term decline in enrollment to me has a huge psychological impact. It demonstrates that people now have confidence in the system.”
Neal has been a key factor, said Bleke, under whom Neal worked as a trusted administrator. She has related well to all segments of the community, from parents to business leaders, he said. “The business community has really stepped up and made a huge contribution. If the business people believe in you, the rest of the community starts believing in you also.”
He also credits the district’s willingness to innovate with specialized programs and personalized options for students. “They’re able to paint a picture that we’re innovative, we’re creative, there will be a lot of opportunities for kids, and it’s safe and secure.”
The enrollment increase is good for the city of Grand Rapids as a whole, said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.
“I think it’s a testament to the incredible work GRPS is doing,” Bliss said. “The success of our city is directly tied to the success of our schools.”
Bliss meets monthly with Neal on ways the city and school system can work together. Those include environmental education projects and encouraging civic engagement in young people. Enhancing such opportunities bolsters the city’s goal to attract and retain young families living in the city, Bliss said.
“So often we’ve heard families move out of the city when they have children that start to reach school age,” she said. “To me this is an indication that trend could be turning around.”
‘There Was This Sense of Community’
For Jamon and Jasmine Alexander, living in the city and sending Kendall to public schools was an intentional and studied decision. Both are GRPS graduates, he from Ottawa and she from Creston. Their first home was in Kentwood, but they moved back to Grand Rapids to support the community and be part of the public schools, Jamon said.
When it came time for kindergarten, they narrowed Kendall’s possible schools to Congress and a charter in the city. They researched test scores and parental involvement, and toured the schools. Although they liked the charter, they liked even more about Congress: its diversity, its support from the business community and neighborhood association, and the fact Principal Erek Kooyman knew all his students by name.
Their decision was sealed by attending a Saturday night house party hosted by Congress parents for prospective parents. Kooyman talked about what Congress had to offer and parents shared their children’s experiences. Jamon and Jasmine liked what they heard and who they met.
“There was this sense of community that we felt like we were walking into,” said Jamon, adult program director at the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology.
The house parties have influenced other families to choose Congress, Kooyman said. Enrollment grew by 10 percent last year, and more modestly this fall with 181 students enrolled. The kindergartener influx took them from 1 ½ to two full kindergartens, he said.
“Being a small school, that’s a pretty good jump for us,” Kooyman said.
Jamon said they plan to keep Kendall in GRPS schools, and hope to enroll her in some of the theme schools such as Blandford, which he attended in sixth grade. He says the enrollment increase shows GRPS is doing a good job of providing programs to keep families like his in the city — and in the public schools.
“It gives me confidence that Superintendent Neal and her staff are moving things in the right direction,” he said. “I feel a sense of ownership. I just feel good being a part of it and being able to contribute to the success of our school district.”