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Schoolhouse Rocks

Board Members Unbreakable Force for Public Education

Wendy Falb vividly remembers cleaning the filthy steps of Fountain School one day, back when her older son attended Montessori School there. Fixing up the old school was one of her many volunteer tasks as a self-described “tiger mom.”

“My child’s teacher was like, ‘Wendy, I think there’s a different calling for you here at this school,’” Falb recalls with a laugh.

Indeed there was. Before long, Falb was elected to the Grand Rapids Board of Education, in 2009. She is now serving her second term, which ends in 2018, and her second stint as board president. In this role she is tiger mom to not only her two sons at City High/Middle School, but to the nearly 17,000 students in GRPS.

Editor’s note: While the nearly 95,000 public-school students of the Kent ISD go about studying and striving each day, in the background are school board members running their 20 school districts. They do their unglamorous work in evening public meetings and on tedious committees, hearing more complaints than praise for modest stipends. Today, School News Network talks to three board members, Wendy Falb of Grand Rapids, Pat Nugent of Lowell, and Allen Young of Kentwood, about how and why they serve.

Advice from a Veteran

Andrea Haidle is president of the Kent ISD Board of Education, where she has served since 1999. She also served on the East Grand Rapids school board from 1992 to 2000, and was honored for her work with a YWCA Tribute Award in 2015. Here she offers her thoughts on being an effective school board member.

On supporting students’ education:

In making any decision at the board level, I think the most important consideration that any school board member should remember is, “Is it good for the students in my district?” If you keep your focus on that (and that can involve many types of decisions, if not all), you are headed in the right direction.

On shaping education policy:

A school board member needs to be informed about the issue at hand, and to make contacts with one’s legislator. The best way to present a case is to clarify for that legislator exactly how this bill will impact one’s district. This takes some amount of time and effort, but if you want to make a difference, it is vital. I have my own personal rule that no matter how incensed I may be about something (and there have been a few of those), dignity and decorum are always the rules by which I present information. That is, “no rants.” It is also important to say thank you when they have listened. A relationship with a legislator is the most important key, even if they do not always agree with you.

I hope via this “modus operandi” I have made a difference in a few things … but I wish there would have been more.

She still feels it’s a kind of calling, although tougher than scrubbing the stairs. Despite the dramatic gains the district has made in recent years, Falb sees a “fragility” in urban public schools struggling with poverty and more. School boards constantly contend with many different perspectives — from parents, staff, legislators and others.

“So often those perspectives are at odds, and the potential for breakdown is always huge,” Falb says. “I really feel my work is to try to see all those perspectives and hold them together, and discern a way forward based on those perspectives.”

She’s speaking in her office at the Literacy Center of West Michigan, where she is executive director. Overseeing the tutoring in English of adults, some of them parents of GRPS immigrant students, returns her to her original field of teaching. A graduate of Calvin College, she taught English as a graduate student at Boston College and at a technical school there before returning to West Michigan. She was an adjunct at Calvin and Grand Valley State University and earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State University.

Raised in Hudsonville, she attended Christian schools where she played flute in the band and was active in theater and debate. “I was an overachiever,” she admits with a smile. “I loved school. I love that educational moment.”

From Parent Advocate to Board President

That love of learning has sustained her since, from teacher to Montessori PTO leader to board member, and through two bouts of breast cancer.

“Education changes who you are and your relationship to the rest of the world,” Falb says. “It gives you curiosity, so you can learn and go deeper into the world.”

Her passion for education drove her to become active in the Montessori schooling of her sons, Karl and Peter. She became a strong proponent of Grand Rapids Public Schools and urged her neighbors to enroll their children in them. “People would run from me when they had strollers,” she jokes.

But she wasn’t laughing when she argued before the school board that it shouldn’t close the old Iroquois School, where the Montessori program was then located. After the meeting, she says, then Superintendent Bert Bleke pulled her aside and said, “You should run for the board.”

She eventually did, prodded by board member Tony Baker and by her conviction that she could make a difference.

“From the first few months of putting my child in Grand Rapids Public Schools, it was so clear to me how undervalued the school system was,” as well as the teachers and students, she says. “How much was there, and how much more could be accomplished if more support was given. The work was so doable, and the consequences of not doing the work were pretty serious.”

But after being elected she found herself in a tumultuous time, as relations between then Superintendent Bernard Taylor and the teachers union were at a low point. “It was really painful,” she recalls. “I had no idea what I was walking into.”

Pat Nugent, Lowell Area Schools
For Pat Nugent, public service is a good fit both personally and professionally. As the senior school board member he has now served under three superintendents. A math and history teacher at West Catholic High since 1993, Nugent called the board “a natural place where I can put my skills to use in the community.”

Allen Young, Kentwood Public Schools
If Board of Education Vice President Allen Young was standing in front of a classroom, he would tell students to never give up. He would tell them to use the “Kentwood grit” for which the the district is known, and which he himself has used plenty of. “I would love for them, whatever dream they have, to make sure they follow it.”

Steep Learning Curve, but Rewarding

However, she says the district has been on “a great trajectory” under Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, whom she calls “an extraordinary gift” to the district. Still, the state of urban schools remains fragile, ever threatened by funding cuts and the push for charters and vouchers coming from the Trump administration, she cautions. And she has learned difficult lessons about the sometimes “irreconcilable perspectives” of different racial and ethnic groups.

“It has deepened my understanding of structural racism in Grand Rapids, and how much work needs to happen,” she says. “’I’m very grateful for that.”

Along with the constant need to absorb new information about the finances and governance of a 50-school district, she adds, “It’s a big learning curve for $300 a month.”

Asked what she would say to a class of high school students about the importance of education, Falb takes a long pause. Then she speaks of the tools school offers students to grow and gain competency for life.

“Don’t shy away from this opportunity in school,” she says she would tell them. “Get everything you can out of it, so that you can be that leader,” whether in marriage, family, church, community or work. “Be that person who knows how to learn, and knows how to lead.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive 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 and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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