Providing ‘safe spaces’ for students of every kind to learn

Principal takes on additional post to nurture equity in student success

At Collins Elementary, where Mitch Balingit has been principal for nine years, nearly a dozen languages are spoken among the student body

Mitch Balingit knows what it’s like to feel different.

A native of the Philippines, the Collins Elementary School principal was an English-language learner as an elementary student at the first U.S. school he attended, in Southern California.

“I was ashamed to have anyone get to know my culture,” he said. “There are kids who, I know, still have those feelings.

“If you don’t feel safe coming into a situation, you can’t learn,” he added.

Balingit, who also has been a teacher at Kentwood Public Schools and an administrator at Grand Rapids Public Schools — both very diverse districts — hopes to put that experience to work as Forest Hills’ new director of student success and equity. The role is in addition to his principal post at Collins.

Mitch Balingit

“Equity in school success is something I have worked on continually,” Balingit said. “Every teacher, every administrator, every staff member … needs to be involved with how we prepare students to be more culturally aware. What we want to do is find out how we can create and nurture those safe spaces so everyone is given the same opportunities to learn.

One of the first items of business, Balingit said, “is to hit the pause button. To say, hey, how are we doing in all these areas of equity and inclusion?”

“It’s OK for us to say we don’t know. What’s not OK is for us to say, ‘That’s where we need to stay.’ ”

Pause and Assess

The district already has conducted school culture surveys and focus groups with families, students and staff, as well as an audit of textbooks and other materials. That data is now being analyzed by the Cultural Intelligence Center.

‘What we want to do is find out how we can create and nurture those safe spaces so everyone is given the same opportunities to learn.’ — Mitch Balingit, Forest Hills’ director of student success and equity.  

The East Lansing-based center provides research-based tools, training and assessments for organizations and educational communities to build “cultural intelligence” — the ability to relate and work effectively with people from different nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, age groups and more.

Other clients include the U.S. Department of the Interior; Harvard University; and locally, Kent County, Herman Miller, Steelcase and Holland Christian Schools.

“This is about how we create environments where we can be who we are, take risks, state our opinions and learn from others,” Balingit said. “My vision for us as administrators is to be able to have conversations about what we are good at, and what we can improve on.

“We are not going to be able to stop things from happening, but we want to be able to learn from it and move forward.”

A summary and action suggestions from Cultural Intelligence Center is expected soon that will illustrate how students and families rate the district.

“I think it will validate where we have programs that are working, and also tell us where we have gaps and programs that aren’t effective,” said Superintendent Dan Behm. “I think any time organizations work with a third-party expert, we can uncover blind spots and also have a better understanding of where our strengths are, and our opportunities for growth.”

All Families Need a Voice

Efforts toward equity and inclusion that have already taken place or are ongoing include:

  • K-12 Global Learners Initiative, in place for more than a decade, and the six-day Champions program, which has trained more than 400 adults to date and also includes a Global Scholars element for students
  • PTO groups’ inclusion discussions
  • Staff diversity training through the Institute for Healing Racism. More than 50 have been held so far
  • District and building administrators book study
  • Multi-school student workshops
  • Family Alliance, an action-oriented group open to parents and families to build equitable environments

At Collins Elementary, where Balingit has been principal for nine years, nearly a dozen languages are spoken among the student body. Districtwide, students of color comprise about 20 percent of the population: about 5 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 3 percent who identify as Native American and other ethnicities.

“We have a reputation of being very homogenous at Forest Hills, but we have a diverse student population.” Balingit said. “And those families need a voice.”

There’s also economic diversity. More than 1,000 students in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch, Behm said. “We’ve looked a lot at how we reduce stigma when kids who come from less economic means are side-by-side with students who come from more affluent households.”

Behm said he’s already been pleased with how Balingit has seized the added role. Behm described his “innate ability to make anyone feel welcome and to feel joyful. He’s just one of those people that other people are smiling around.”

Behm also cited Balingit’s leadership experience.

“Mitch isn’t someone who only has strong visions; he’s a doer. He makes things happen. And he can do that in a way that brings people in. His ability to get things done doesn’t threaten people; it causes people to want to be a part of making something happen. He’s a team-builder, that’s for sure.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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