A rare charter partnership: Autonomous but accountable

Focusing intently on their work are, from left, first-graders Ruby Heyne, Lila Parisian and Kerith Tanner

The Grand Rapids Child Development Center is located in the former GRPS Vandenberg School at 409 Lafayette Ave. SE.  The charter school bought it from the district for $490,000 in 2011 and moved from its former location on the city’s West Side. The school was founded by parents and educators who had been working with the Reggio philosophy at the Aquinas College Child Development Center and wanted to continue the approach in a grade school.

The school operates autonomously but is accountable to GRPS. Lisa Heyne, its executive director, reports to an independent seven-member board whose members are approved by the GRPS board. GRCDC teachers are members of the GREA teachers’ union, but they are hired by Heyne and her board, who also control the budget and curriculum. GRPS must re-authorize the charter every three years, and Heyne meets quarterly with district administrators.

Main story: A school where students work together and speak 100 languages

First-grader Callie Hill reads a book after completing a class exercise

“I feel we have the best of both worlds,” Heyne said. “We have this beautiful flexibility and autonomy, with oversight from a district and a partner that we’re committed to.”

The school is funded by the state’s per-pupil foundation grant, with 3 percent going to GRPS as an administrative fee. About 46 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and about 40 percent are students of color. Fifty-seven percent of third- through fifth-graders scored proficient in last year’s M-STEP English language arts test, and 43 percent in math — both above the state averages.

Enrollment is open to any student in Kent County or beyond, and they are chosen by lottery. Only one slot is open for next fall, in fourth grade, but Heyne says there is lots of room on their waiting list and that students are often enrolled over the summer. Parents may apply by going to the school website and clicking on “enrollment.”

The district features GRCDC at its theme-school expos, and is working on cooperative agreements around faculty training and food service, said Matthew Beresford, GRPS executive director of pre-K-8 and theme schools. He said many families drawn to the charter send their children on to GRPS theme schools such as Montessori and the Museum School.

“It is very child-centered, and a creative way of teaching and learning,” Beresford said. “We like that that option exists within the city’s core.”

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's full bio.

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