In the almost 40 years the U.S. Department of Education has been recognizing exemplary elementary, middle and high schools as National Blue Ribbon Schools, a GRPS school had never been so honored.
That “never” became a first in 2019 when City High/Middle School broke the drought for GRPS and earned a spot on the list of 362 schools nationwide, including just three high schools in Michigan, newly named Blue Ribbon Schools.
The program honors schools for either overall academic excellence or for progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups, and City was honored in the former category. Principal Ryan Huppert said the award is both recognition and encouragement.
“It affirms that an urban and diverse public school is achieving at the highest levels nationally,” he said. “It recognizes the hard work of all of our kids, our staff, our families, and the whole City community to be an exemplary school nationwide.”
He added that City, while deservedly praised for its academic accolades, is more balanced than people might sometimes assume.
“Our kids are academic and athletic and artistic,” he said. “They’re active volunteers in the community, and often those experiences turn into internships and jobs. They get involved in local political campaigns. They make up the majority of the athletes on some of the (high school) teams they’re on (with Ottawa Hills and Union). They’re well-rounded kids.”
Z’nya McSpaden, a sophomore who will be part of Union’s varsity basketball team this winter, agreed with her principal. She said it’s still sometimes difficult for people to get past the old stereotypes of City. “At Union they sometimes see us as just the smart kids,” she said. “But there’s more (to City) than that.”
In fact, less than a week after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at City to mark the Blue Ribbon award, Huppert spent two days camping with 62 City juniors and seniors at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a trip free for the students, many of whom had never camped before, thanks to funding from the Wege Foundation. There, on the shores of Lake Michigan, students and teachers cooked meals together, cleaned up afterwards, hiked, journaled, read and more, in an experience that Huppert described as “some of the most powerful ways we connect with kids.”
And the day after his return from the camping trip, Huppert found himself participating in an extensive conference call, planning for another recent singular City honor: an invitation for the school’s marching band to participate in the 2020 National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C.
Huppert said that the 115-member City marching band, under Director Katie Vermeer, has played in numerous community parades and special days in the past, and regularly plays at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids for GRPS home games, but he admitted that playing in D.C. will be a bit of a jump.
“This is the big leagues of marching bands,” he said with a big smile. “It is a large and special opportunity.”
For City students the education they are receiving in their historic building on Plainfield Avenue is also a large and special opportunity.
Different Backgrounds, Schoolwide Support
In the words of Nuriya Nesby, a ninth-grader: “The teachers keep us up to date, and they make us feel like we’re safe. If you’ve ever been in a stressful situation or had a bad morning, any teacher around you will (be) like, ‘Hey, are you OK? How are you holding up?’ It’s more school and support, not just school and not just support. You get the mix, and it makes me feel like you’re in a safe environment.”
That sense of support and community is also important to senior Estrella Govea-Garcia. “We come from all different neighborhoods,” she said. “Southwest, Northeast, all over, and from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, but we come together, and that’s one thing I really love.”
And for senior Tobin Hanks the recent award provides an opportunity for City as a GRPS school to advocate for funding for public schools as a good place for city residents to invest their tax dollars. “I hope,” he said, “that our school can be an ally (in Grand Rapids) in furthering school for everyone.”
City offers both the International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma Programs, and traditionally has done well in getting students ready for whatever might come after high school. In 2019, City was fourth in the state of Michigan among all public high schools in SAT scores for juniors. The average score for the 123 City juniors who took the test was 1,219, and based on those scores, 81% tested as fully college ready. City also had a 100 percent graduation rate in the most recent data set from MiSchooldata.org, the State of Michigan’s official public portal for education data.
Yet, in the same year City students were acing the SATs and propelling the school to Blue Ribbon status, more than one in three of its 917 students, 36 percent, qualified for subsidized lunch.
GRPS Interim Superintendent Ronald Gorman said that subsidized lunch stat is an important part of the story.
“I believe this school should have been a Blue Ribbon school many years ago,” he said. “When we factor for poverty, if you look at the schools that are ranked just slightly ahead of City, there’s significantly less numbers of poverty in those schools compared to City.”
He believes that Grand Rapids residents should know that they not only have a very good school option in City, but they should also know that there are many schools that are on their way to achievement levels like City.
Or, as Huppert said: “There’s blue ribbon kids and blue ribbon teachers throughout our whole district.”