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District launches virtual choice expo for theme, neighborhood schools

Part of new application plan to improve equity of access

Grand Rapids –– A Virtual School Choice Expo for all GRPS neighborhood and theme schools on Thursday, Feb. 18, from 6-7:30 p.m. is the first major, public-facing response to an Enrollment Equity Project the district has been conducting for the past year.

After attending a national conference on enrollment equity at MIT with some of the country’s largest school districts, GRPS contracted with Eschbacher Consulting to work with the district on equity of access in enrollment in both its theme schools and neighborhood schools.

Need help choosing a school? Here you go

What: Virtual School Choice Expo
When: Thursday, Feb. 18 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. (The expo and school open houses will be recorded and available afterward on the GRPS website.) 
Where: Online at GRPS Virtual School Choice Expo
How: Information will be provided on all district neighborhood and theme schools, with links to each school.

Throughout 2020, and continuing in 2021, Eschbacher has been conducting focus groups with internal and external GRPS stakeholders and is doing data analysis as well as policy and process reviews.

A final report to the GRPS school board is likely in March or April and many of the recommendations will be implemented in the coming years. But one immediate implementation is the change to the upcoming expo.

‘We need to look at all of our systems, everything from the application process to enrollment, marketing, advertising and everything in between.’

— GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt

For the past two decades, the district has held open houses for people interested in the GRPS theme schools, 16 schools that offer customized curriculum and academic offerings around themes such as environmental science, arts and music, dual-immersion and more.

The open houses have never included neighborhood schools though. That will change this year in response to feedback from both internal and external GRPS stakeholders.

GRPS spokesperson John Helmholdt said that the preliminary findings of the ongoing equity project cast a clear light on the need for the district to do more to uplift its neighborhood schools and to begin to dismantle what had become a two-tiered system within the district: neighborhood schools on one level and theme schools on another.

Nicholas Swartz of the GRPS Human Resources department at a winter 2019 school choice expo

Open Houses for Every School

Thus, the upcoming Virtual School Choice Expo will include real-time synchronous virtual visits to all GRPS schools, neighborhood and theme. Principals, parents, teachers and others will be available to meet parents and students, answer their questions and perhaps even conduct virtual building walk-throughs.

In addition, an overview video of all GRPS schools – everything from how to apply, what a typical school day would look like, after-school programs, athletics and transportation options – will be available on demand. Information will be provided on how to enroll in a neighborhood school or apply for a theme school. 

Helmholdt said each GRPS school has been given some template-type information to guide their particular approach to the expo. Schools also have been given the freedom to customize and personalize the event in ways that make sense to their school’s focus and culture. Every GRPS school is also doing its own open house apart from the Feb. 18 expo, some prior to the event and some after.

And both the expo and the open houses, Helmholdt added, will be recorded and available on the GRPS website after they conclude.

“We’ll see how this goes,” Helmholdt said. “We’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, and we’ll plan to do more of these in the spring and keep improving them.”

Improvement is also at the heart of the district’s response to the equity audit.

“We need to look at all of our systems,” Helmholdt said, “everything from the application process to enrollment, marketing, advertising and everything in between.”

Unified Application Process Likely to Come

Helmholdt said that it is likely moving forward that GRPS will no longer have a two-track application process for theme schools, as has been the case in the past, but that it will offer a unified application process that includes both neighborhood and theme schools. 

Currently GRPS theme schools, Helmholdt said, look demographically like the Grand Rapids community but do not look demographically like the school district as a whole, which has a 75-80 percent minority student population, 74 countries represented and 79 languages spoken at home.

Or, as was stated in a January PowerPoint presentation to the GRPS Board of Education from Eschbacher Consulting: “The pool of applicants to theme schools is more white, and less Black or Hispanic than the overall GRPS student body.”

In addition, Eschbacher noted, the district’s theme middle schools are more likely to attract and enroll GRPS students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

To address that, Helmholdt said simply: “Any and all admissions criteria will be under review.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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