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Students feel welcome in a district with ‘flags of every country’

Diversity is just part of being a Kentwood student

Kentwood  Charlene Otu-Konadu remembers starting school at age 7 at Brookwood Elementary, shortly after she immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana with her family. The building’s decor in itself was welcoming.

“They had flags of every single country that KPS students represented and it was amazing to look at that because it filled up the whole main hallway,” said Charlene, now in seventh-grader at Valleywood Middle School. “Every day the first thing you would see were flags of every country. You would look for your country like, ‘Oh there’s mine!’ It was just an amazing way to start out the day.”

‘I felt much more comfortable coming to a district that was much more diverse than a district that is non-diverse.’

— Charlene Otu-Konau
Charlene Otu-Konau

The flags — which still hang in the school corridors — are symbolic representations of the students who make up Kentwood schools. Faces in the classrooms and hallways come in every shade of flesh and words are spoken in many languages. Students represent numerous religious groups and come from nearly 100 countries, from Albania to Vietnam. They are children of immigrants, of longtime West Michiganders and everything in between. 

The district’s diversity is the perfect illustration of the demographic shifts that have occurred in Kent ISD over the past two decades, mirroring trends around the country.  In 2019-2020, according to MiSchoolData.org, 33 percent of students in Kentwood were African American; 29.49 percent were white, 15 percent Asian, 15 percent Hispanic and 7 percent two or more races. Compare that with 2002-2003 when 62.62 percent of students were white, 24.57 were African American, 6 percent were Asian and 6 percent were Hispanic.

African AmericanWhiteAsianHispanicTwo or more races
2019-2033%29.49%15%15%7%
2002-0324.57%62.62%6%6%NA

In Kentwood that’s a cause for celebration and even more opportunities to learn from each other. 

‘I wish the rest of the world could come to Kentwood and watch these different religions, races and beliefs working together for a common goal.’

— Kentwood Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff

In English teacher Jane VanHof’s Valleywood Middle School seventh-grade class alone, students come from 23 countries and have many different backgrounds, ethnically, religiously and socio-economically. Just to name a few: along with Charlene, there’s Jame Lian, who was born in Malaysia; Lauren Crosby, who is white with Irish and Scottish ancestors; and Sin’quan Cheatham, who is Black with African ancestors.

To them, diversity is inherent to learning and just part of being a Kentwood student.

“Diversity is really important personally to me because when students are working and learning in a very diverse environment they learn to contribute their voice and they want to actually learn,” Charlene said. “I felt much more comfortable coming to a district that was much more diverse than a district that is non-diverse. It makes you feel welcome. … It helps you learn to navigate society, especially because society is becoming increasingly diverse.”

‘A Beacon of Light’

Charlene’s words are echoed by Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff, who has worked in the district for 33 years and witnessed its diversity increase over the years until it became the most diverse district in Michigan, according to the school data website Niche.com. He often explains how Kentwood is a microcosm of how the world could be.

“For West Michigan, we are unique and a beacon of light to those who embrace diversity. To live here you can’t focus on one race, religion or (set of) beliefs. You have to be able to embrace others and focus on respect for different viewpoints,” Zoerhoff said. “I wish the rest of the world could come to Kentwood and watch these different religions, races and beliefs working together for a common goal.”

‘Diversity means learning and being together without getting separated from others — like we are all one instead of being divided.’

— Jame Lian
Jame Lian

Students are welcomed from all over the globe, and many were resettled in the area by agencies such as Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas. 

“We have students in Kentwood coming from 94 different countries and speaking 84 different languages. We try our best to make learning accessible to all these languages,” said English-language learner Supervisor Sanela Sprecic, herself an immigrant from Bosnia who arrived in Michigan with her husband and young daughter in 1997. She oversees 50 ELL staff members districtwide. Seventy general education teachers are also ELL certified.

Upon her arrival in the U.S., Sprecic joined a population of refugees who had resettled after they fled the country during and shortly after the Bosnia War, which extended from 1992 to 1995. At that time, Kentwood was where many immigrant groups were beginning to call home. 

“When you are a refugee … you’re forced to flee your country and when you come to an area, oftentimes your status is not equal to others, or people look down on you or are afraid of you,” she said. By contrast, she noted, “Kentwood is an attraction to all these people from different countries. You don’t feel alienated. In our school you look at refugees and other kids as having the same opportunities. You aren’t being judged.”

A Rich Cultural Experience

Jame Lian, who came to the U.S. as a baby, also said diversity has enriched his education.

“Diversity means learning and being together without getting separated from others — like we are all one instead of being divided,”  he said.

He, too, remembers the flags, which also hung at Glenwood Elementary School, where he attended. “I would see my flag and always get so excited! I would just be so happy.”

‘None of the teachers treat you differently depending on what skin tone you have. We are all just one big family.’

— Lauren Crosby
Lauren Crosby

Lauren Crosby said she is very grateful for her school.

“To me, going to a diverse school is showing us how we are all together, and it really doesn’t matter what skin tone you have. You are all being treated the same. None of the teachers treat you differently depending on what skin tone you have. We are all just one big family.”

Current events have shown her that race is still a factor in how people are treated in America, she said.

“It is very important and good that our school is so diverse because when we are older we’ll know the right way people are supposed to be treated and we also know the right way to treat someone else.”

Sharing Stories, Experiences

Van Hof said there’s ample opportunity for her students to learn from each other in various ways. Last year, her class embraced the stories of refugees through a project called A Refugee Story, delving into research on refugees and learning about those in their community. 

This year they are studying the Civil Rights Movement including The Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, a series of nonviolent demonstrations, and the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.

“I learn as much from my students as I feel like I bring them with my experience,” Van Hof said. “We talk about cultural diversity, but it goes far beyond food and clothing and it gets into mindsets, beliefs and deeper-rooted levels of identity.”

‘The biggest takeaway I get from it is learning new things from other people. They learn something from me, I learn something from them.’

— Sin’Quan Cheatham
Sin’Quan Cheatham

Middle schoolers are learning about who they are and diversity impacts that, she said.

“You can see the kids change as they hear the stories from different kids. It’s something that only happens because of the participation of the kids in this classroom. You can’t mimic or copy that for someone else. You can’t read it in an education textbook. It is something that is living here.”

She sees the effects firsthand. 

“As a teacher, it’s a huge gift to be able to spark those conversations because it allows the kids to form a sense of self that quite frankly is far more selfless than how it felt when I started teaching 25 years ago in a different district.”

For Sin’quan, diversity has always been part of his education.

“It’s coming together, learning different things from each other and being together,” he said. “The biggest takeaway I get from it is learning new things from other people. … They learn something from me, I learn something from them. 

“For all the time I’ve been in Kentwood, every school I went to, it’s always diverse. Every person I meet I get to learn something different from them.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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