Grand Rapids — Mel Atkins II has great memories of his years at Ottawa Hills High School back in the day. It’s like his own personal highlight reel of Grand Rapids Public Schools, which marks its 150th anniversary this week.
Atkins formed lifelong friendships at Ottawa, enjoyed his honors studies and played first base on the baseball team, which in 1994 was ranked No. 1 in the state and, at one point, No. 21 in the nation by USA Today.
His experience at Ottawa and other city schools laid the foundation for his 21-year career at GRPS, where he is executive director of community and student affairs. In that career path he followed the example of his father, Mel senior, who served GRPS for 39 years, 25 of them as athletic director, and his mother, Peggy, a GRPS teacher and administrator for 40 years. Peggy also was an Ottawa graduate, and Mel was in the last graduating class of the old South High School, in 1968.
The lineage continues today. Mel III, age 6, goes to Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, where his mother, Anna, teaches. Daniela, 12, attends Zoo School. And Reina, 15, went to Museum School before the family moved to the Grandville area, where she now attends high school.
Family, friends, life-shaping experiences: That’s what Grand Rapids Public Schools means to Mel Atkins II, and what he wants for his kids. “There’s been an Atkins in the GRPS family for almost 70 years now,” he said. “We’re celebrating 150 years of GRPS. We’re very proud to say we’re connected to almost half of it.”
A Quiet Milestone
The school district’s sesquicentennial has crept up quietly due to the pandemic, with none of the fanfare that could be expected for such a milestone. But the Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation is planning a week of celebrations for late August, when it’s hoped conditions will allow for larger gatherings.
Celebrations Planned, with Fingers Crossed
The Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation has tentatively planned a week of 150th anniversary celebrations in late August, since pandemic conditions didn’t allow for large in-person gatherings around the April 11 founding date. Conditions permitting, plans include:
Aug. 23 — The Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame Golf Tournament, with proceeds going to the GRPSF Great Sports, Great Kids fund supporting GRPS elementary and middle school sports
Aug. 27 — Annual Cross-Town Throw-Down football game between Union and Ottawa Hills high schools, kicking off Homecoming weekend
Aug. 28 — 150th class reunion at Houseman Field, celebrating all classes and all current and former high schools with an evening of food, music and memories; an anniversary alumni directory will be available
Aug. 29 — After-party brunch, with details to be announced
Also, a new alumni website has been launched, providing a way for alums to get connected, tell their stories and volunteer.
“I would love to have more alumni volunteers to help us with the celebration,” said foundation Executive Director Sally Andreatta. “We would also like to identify ‘Decade Captains’ for all of the high schools so that we can get the word out to everyone near and far.”
In the meantime, the foundation has been gathering names of GRPS grads to include in a historic alumni directory planned to be published in August. The foundation is still seeking alumni and volunteers to help locate them.
The district was officially founded on April 11, 1871, consolidating three districts under a single board of education, according to Albert Baxter’s 1891 history of Grand Rapids. Starting with 53 teachers and 3,805 students, today GRPS employs 936 teachers and serves more than 14,000 students from widely diverse backgrounds.
What’s stayed consistent over the decades for the Atkins family is a strong sense of identity, pride, excellence and modeling for the next generation.
“What makes GRPS is the people you come in contact with,” said Mel Atkins II. “You’re not just a student or a number. People over the years have taken time to get to know you and your family.”
A Family within a Family
Strong family connections have made GRPS an intimate part of the Atkins clan, going back to Mel’s parents, Matthew II and Georgia. They made sure he and his four siblings got a good education during the turbulent Sixties.
The turbulence came to Mel at South High, the majority-Black school where he was part of a walk-out by some 400 Black students in 1966 after the principal forbade students from wearing mustaches. He was one of half a dozen players kicked off the football team for refusing to shave, he said. After he graduated in 1968, South closed and its students were bused to other city high schools, igniting ugly student conflicts and parental protests.
‘We’re celebrating 150 years of GRPS. We’re very proud to say we’re connected to almost half of it.’— Mel Atkins II, GRPS administrator
Though the closure was “devastating,” Mel said, he still has warm memories of his time there. Indeed, after attending Western Michigan University, his first teaching job was at South Middle School in the same building.
He and Peggy wanted Mel II and their daughter, Melinda, to follow them into GRPS, Atkins said.
“It was very important that my wife and I set the example. We told them we were going to set the bar really high. We want them to do better than we have done. And they have. We’re really proud of both of them.”
Giving Back and Going Forward
His son is grateful for their pushing that bar, and the staff who did that too. At Ottawa those included dean James Burress, teacher Dorothy Jo Butler, Principal Sydney Bailey and baseball coach Rick Arpin. Mel II went on to major in child development at Michigan State University, while Melinda attended the University of Michigan.
The seeds planted by his parents and teachers bore fruit with his career at GRPS as teacher, principal and administrator. For his three children, he added, “I want them to have the same experiences that my parents had and I had.”
Daniela seems happy with her experience at Zoo School. “It’s really fun,” the sixth-grader said. “I like learning about the animals.”
And so the family tradition continues, one of many GRPS has nurtured over 150 years. Mel Atkins II is happy to be part of it.
“That’s what keeps a lot of us coming back and giving back to GRPS; someone did it for you,” he said. “Once you’re a part of GRPS you’re family forever.”
“As we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Grand Rapids Public Schools, I want to recognize the growth, transformation, and impact that has been a part of our history within our school district and the Grand Rapids community. For 150 years, our talented teachers, school leaders, and support staff have dedicated themselves to educating and supporting the students and families we are so fortunate to serve.”
— Leadriane Roby, Superintendent of Schools.
How it All Started
The Grand Rapids Public Schools district was officially founded on April 11, 1871, according to Albert Baxter’s 1891 history of Grand Rapids. On that day, following approval by the state Legislature, city officials consolidated three separate districts into one and appointed its first Board of Education.
Wrote Baxter, “this union of schools has proved as beneficial to their prosperity and progress as has the blessed bond of the ‘many in one’ to the States of the Union.”
The board chose 36-year-old Anson J. Daniels, a veteran teacher, as superintendent to preside over 11 buildings, 53 teachers and 3,805 students, according to “The Story of Grand Rapids” edited by Z.Z. Lydens (Kregel, 1967). Daniels led the district for its first 12 years.