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District considers closing schools; revitalizing, repurposing and reinvesting

Community has multiple ways to give input

Grand Rapids — Enrollment numbers are top of mind as administrators consider how to best use school buildings for decades to come in creating a Facilities Master Plan.

Enrollment has dropped from 27,000 students in 1998 to 14,000 students today, said Alex Smart, executive director of facilities and operation, during one of 11 Town Hall meetings the district is hosting through Oct. 12 to gather input and comments.

Staff, parents and community attended the Sept. 26 meeting at Riverside Elementary, led by Superintendent Leadriane Roby. The first draft of the Facilities Master Plan was presented in June as part of the GRPS Strategic Plan and recommends closing some schools. The board will consider feedback before approving a final plan by the end of the calendar year. 

Six themes of the Facilities Master Plan:

• Meet the holistic needs of our scholars
• Optimize and value all school options
• Ensure equitable access and outcomes
• Enhance curriculum and program opportunities
• Cultivate an engaged, impactful and more diverse workforce
• Create a culture of trust, collaboration and stewardship

Source: GRPS Facilities Master Plan information

Schools will not be named until 2023 and changes to open schools will not occur before 2024-25.

“We have too many buildings for not enough students,” said Superintendent Leadriane Roby. “How do we take our current footprint and reinvest, repurpose and revitalize?”

‘We have to somehow have a system where we can get elementary aged students into GRPS schools from a young age. If they have a good experience, they’ll want to continue.’

– neighbor Dan Sheets

Smart explained the “why” behind the situation. “We’re seeing 15 years of enrollment decline here and across the state,” Smart added. “There are now more school options; COVID-19 happened; we’re in an affordable housing crisis and birth rates are at a record low. We expect these trends to continue.” 

GRPS is currently the second largest landowner in Grand Rapids, with 720 acres of land and 59 buildings, 42 of them being schools. More than 50 percent of the 42 school buildings are at or below 50 percent; one million square feet of space is not fully utilized.  

“We are short custodians and are struggling to keep our buildings clean,” Smart said. “We’ve had to pay fines to the city because our dandelions got too high because we didn’t get to them in time.”

Superintendent Leadriane Roby, left, and district Executive Director of Facilities and Operation Alex Smart present on the GRPS Facilities Master Plan at Riverside Middle School

Facility Possibilities

While the short-term plan will include school building closures, the long-term goal is to reinvest and revitalize schools, Roby said. Conversations generated from town hall meetings and results from the Facilities Master Plan survey will help focus on identifying the best opportunities to invest, enhance, upgrade and revitalize buildings, according to district communications. 

“When you imagine a healthy, vibrant school building where your child is thriving, what do you picture? What does that look like, sound like, feel like, what do you imagine,” Roby asked those in attendance at the meeting. 

Responses included laughter on the playground, students smiling and actively engaged and feeling safe, up-to-date technology and teachers who are happy to be there. 

Parents and community members offered other input as well.

‘We have too many buildings for not enough students. How do we take our current footprint and reinvest, repurpose and revitalize?’

– Superintendent Leadriane Roby 

During his 29 years of teaching at Riverside Middle School, Dan Sheets said he thinks the biggest problem in his neighborhood was students aging out of schools and parents staying in their homes.

“An aging population meant that elementary schools closed,” he said. “Youngsters on my street under the age of 10, none of them are going to GRPS because there isn’t a school close by.”

He added: “We have to somehow have a system where we can get elementary aged students into GRPS schools from a young age. If they have a good experience, they’ll want to continue.”

A former GRPS parent brought up the issue of access and transportation being available so students have viable options for schools. 

Roby responded: “I don’t want anyone to look at our schools as (second choice). We want to be the first choice. We want to be an asset to our community, be financially solid for the future.”  

Six town hall meetings are scheduled through Wednesday, Oct 12, including one virtual meeting. Child care, refreshments, and interpretation services will be available at each event. The Facilities Master Plan survey will be open for input through October 20.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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