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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Pilot Schools in Grand Rapids

Nov. 12, 2007
Grand Rapids Public Schools is announcing the creation of pilot schools to specialize in areas such as math and the envsironment. It's a result of a landmark public-private partnership.

Grand Rapids Public Schools is trying to reverse historic enrollment declines that are hurting the district's finances and morale. For the past several years, the district has been opening new schools and making improvements at older buildings. Now, officials are turning toward offering specialized schools within the existing framework. It's the latest in the district's attempt to keep students - and their parents - satisfied.

Dan Anderson has taught at City High/ Middle School in Grand Rapids for 25 years.

At this point in his career, he can lead his high school class on biogenetics from memory.

"Yes, what did they say in the cell theory? That all cells are made of cells. That living cells are made of cells and? Cells can only come from pre-existing cells, alright.."

Anderson says there's something new to be excited about.

Grand Rapids officials announced this fall the creation of new pilot schools in the district to open next year.

The schools will focus on areas such as math and science but work within existing schools.

City High/ Middle School will have an International Baccalaureate program that will ensure graduates' studies will be recognized globally.

City will also host a second pilot school based on "economicology," a term coined by philanthropist Peter Wege.

Its graduates will study the connection between economics and the environment.

Teacher Dan Anderson says it will open up new dialogue about sustainability.

"I think in all my years, I'm more excited about this than anything we've brought into the school because there's a definite need. Not just in our school, but in all schools. And I hope we can set an example at City that other schools can follow."

It may be a few years before other Grand Rapids schools can adopt a similar pilot school.

But City is the perfect place for such a test.

Teachers there say they already teach a humanities-based curriculum across disciplines.

And the students are receptive and bright; the school's test scores are the highest in the county.

What's perhaps more significant is it's happening at the Grand Rapids Public Schools - a system trying to turn the tide on historic student exodus to the suburbs and a remaining student body with a high percentage of children under or near the poverty line.

GRPS also shaved off $60 million over the last several years in budget cuts.

Bernard Taylor is in his second year at the district's helm.

He's fighting people's long-standing perceptions about the district and hopes the pilot schools will help.

"No one has kind of given up. No one has thrown their hands up and said whatever happens, happens. It's people saying, Wait, wait. We can see that things can change, that things can get better. And we want to be a part of that."

One key part of the change is partnerships with business groups and other community leaders.

A coalition was formed to steer and submit paperwork for the pilot schools.

Steelcase heir Peter Wege, Doug and Maria DeVos of Amway and other members from the area's philanthropic community are pitching in.

Officials envision more of these types of relationships for other pilot schools, to include a female leadership academy, a math and sciences school and a creative and performing arts school.

Superintendent Taylor says the success of these ventures will be up to the public.

"If our financial condition worsens, I can go to the state Department of Public Education and say, we didn't sit on our hands and wait for what some may think is the inevitable to happen. We said we're going to improve our condition and we're going to engage our public in a way that is taking the fight to the problem."

Leaders say the community has always supported the Grand Rapids' schools, especially elementary schools.

In 2004 voters approved a millage for capital improvements.

But officials say the pilot high schools - with support from the private sector - are a landmark relationship.

Ron Koehler is assistant superintendent with the Kent Intermediate School District.

He says the district is listening to the larger community.

"I think that working directly with community leaders who have invested in other institutions in downtown Grand Rapids, and demonstrating to them that GRPS is willing to look at different delivery models, that should encourage more investment."

But not everyone agrees schools should be cultivating more philanthropy.

Attorney Jim Rinck sat on the school board for the past 14 years until he resigned this fall.

"What we should be doing is having a board leading us with enough resources that it could do these things because they're necessary and not relying on philanthropists because that can be erratic. Philanthropy has done a lot for downtown Grand Rapids, probably more than the elected officials. If you think about it, that's a problem."

GRPS will continue a series of community input meetings next month.

They're asking what the public wants to see and who should pay for it.

The first pilot schools are scheduled to open in the fall of 2008.