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Grand Rapids students and neighbors push back on new “transformation plan” for schools

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

On Thursday night hundreds of parents and students got their first chance to respond to a "transformation plan" for the Grand Rapids Public School district. The plan unveiled Mondayincludes closing ten schools.

There was a lot of push back, even tears at times in the auditorium at Creston High School; the only high school slated to be shut down.

“Honestly, it feels like the board is giving up on us,” Creston High School freshman Toni Cortazar said.

She told the crowd and GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal all the programs she’s in now wouldn’t be offered in one place anymore, so she’d have to choose between them. “They all provide great opportunities and great doors for me,” Cortazar said.

She was one of dozens of Creston students who asked the plan to close the school be reconsidered.

“We have different gangs in different schools. I know people don’t want to act like they exist but they do,” Angelique Long said. The recent Creston grad is worried about her younger siblings and friends' safety if they’re forced to go to a different high school.

“We’re like new prey. They’re the lions and we’re the little bitty deer; coming into their environment so we’re automatically going to get attacked. We’re being sent somewhere that we’re not used to,” Long said as other students nearby nodded.

Several people mentioned they understood the district’s need to cut costs in response to rising costs and a declining student enrollment.

“I know you have to make cuts. They are long overdue,” Catherine Mueller, a former school board member said. “Many board members didn’t have the stomach to do it – I hope they have it now,” she added. But Mueller still had a list of concerns about the plans.

A few people heaped praise on Weatherall Neal and her public process in creating the plan, including a “listening tour” this past spring. Others were concerned what the closure would mean to the neighborhood and businesses.

The district has lost about 7,000 students in the last ten years. It’s now the fifth largest district in the state. Along with the loss of students, Grand Rapids Public Schools has cut more than $100 million dollars and closed 25 schools. But almost half its buildings are still below capacity and nearly half its students don’t graduate.

Monday night Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal told the school board the plan should help address those problems.

The proposal is not set in stone and there are several more meetings for people to raise their concerns. Weatherall Neal hopes to present the finalized the plan to the school board later this month.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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