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Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools: Part IV

December 16, 2018

(This post was written by Jack Prince, who wrote the previous articles in this series, Part I, Part II and Part III.)

The opening of the school year here in Grand Rapids was marked by the gala unveiling of the new Grand Rapids public museum building at 54 Jefferson Avenue Southeast. This new building is an expansion of the program started in 2015 which is located at the Van Andel Museum Center overlooking the Grand River.

Before continuing in this effort to expose inherent School segregation in the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), it needs to be stated that the Grand Rapids Public Museum school is a misleading moniker as the museum itself is rented and controlled from the city by a business Consortium designed and pushed by the DeVos power structure.

To imagine it as a haven for public education objectives is whimsical with its private school proclivity. The building at 54 Jefferson has undergone an expensive renovation including money from the public /private Corporation donations and from a GRPS fundraising campaign.

Additionally the district was awarded 10 million dollars from the XQ Institute. Grand Rapids was one of 10 School’s nationally to receive money from the business orientated Institute of which half of the recipients were charter schools.

In 2017, a star-studded one-hour long long national broadcast headed by Justin Timberlake, with a bevy of celebrity cameos, attempted to convince America that the nation’s high schools needed to redesign in line with the business objectives of an Institute formed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the Widow of business magnate Steve Jobs.

To promote their desired changes a $1,000,000 carrot was dangled in the face of cash-strapped US school districts. From EdSurge we read:

If the point of the Extravaganza was to promote change it missed the mark by airing tired arguments that public schools have stayed static through the decades and consequently glossing over the extraordinary hard work of millions of teachers. 

The star-studded Primetime event, paid for by the same group that plastered its name all over the doors of the building at 54 Jefferson, had entertainers quip with the show’s premise that high schools are a system that hasn’t changed in 100 years.  That maintenance however clashes with education historians mentioned in the EdSurge article.

Education historians interviewed by Chalkbeat, where it was said that while the basic setup of schools has remained largely intact the democratization of access to high school along with the different skills and subject kids learn constitute big shifts. Valerie Stross education writer for the Washington Post bemoaned the use of celebrities to push a faulty narrative.

Clearly what was once a successful education system funded by public tax dollars for public benefit and led by non-corporate professors and universities, has experienced damaging changes with public funding being replaced by private funding. Now instead of a Level Playing Field of opportunity, there is a funding system diametrically opposed to that along with propaganda coming from the corporate world with their attached agenda.

The influence from neighborhoods and parents locally has been eradicated and replaced with more and more corporate oversight including at 54 Jefferson Street. The Jefferson School looks more like a lavish Motel on the ground floor and does not have typical classrooms. The two-story building is very modern with bright flexible spaces designed to encourage collaboration and innovation.

Simultaneously, another building in the district opened on August 27th with no renovation or Fanfare. Westwood Middle School reopened with a physical plant that has seen no renovation or facelift for years. Even more worrisome the middle school which houses more students than the museum school, was teaching as of early October with 30% of its positions manned by full-time Subs. That is not the case at the Grand Rapids public museum school where all classes were filled on the first day with full-time teachers and will remain filled by full-time teachers for the entire year unlike Alger middle, Union High School or Westwood which yearly allows classrooms to be manned by substitutes for the entire school year.

Evidently none of the money used to refurbish the eighty-year-old museum school building could be used to simply hire teachers at livable wages at the Westwood building. The neglect at Westwood may be responsible for the very low academic proficiency registered at Westwood Middle located at 1525 Mount Mercy Drive Northwest Grand Rapids where only 5% of the 358 students are proficient in math and 13% in English.

These dismal numbers are supplied by the nationally respected evaluation service called greatschools.org. Even more worrisome is the warning from Great Schools that this school is falling far behind other students in the state and that this school may consequently have large achievement gaps. Great Schools continues their assessment by stating, “students at The school are making far less academic progress given where they were last year compared to similar students in the state.”

Very little progress with low test scores at Westwood mean students are starting at a low point and are falling even farther behind their peers in other schools.  Compare the opening day at the new Museum school where 300 dignitaries including mayor Bliss filled the beautiful lobby at 54 Jefferson with the worn lobby at Westwood where there were no balloons or millionaires patting themselves on the back. A gala scene indicative of the corporate world’s incursion into public education should be alarming particularly when we remember when the primary educational philosophy was to first and foremost address the problems at struggling schools and the students there in.  That philosophy has been atrophied  today as the germination of educational philosophy does not emanate from the offices of university education departments but rather the boardrooms of corporate headquarters such as QX. 

The renovation at 54 Jefferson Street, which has been primarily a business led endeavor, was also given a magnanimous gift from the city selling the building to GRPS for a single dollar. The city also gratuitously gave $52,000 to renovate a parking lot at the corner of State and Jefferson.  In addition the city gave money to restore a small park adjoining the parking lot.  The park is called a pocket park.  Downtown Grand Rapids inc, contributed $51,573 for improvements.  The architect for the park and parking lot project is King Scott with Lott3Metz Architecture along with landscape architect Viridis Design Group, and construction manager, Rockford Construction. With such a phalanx of contributors over such a long period of time for such prestigious and expensive professional design and construction it would seem someone could have donated money to replace the broken furnace at Union High School. The students and faculty have had to endure space heaters for two winters at Union High School while the expensive workmanship was being put on with gold trim At 54 Jefferson.Ironically Union High School is just a stone’s throw or step down from Westwood Middle. This summer City High School, located in the old Creston High School building on Plainfield, has been completely air-conditioned. 

Union high School unfortunately after decades of heat fatigue has received no funding for air conditioning.  This priority difference is only one of many that exists between the regular public school buildings and the business/district nexus school buildings. The disparity is a prime reason for the academic proficiency weakness in the less preferred schools.  A correlation can be quickly drawn between the physical building environment and academic performance.  A spending correlation can also be easily derived at with the same results. 

Westwood Middle School has opaque plexiglass windows surrounding the school except in the teachers’ lounge or rooms directly surrounding the main school entrance.  The plexiglass was not the original school windows. The opaque windows inhibit vision out of the classrooms, and more importantly to GRPS, prohibit vision into the classrooms obscuring a chaotic school.   Many of the classrooms are out of control and the emotional fatigue of the teachers both at Westwood and Alger Middle means that each year most of the teaching staff leave only to be replaced with first year teachers and subs.

Compare that reality with the teacher retention rate next spring at the GRPMS. One of those teachers from Alger 5 years ago categorically claimed that the MEAP score for math proficiency registered .000 on test scores with reading nearly as low. Funding, teacher safety and class size with academic proficiency at these struggling schools should be receiving the attention rather than the district’s trophy business backed buildings.

The disparity of help to these buildings is matched by the initial unfairness of admittance to these cherry picked schools, where GRPS school leaders have said dogmatically that half of the students from within GRPS boundaries were selected for GRPMS by lottery and were currently attending charter or private schools. According to MLive, another 15% of the students at GRPMS came from outside of the district . These students did not come from Union or Ottawa. They instead were derived from charter or private schools alien to the GRPS district. Lottery selection means that the district can pick students from test scores and other demographics by hiding behind a supposed random luck of the draw lottery. 

Therefore what exists in GRPS is a non public school procedure for admission in many buildings. There exists an exception to the traditional open door policy previously indigenous to all public schools called test in. This aspect for admissions is symptomatic to the charter/public school nexus, particularly by having to test in. A new word has been coined indicative of this phenomenon called testination.

Enrollment, unequal funding and teacher retention, have had a combined impact on the educational priorities within GRPS. The stark and definable difference of educational atmosphere and opportunity latent within GRPS is easily recognized. The students at GRPS need the advocacy and protection of the district’s leaders and they are not getting it. There are other indicators of priority variances which have resulted in a segregated system at GRPS which will be exposed in continuing articles.

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