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How the local news media reported on the Grand Rapids for Education Justice action on Monday

October 10, 2019

On Tuesday, we posted a story about a new community-based effort to challenge what they are calling a two-tiered system of education at the Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

The new movement, Grand Rapids for Education Justice, held a press conference prior to the School Board meeting and provided the local news media with a set of statements that they would be presenting to the School Board members that night.

There were four local news agencies that came to the Press Conference and the subsequent School Board meeting, which is the subject of this posting. We will provide a summary of the local news coverage and deconstruct what each news agency reported.

The first piece we look at is a story done by the local NPR affiliate, WGVU radio. In the WGVU story, provides a fairly accurate picture of Grand Rapids for Education Justice, but singles out just one comment, where the group addressed how the GRPS policies in recent years follow those being implemented by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The WGVU quote is:

“Betsy’s charter ideas are directly related to the school’s transformation plan,” Bierns said. “And that Transformation Plan is changing the look of education in our country today. We are essentially privatizing education in this country and in West Michigan, the home of Betsy DeVos.”  

However, the full statement made by GREJ about Betsy DeVos, which the news media had a copy of was the following:

GREJ opposes the significant influence of the business interests on the school curriculum, business interests who even have their own advisory council in our district. We oppose the charter school-like entities that exist within the GRPS system. We see as a threat the furthering of the corporate model as it is being pushed across the country by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The major difference here has to do with the group’s inclusion of the impact that area businesses are having on school curriculum, not just the influence of Secretary DeVos.

Besides quoting someone from GREJ, the WGVU reporter got a comment from the GRPS communications director John Helmholt, who responded to GREJ’s position that the GRPS was a two-tiered system, saying:

“That is just false and inaccurate, and not really representative of the real numbers,” Helmholdt said. If you look at what we have accomplished under the Transformation Plan, the numbers, graduation rates are up 60 percent, for African-American students, its 75 percent,” he said. Helmholdt added that the district is also investing $17 million to upgrade Ottawa Hills High School. 

In the MLive story, the reporter provided more context about GREJ and quoted three different members, each addressing different points about what they found to be problematic about current GRPS policies. 

MLive also relied on a canned statement from GRPS director of communications, John Helmholt, who continued to dismiss the issued raised and even went so far as to claim the group has, “a lot of false and misleading information that does not present a fair and accurate picture of the district.’’

The one main difference between the NPR story and the MLive story, is that MLive included a response by one of the School Board members, Kristian Grant, who said, “There are disparities and we know that. We are going to be taking a closer look at some neighborhood schools, the schools that need support, and figuring out how do we position board goals and our mission to help uplift these schools and provide even more wrap around support.”

Here, the school board member was not dismissive of GREJ and acknowledged that there were some disparities that needed to be addressed.

The last point about the MLive article worth mentioning is that John Helmholt mentioned  that the school district was investing $17 million into Ottawa Hills, specifically for what the GRPS is calling “career academies.” The one that will be housed at Ottawa Hills will be the Academy for Hospitality and Tourism. These kind of theme schools are specifically designed to direct students into jobs, specifically in the hospitality sector. In an article that appeared about a year ago, the Academy for Hospitality and Tourism will be run by the following partners – GVSU, GRPS, Experience Grand Rapids, and AHC+Hospitality. In addition, there will be, “other industry leaders, who will serve on an advisory board.” 

This last point, where members from the business community will have more direct influence on curriculum in these theme schools, is one of the major concerns that GREJ had raised on Monday and will likely be raising in the near future.

There were also two local TV stations that reported on the the group Grand Rapids for Education Justice and their action on Monday night. WZZM 13 included comments from GREJ from the press conference and the statements made during the School Board’s public comment period. Channel 13 also provided plenty of airtime to John Helmholt, who again was dismissive of the GREJ. However, in the WZZM 13 story, Helmholt himself admits that the most vulnerable students in Michigan have been negatively impacted because of how schools are funded, an admission that Helmholt says has been happening for some time now. Those with GREJ would not disagree with this last statement from Helmholt, since many of the members are teachers who spent more than a decade in GRPS and saw first hand how inadequate funding for the most vulnerable students has hurt the GRPS. 

WXMI 17 also reported on the actions of GREJ on Monday. There wasn’t much of a difference in their coverage, citing a few of the GREJ members and then giving Helmholt the last word.

Because Helmholt was so defensive in his response to what the members of Grand Rapids for Education Justice had to say, they released the following statement in reaction to Helmholt’s dimissive comments:


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