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The Public Schools Near Betsy DeVos' Hometown Are Doing Great

A hallway at Buchanan Elementary in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Elissa Nadworny

Betsy DeVos was back in western Michigan last week. It was her first public visit to the area where she grew up since being named education secretary. She visited a science-focused summer learning program and Grand Rapids Community College, and she met privately with superintendents from across the state.

DeVos' efforts to expand school choice, as a philanthropist and advocate, concentrated for decades on her home state. She and her husband helped found a lauded aviation-focused charter school just outside Grand Rapids. They campaigned for a largely free-market approach to school choice that sees 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan run by for-profit operators, an unusually high figure.

DeVos didn't choose to publicly highlight the city's public schools during her visit, but John Helmholdt, chief spokesman for the Grand Rapids Public Schools, says the 17,000-student district is flying high right now.

"We were losing hundreds of students per year for the past 20 years" to charters, private schools and nearby districts, he says. "Last year was the first in 20 years that we increased enrollment."

And, he adds, there aren't just more students, the students are doing better.

Graduation rates are nearly 50 percent higher than five years ago. "Suspensions are down, test scores are up," he says. "We're feeling the positive momentum."

Helmholdt says they're seeing the fruits of a five-year strategic planning process that began in 2012 when Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal assumed her position. "We sat down and said, 'Grand Rapids is losing students. What can we do?' "

Among the innovations at work:

  • The district used data mining to target chronic absenteeism, which it says has dropped by 25 percent.
  • They created a Parent University to engage parents with programming on job skills and immigration.
  • They broadened the options within the system, from a Montessori-based school to International Baccalaureate, dual-language immersion, career-focused "centers of innovation" and community schools that connect families with affordable housing, mental health and health care services.
  • And, this past spring, the new Grand Rapids Public Museum School won a $10 million grant from , chaired by Laurene Powell Jobs. The school, which is expanding to serve grades six through 12, operates downtown at the public museum and features "curriculum and instruction that incorporates the city and its institutions into day-to-day learning," says Helmholdt.
  • The money is great, but even better, he says, is the vote of confidence that comes from winning the prize. The school has received 200 applications for its 60 seats.

    "The Museum School got so much hype, the excitement has really restored faith in Grand Rapids Public Schools," Helmholdt says. "There was a time when people saw this community as a liability. Now we have huge competition for these seats."

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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