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John Helmholdt, Grand Rapids Public Schools director of communications

As Grand Rapids continues to grow into a hotbed of activity, a huge puzzle piece is often forgotten.

The city’s public school system. It has long been bashed as a terrible district; run down with poor performance.

Although that is partially true, historically, it’s changing, just like the city. And it’s John Helmholdt’s job to help change that perception.

One of the first things Helmholdt brought up when we got to talking about his job was that GRPS is the second largest employer in Grand Rapids. The people associated with the system make it larger than most townships – 19,000 students, 3,300 staff, 7,000 volunteers and nearly 40,000 parents.

In that stat, he also said the school system is far safer than almost any town in terms of incident rates. (That’s not to say there aren’t incidents, he did say there have been some, such as kids bringing BB guns to school in the past.)

When I stopped by to see Helmholdt, he said the district is in the middle of a huge overhaul. It includes closing 10 schools, bringing the total to 25 closed and consolidated schools in the district.

“It’s big and bold all at once,” he said. “But we’re cutting and closing to reinvest in what’s working.”

What’s working is detailed in the schools new slogan, “My Choice.” (Although the previous Passport to the World wasn’t bad either, seeing as there are 70 countries and 50 languages represented in the schools. “GRPS offers exposure to diverse walks of life. When you’re a kid, you don’t pay attention to that stuff, so if you grow up with it, you are accustomed to it.”)

The school district has the largest choice of schools in the state, and so the slogan can have a double meaning, from choose your school, to the more important “Make GRPS your choice.”

The choices are quite outstanding too:

  • City High – the no. 2 school in Michigan.
  • Grand Rapids Montessori – nation’s first PK-12 public Montessori, named to America’s Top 300 schools by US News and World Report.
  • Academy for Design and Construction
  • School of Health and Sciences
  • Three other high schools.
  • Zoo School – a middle school recently named one of top 25 “Coolest Schools in America” by Parent & Child Magazine. Also in top 5% performing schools in Michigan.
  • Coit Creative Arts Academy – one of five schools in GRPS that are in the top 5% academically performing.
  • Blandford School — one of top 5% schools in Michigan.

Helmholdt said theme schools, centers for innovation, and K-8 schools are what is working currently. The K-8 system keeps children in classrooms for a more controlled environment and allows for fewer incidents and improved focus. School uniforms which soon will be system wide also have improved performance.

The theme schools also work because it allows children to work on subjects that interest them and help develop more interested minds. They are application based, so students aren’t guaranteed a spot.

What’s struggling are comprehensive high schools, including two that are 1/3 full and persistently failing. Those two will be closed.

The new plan has a huge amount of community support, Helmholdt said.

“This seen an alignment like this,” he said. “There was unanimous support by the board. We’ll just keep plugging into what’s working.”

The perception the system has received over the years is part of the problem. But Helmholdt assured me it’s light years ahead of the likes of Chicago and Detroit, and is a really safe school system.

“When was the last time you went into a school?” he said he asks people. “All they see are the handful of bad stories that pop up on Wood TV.”

I guess what made me really excited about Helmholdt was his answer of why he’s doing what he does.

“The love of the city,” he said. “I’m a Grand Rapidian to the core. I want this city to be stronger and better than before when I leave this Earth.”

Two notes

  1. Helmholdt’s father was mayor of Grand Rapids from 1984 to 1992.
  2. And this interview reminded me of an article I wrote about the Grand Rapids Public School hockey team in the fall.

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