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Bridget Chaney, Congress Elementary principal

When the weather warms, the third grade students at Congress Elementary will plant a community garden.

Through the summer, the East Hills Council of Neighbors will watch over the garden and ensure the incoming fourth graders will have a harvest.

That’s just one of the ways the surrounding neighborhood has taken Congress and picked it up.

Bridget Chaney is at the helm of the school, trying to bring the school up, along with the rest of the Grand Rapids Public Schools that have survived the initial transformation process. The aspect of Congress that is going to get a harder look is the community-school gap it is attempting to bridge.

The next step in bridging that gap, according to Chaney, is finding out if there are kids still in the neighborhood that don’t attend Congress.

“There’s a perception that the school was out of control,” she said. “And to be honest, the test scores were not great, and it didn’t have a ton of proficiency.”

Chaney took over the principal job three years ago. She felt bad speaking ill of the faculty prior to her, but she said what she had to. And she still spoke of the faculty as a whole, a “we,” rather than referring to herself.

“Those were the realities we walked in,” she said. “When we came in, we had to ask, ‘What do we want?’ Because we have to believe before anyone else does.”

By that, she meant the new team had to decide what types of procedures and fundamental beliefs they’d input into the school.

“If the kids aren’t in a safe and loving environment  we can’t maximize the learning,” she said.

They stepped back and reevaluated what they needed to do to get the kids, family and neighborhood all on the same page.

“It’s more than just education; how else can we give back to the community,” she said. “We can give smiles. We can be active members to society. Think about things that make positive impact; appreciate each other, the community and the environment.”

Of course, the academics come first. And it’s the thing Chaney and the teachers do best.

But all the above fits into a vision plan. And without the vision of it all, then people won’t invest.

Combine the Grand Rapids Public School’s innovative plan, Chaney’s passion that brought her from Kentwood to Grand Rapids, to the community, including The Green Well and Brewery Vivant, and Congress is on its way to making its vision a reality.

“The possibilites for these place aren’t only in the students, but the families,” Chaney said. “If we use all the resources, there is potential to grow way deeper than just the education.”

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