GRPS is building on innovation

February 7, 2009
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Grand Rapids Public Schools is trying something new — again.

When classes reconvene next September, GRPS will unveil its new Union Academy for Design and Construction at Union High School on the city’s west side. Part of the K-12 system’s Centers of Innovation, the academy will prepare high school students for careers in the building trades and design fields with an emphasis on environmentally sound and energy-efficient construction.

But even as the new academy gets ready to open in six months, the five-year-old School of Construction at Union has begun its journey to close.

“That program is going to phase out as a school. The existing 10th graders will stay in their program until they graduate. There are from 30 to 60 kids in it now. There really aren’t a lot of students in the current School of Construction,” said John Helmholdt, coordinator of communications and external affairs for GRPS.

So while the current program is phasing out, the new academy will phase in.

“It will open to ninth grade students only starting in the fall of this year, and it will be limited to 125 students,” said Helmholdt.

The academy will open to a new class of incoming freshmen for the following three years, as the construction school graduates its outgoing class of seniors in each of those years. In three years, the academy will have students enrolled in all four grades and become a full high-school program.

When the Business Journal spoke with Helmholdt, he said interest in the academy was at a high level and he expected that applications to the program would exceed its capacity. The application due date was last week, but GRPS is still accepting applications. Students whom submit an application past the deadline may find themselves on the academy’s waiting list.

“There will be competition for these seats, which is a healthy thing,” he said.

Helmholdt said the framework for the Union Academy for Design and Construction was built from the University Prep Academy, which opened last year and was GRPS’s first Center of Innovation. 

U Prep, as it’s called, was also phased in. It started with sixth and seventh graders in its first year and added then added eighth graders. Unique to that program, which will also be incorporated into the new academy, is a student-teacher ratio of 16 to 1 and personal mentors who stay with students throughout their learning experience.

“We took a lot of that for the academy,” said Helmholdt.

“One of the pillars for the Center of Innovation is to take what we learn and duplicate it around the district. Well, the academy is the first to do that and the ninth graders will have professional coaches, as we call them. They will stay with that student throughout the school year, and the goal is to have them stay with a student throughout their entire high-school career.”

These coaches will come from commercial firms such as The Christman Co., Rockford Companies, Progressive AE and others. Nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and higher-education institutions like Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris State University and Michigan State University will also be directly involved with the academy.

Helmholdt said those organizations helped GRPS develop the academy’s curriculum and will give each student some on-site training to complement the classroom learning, which includes courses in blueprint reading, construction drawings, building materials, methods of construction, architectural detailing, structural design, interior design, mechanical drawing and other industry-related topics.

The academy’s goal is to prepare graduates to enter the job market, go into vocational training or pursue a specialized degree in a design, engineering or construction management program.

“The idea behind it is how can we provide kind of a hands-on experiential education for students with a career-pathway focus,” said Helmholdt. “This is something that is a great opportunity and there is a demand in the work force for skilled workers.”

Not only will a fully functioning Union Academy for Design and Construction offer a new learning experience for GRPS students, it will also be a new educational event for GRPS.

“We’re actually learning from the innovation that’s already happening, and we’re taking that and applying it to these new Centers of Innovation,” said Helmholdt. “This is good stuff, even if I say so myself.”

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