Inside Track: Mark Frost helps connect students to future careers
Leading West Michigan businesses cast their lot with GRPS Center of Innovation job-readiness program.
As Mark Frost guided Steelcase executives around Central High School, they stumbled upon a huge collection of yearbooks — all but three of the volumes since 1893. One of the executives picked up an early volume, flipped through the leather-bound pages and found a photo of one of the founders of Steelcase.
Frost is at the helm of Grand Rapids Public Schools Center of Innovation as it readies for a new era, which starts today, and area companies such as Steelcase are ready to give back and help him solidify the cornerstone of the school system’s transformation.
“We’re going to make this a great school from the start,” Frost said. “It’s weird; it’s one of the oldest schools in the Midwest, but we’re a center of innovation.”
The building housed 430 students last year as Central High School and School of Health Sciences. This year, the enrollment will skyrocket to more than 1,000, with four high school academies: the Academy for Design and Construction; GRAPCEP, a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math; the School of Business, Leadership and Entrepreneurship; and the School of Health Sciences.
All the schools have business partners, which include Spectrum Health, Rockford Construction, Davenport University, Amway and others
Frost’s job is to make it all work smoothly.
“It’s a huge undertaking: All these programs use different programs, resources, equipment and books,” he said. “Coordinating this has been the toughest part.”
A high school principal isn’t what Frost expected to be when he graduated from Michigan State University and found a job at GRPS’s Jefferson Elementary in 1991, but he does have a myriad of jobs in the school system under his belt.
“I’ve got a unique perspective,” he said. “I’ve taught elementary, middle (and) high school. I’ve been a principal at all three. I’ve coached 20 seasons at all three. I have a vision of school and athletics, K-12, that most people don’t.”
After 17 years as a teacher at various levels, he became athletic director at Creston High School, then assistant principal. Then he moved to an elementary school as principal.
Last year, when the School of Health Sciences opened, he was made principal. He helped the school raise its cumulative ACT score 1.4 points by forming a consistent teaching base where all classrooms operate in a similar fashion and use more “how and why” questions to motivate students to think and collaborate and feel comfortable in the classrooms.
“In elementary school you teach it all — you’re with the kids all day. The higher up you go, the more distant the relationships,” Frost said. “These kids that are up here, a lot of them need to talk, they need motivation and connection or they can fade right out.
“You can’t overestimate the importance of relationships.”
Frost said the staff last year was already great, but this year it will be even better. Despite the school district laying off hundreds of staff, Frost led an interview process he believes kept the best and brightest in the school.
“From a principal’s point of view, going through the interview process was excellent,” he said. “We threw away the tenure idea and picked up an all-star staff.”
This year, Frost hopes to raise the ACT score 1.7 points — but more importantly, he wants a consistent teaching philosophy across the school.
At the heart of his philosophy is caring about the students.
When he first became a principal, he noticed several pregnant students walking the halls. He pulled the girls into his office, one at a time. They weren’t in trouble, but he wanted to go straight to the root of one inner-city school issue: He gave all the girls children’s books and told them to read to their babies as soon as they were born.
According to Frost, there are two root problems he hoped to address:
- Lack of reading and school materials at home.
“When you don’t have books at home, you’re not reading,” he said. “A house on Argentina in East Grand Rapids could have 1,000 books in the basement, four blocks away. A house in Grand Rapids could have zero.”
- A lack of well-educated parents who insist their kids get an education. But he did say that same situation can have the opposite effect, as well, with parents saying, “You’re not going to be like me.”
Faced with underperforming schools — less than a 50 percent graduation rate — and a huge drop in enrollment — 28,000 in 2000 to 17,000 now — the GRPS Transformation Plan includes: the closure of 10 underperforming schools; reinvesting in, reopening, consolidating and merging a variety of schools; and incorporating future growth, such as the recent announcement of a partnership with the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
One of the biggest facets of the transformation sits at the Center of Innovation, where it’s not only the district making the investment. Not only does the district expect the center to be a big draw for students to come to GRPS, but local businesses also hope to develop and maintain a diverse local work force.
Following graduation from the School of Health Sciences, Frost said a student can leave as a certified physician assistant or certified first responder, meaning that student can earn up to $26,000 a year.
“The local businesses want that pipeline of diverse, homegrown employees who will be lifelong workers,” Frost said.
“It’s not the end of the line; it’s a starting line. They can go to work at Spectrum, start paying for college and work their way up.”
That kind of specialized learning in high school, rather than the traditional comprehensive learning, could be seen as a negative, pinning students to one track.
Frost said what it does is open up the future for students.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, even in college,” he said. “These programs just help get feet in doors. All of these business partners have a wealth of jobs, from business to architects to lawyers.”
To keep those businesses happy, the school still has to produce qualified students, so Frost will continue to impart his experience and influence on the community.
At 48, Frost has chaired, organized and coached more than 80 events, programs, teams and fundraisers. He doesn’t appear ready to slow down anytime soon. “I’m kind of surprised at some of the things I can do,” he said.
Mostly, Frost wants to foster the idea of success in the minds of students and their families. Last year, he held multiple family nights both to encourage families to get involved in schooling and to honor students who achieved good grades.
“If we celebrate academic achievement, you get more academic achievement,” Frost said.
If the high school can achieve its goal of raising the ACT score again, it will be higher than several area districts. The improved performance, along with the unique programs, should bring back students who transferred to other districts, Frost said.
“We’re working hard to get them back; hopefully, this school will be a big draw,” Frost said. “We have advantages at this school.”