Innovation Vital To Education

January 28, 2008
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The plan by the Rev. Marvin and MaLinda Sapp to convert the former Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese headquarters into a fine arts middle and high school could not have come forward at a better time.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools' well-thought-out Centers for Innovation pilot schools project holds tangible promise of elevating student achievement, decreasing the racial gap in student performance, building strong relationships between students and staff that decrease the dropout rate and which may stem the tide of flight from GRPS. The centers will also provide parents and guardians options for expanding student learning opportunities in an effort to build a creative class of citizens.

All of these factors are vital to preservation of this area's quality of life and future workforce. That is why the concept is receiving widespread public and private sector support and encouragement, including representatives from the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, Steelcase Inc., Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, The Frey and Nokomis foundations, among others. 

The Sapps' Full Life Center Church bought the building in October to create the Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Fine Arts and Technology. The school, named after Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, an American composer, pianist, and band leader who was one of the most influential figures in jazz — is modeled after The Winans Academy of Performing Arts in Detroit and the Visual and Performing Arts models in California, Illinois, Kentucky and New York.

The goal is to incorporate the study of performing arts and technology into the traditional core curriculum to increase critical thinking and academic skills. Parental involvement and school uniforms would be required and an intensive Spanish curriculum would also be offered. Pending district approval, GREAAT could open in fall 2008 starting with approximately 120 sixth and seventh grade students. It would eventually grow to serve sixth through 12th grade students.

The district's new Centers of Innovation make possible partnerships like that of Sapp, an internationally acclaimed gospel singer and six-time Grammy-nominee, along with his wife and a group of local education and community leaders.

Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Bernard Taylor Jr., should be commended for his efforts in working with the GRPS board in developing the district's Centers of Innovation. It will be important that district staff, including the teachers who will be at the forefront of the program's success, also buy into and contribute to the process.

"I am proud of the fact that our Centers of Innovation process helped bring this unique opportunity to the table," Taylor said of the Sapps' project. "This is yet another remarkable example of this community's commitment to the revival of GRPS and the educational success our students."

It's envisioned that each pilot school will be thematic, such as single gender, college prep, creative arts, and other proven programs. They will all be part of the regular district and the majority of them will be small, serving about 500 students each.

The announcement of the fine arts academy project also follows efforts to finalize an agreement with a group of prominent local business leaders seeking to develop the Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy (GRUPA), a sixth through 12th grade "pilot school" that is scheduled to open this fall. GRUPA officials had submitted a charter school application for the proposed school, but later applied for a "pilot school" under the district's Centers of Innovation process — another decision that district leaders say will help retain and attract new students.

GRPS officials are also expected to announce details about the proposed Center of Economicology — a partnership supported by internationally recognized environmentalist Peter M. Wege.

The bottom line is an educated workforce.

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