MDCR says GPPSS should restart decision-making process on reconfiguration

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 18, 2019

GROSSE POINTES — After listening to testimony from a reported 30 Grosse Pointe Public School System residents about the district’s reconfiguration plan, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights recommends that school officials restart the decision-making process.

On June 17, MDCR Executive Director Agustin V. Arbulu released a summary report as a follow-up to four listening sessions in which MDCR representatives heard testimony from the residents regarding the district’s reconfiguration process.

Two listening sessions were held May 29 — one in the morning and one in the late afternoon/early evening — at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park. A third session was held the morning of June 4 at the Grosse Pointe North High School Performing Arts Center at Grosse Pointe North High School in Grosse Pointe Woods; a fourth session was held during the late afternoon/early evening of June 4 at Monteith Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Woods.

Contacting the MDCR about the reconfiguration process was done at the suggestion of district Superintendent Gary Niehaus to ensure that all the district’s residents were being heard on the plan. Parents and members of the GPPSS community were encouraged to attend.

The primary purpose of the MDCR is to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment, education, housing, public accomodation, law enforcement and public service. The listening sessions were held to offer a safe and secure environment for all voices to be heard.

The anticipated grade-level changes and school closings in the reconfiguration plan are part of a process designed to address a steady decline in enrollment and also offer more educational opportunities. The school board asked that the administration come up with several different ideas to address those issues.

From there, a Blue Ribbon Committee, or BRC, comprising school officials, parents, staff and community members without children in the schools met this past winter and spring on a regular basis to discuss various reconfiguration options.

The district currently has nine elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, one early childhood center and one administration building, known as “389” in the plan because it is located at 389 St. Clair Ave. in Grosse Pointe City.

Several scenarios have been offered under the reconfiguration process. Four scenarios have a plan of adopting a K-4, five-eight and nine-12 grade configuration and possibly closing two of the four following elementary schools: Trombly in Grosse Pointe Park, Mason in Grosse Pointe Woods, Poupard in Harper Woods or Maire in Grosse Pointe City. The idea of closing a middle school also has been discussed.The reconfiguration plan is to be implemented no earlier than the 2020-21 school year.

The current grade configurations are K-5; six-eight; and nine-12. Some board members have expressed an interest in providing K-4 at the elementary schools, and a five-eight grade level at the middle schools.

At press time, the school board was preparing to vote on two resolutions at the June 24 school board meeting: one resolution about the school closings and a second resolution about the K-4, five-eight reconfiguration option.

However, according to the summary report, the MDCR recommends that school officials “extend, or restart, the deliberation period on the reconfiguration with an eye to creating a more inclusive and transparent process.”


‘Further analysis should be explored’
In the summary report, MDCR representatives proposed that school officials develop a marketing plan aimed at increasing enrollment; provide additional resources to the district’s only Title I school, which is Poupard, and consider closing one of the three middle schools in lieu of closing one or more neighborhood elementary schools; and retain the current middle school grade configuration. Moving grade five to middle school was a concern “given that the emotional development of children from kindergarten through grade 5 is a critical period. Closing a middle school should not be taken off the table. Further analysis should be explored.”

“MDCR believes that insufficient effort was made to ensure that all residents, and especially those most directly affected by the proposed reconfiguration, had input in the decision-making process. Nor does it appear the process was as open and transparent as possible,” the report states. “This lack of transparency in turn makes it impossible to determine whether alternate approaches (e.g. closing different schools) were properly vetted. MDCR believes that an inclusive and fair process can serve to bring the community together through civil and meaningful discourse in arriving at meaningful recommendations for the benefit of all the children in the school district.”

And since there is an increase in multiracial families moving to the school district, MDCR encourages the development and implementation of training centered on implicit bias, racial equity and structural racism. Other areas to consider include holding community forums that go beyond “diversity” to “equity and inclusion.”


District officials respond
During the reconfiguration process these past several months, school officials held town hall meetings at each school building, which a reported 1,196 people attended overall. School officials also held meetings with the Parent Teacher Organizations at each of the four elementary schools considered for closure.

Hundreds of emails have been received by the school board, the matter has been discussed publicly at school board meetings, and Niehaus has met with individuals and small groups in his office.

On Monday, district officials distributed a media advisory in response to the MDCR’s report summary.

“We will certainly review all of their recommendations. The district has already begun efforts in enhanced marketing, and staff training on districtwide racial equity, implicit bias and structural racism,” Niehaus stated in the media advisory. “Including the school board in our broader community efforts for equity and inclusion will also be paramount.”

According to the media advisory, school officials said Poupard receives additional resources through Title I. For instance, Poupard Elementary has the smallest elementary class sizes in the district, as per school officials. GPPSS also will review the in-district transfer policy.

The media advisory also addressed early childhood. According to Niehaus, the district has doubled the preschool programming and currently only has waiting lists for the infant program. Head Start programming is not currently an option outside of Harper Woods due to the demographic requirements.

Niehaus also stated that the two resolutions will remain on the board agenda for 7 p.m. Monday, June 24 “as promised to the community.” The meeting will be held at the Brownell Middle School multipurpose room, 260 Chalfonte Ave. in Grosse Pointe Farms. For updates to ensure that the time, date or venue have not changed, check the district’s website at www.gpschools.org.