Reconfiguration process continues in school district

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 28, 2019

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — As the Grosse Pointe Public School System community continues to discuss the district’s reconfiguration plan, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, or MDCR, will hold listening sessions to hear from residents on the matter.

Four sessions have been scheduled. Parents and members of the GPPSS community are encouraged to attend.

The first two sessions will be held from 9 a.m. to noon and from 4 to 7 p.m. May 29 in the Pierce Middle School auditorium, 15430 Kercheval Ave. in Grosse Pointe Park.

A third session will be held from 9 a.m. to noon June 4 at the Grosse Pointe North High School Performing Arts Center, 707 Vernier Road in Grosse Pointe Woods. A fourth session will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. June 4 at the Monteith Elementary School gymnasium, 1275 Cook Road in Grosse Pointe Woods. 

According to a press release from the MDCR, “Individuals will be asked to share their perspective on the reconfiguration process to ensure that all voices in the GPPSS community are heard.”

The press release states that speaking time may be limited, and follow-up questions may be asked by MDCR Director Agustin V. Arbulu. Written statements may also be submitted at the listening sessions or sent by email to no later than June 4. Written statements must include a name, address and telephone number or email address.

Sign language interpreters will be available. The listening sessions are being facilitated in partnership with the NAACP and the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency.

The GPPSS is dealing with declining enrollment and what school officials call a lack of public school funding from the state of Michigan. The GPPSS Board of Education is scheduled to vote — at a future meeting — on a reconfiguration process designed to reduce expenses and offer more educational opportunities, as not all the buildings are being utilized to their capacities.

Districts also lose money when they have fewer students, as public schools in Michigan receive a per-pupil allowance from the state based on their student enrollment. According to school officials, Grosse Pointe’s enrollment was more than 11,000 students during the 1975-76 school year. Enrollment projections for the 2021-22 school year are just over 7,000.

Grosse Pointe is not alone with the decreasing enrollment. Districts statewide are losing students for several reasons: families are having fewer children, charter schools, Schools of Choice and home schooling.

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. The grade configurations are K-5; six-eight; and nine-12, but those could change if a new district concept is adopted. The reconfiguration plan is to be implemented no earlier than the 2020-21 school year.

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 Elementary in Grosse Pointe Woods, Poupard in Harper Woods or Maire in Grosse Pointe City. District officials have held town hall meetings throughout April and May about the reconfiguration plan.

A majority of the board members could approve one of the four scenarios, turn them all down or come up with a different plan. A possible fifth scenario of closing a middle school could be presented at the June 10 school board meeting. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at the Brownell Middle School multipurpose room, located at 260 Chalfonte Ave. in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Concerns in the community
The reconfiguration plan has taken an emotional toll among the school community. Residents are worried about property values declining should their neighborhood school close. Parents have concerns about children walking across busy roadways such as Jefferson Avenue or the Interstate 94 overpass to get to school if their neighborhood school closes. Parents also have concerns about their children adapting to a new school.

Another issue is the middle school configuration. Some parents do not feel that fifth graders are ready for middle school, while others believe a five-eight program would be beneficial and would allow students more time to transition to middle school. At the May 20 school board meeting, Board member Cindy Pangborn said she is against sending fifth grade students to middle school.

“There hasn’t been any real talk or research about emotional stability,” she said. “Parents are looking to keep their kids younger, not get older. I’ve seen nothing that shows me that a fifth grade child should be in that situation. … I will not vote for the fifth grade going into middle school. … I actually prefer K-6.”

School board member Kathleen Abke wished that the five-eight option would have been available to her own children.

“We have heard from numerous families with young children about how concerned they are about middle school. … That transition is hard to go from elementary school to a six-hour bell system. … (The five-eight) is a much gentler transition into the next school. … This is an option to decrease anxiety for our kids,” Abke said.

At the May 20 Grosse Pointe Woods City Council meeting, council members discussed whether or not to write a letter of support to keep Mason open. One reservation some council members had was that they didn’t feel it is the council’s position to tell another governing body what to do. However, many residents at the meeting stressed that the City Council had an obligation to show its support for Mason, which is located in Grosse Pointe Woods.

“I think the council should politely acknowledge that Mason School has been a good neighbor for 50, 60 years,” resident Margaret Potter said. “It appears to me you’re turning your back on your constituents.”

At the end of the meeting, the council drafted a short letter that Councilman George McMullen Jr. suggested be forwarded to school board President Brian Summerfield.

The letter, signed by all seven council members, states, “It is the position of the Grosse Pointe Woods City Council that, although we do not wish to see any elementary school closed, we would encourage the Grosse Pointe Public School Board not to close Mason Elementary.”

“I’m glad council decided to finally do something,” Councilman Richard Shetler Jr. said, speaking on behalf of himself and not for the entire council. “I’m glad a statement has been made.”

Shetler Jr. said that with the reconfiguration plan, he would rather see the Barnes Early Childhood Center close and move the operations to “several other buildings.”

“That one, in my view, makes more sense,” he said, adding that the building could be sold and demolished and the area redeveloped into a subdivision.

Michelle Martin, who has two sons at Mason, is among the school’s parents doing what they can to save the school, including handing out flyers, attending Mason’s town hall and coordinating a play date to meet students from other schools. Commuting to another school should Mason close is one of many concerns.

“The scenarios, which have divided communities and uproot some of our district’s most at-risk students, only save the district 1 percent of its $100 million annual operating budget. If Mason closes and our children get moved to Poupard, our children will have to cross I-94 at Vernier,” Martin said. “It’s not even a real sidewalk, it’s a raised island of cement with traffic on both sides. Unfortunately, all of this has brought to light the students who live in Harper Woods have already been doing this.”

According to Martin, the Poupard alumni who attend Parcells Middle School and Grosse Pointe North High School, both located in Grosse Pointe Woods, already walk across the I-94 and Vernier intersection. Not only is traffic safety an issue, but “studies show highway exhaust has a catastrophic impact on children, triggering asthma attacks, stunting lung growth and increasing the risk of cancer,” Martin said.